Risttuules (In the Crosswind)

What an amazing film! Certainly the most interesting and original new film I’d seen in a very long time. Anyone who’s read a few of my comments on films will probably have come across frequent complaints that a film is ‘just straightforward story-telling’, and doesn’t make use of the great potential offered by the medium of film with all its unique possibilities. Well, that definitely can’t be said of Risttuules, which makes full use of the medium and does things which couldn’t have been done using any other.

(details below)

The technique Helde chose for most of this film is one I’d never come across before, although some reviewers compare him to Chris Marker and Aleksandr Sokurov, and the use of black and white plus the very relaxed pace reminded me slightly of Béla Tarr – but only slightly. Except for the early scenes from the life of Erna, Heldur and their daughter Eliide in happier times before the Soviet invasion, plus a short final section, which are shot in a dream-like but relatively conventional manner, the entire film consists of a series of 13 long and very detailed tableaux vivants in which the actors stand frozen like statues and the camera moves slowly between and around them, often zooming in on a face to allow us to concentrate on the expression, or lingering long enough on some detail of the scene to allow us to fully contemplate its significance. In one interview Helde describes it as “a walk through a sculpture garden”, and that description fits quite well. I’ve seen similar effects achieved using digital techniques, and there may have been some use of them here, but it’s mostly a question of the actors standing extremely still, sometimes holding strange positions, while the camera moves around and observes them. Apparently it took between two and four months to prepare each scene, which was then shot in a single day. Much of that preparation was artistic, choosing the right location, the right costumes, the right inspiration (more from painting and sculpture than from cinema), and the right moment to freeze the action in order to convey exactly what was required – but even the more technical planning of the actors’ positioning and the camera movement must have cost weeks of work.

In some scenes things are changed and actors move while out of sight of the camera, so that a single ‘tableau’ consisting of one long take can tell several parts of the story. For instance in one scene the camera circles Erna and Heldur embracing among the passengers waiting to be herded aboard a train, then moves on through the crowd until it finds Erna again, leaning out of the cattle car door looking for Heldur, and when the camera turns again we see him standing alone in the distance. In another scene we zoom in on Erna as she is about to steal a piece of bread from the store; the camera circles around her, and by the time it has completed its tour other characters have appeared on the scene, reaching out to apprehend her. This sometimes produces a strange surrealistic effect, as what appears to be totally fixed and static also seems to change while we watch. Occasionally we see leaves or a piece of paper moving in the breeze, and very occasionally a blinking eyelid betrays the fact that an actor is alive, but these slight movements only serve to make the rest of the scene look even more frozen.

This unusual technique must have made very unusual demands on the actors: not only the need to stay absolutely still, but to hold exactly the right expression for an unnaturally long time. They succeed remarkably well at this, and even manage to put in some amazing performances. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone express so much by doing so little as Laura Peterson in this film. And as we watch these frozen scenes the excellent sound track provides continuity and tells an important part of the story. There are no dialogues, but background noises, sometimes distorted and exaggerated, and occasionally some well-chosen music. Finally, as a voice-over, we hear extracts of letters written by a deported woman (represented by Erna in this film) to the husband from whom she had been separated.

Getting all this to work so well was a remarkable technical achievement, but that wouldn’t in itself be enough to make this a good film. The real question is whether this strange technique succeeds in what it’s trying to do, which is to tell the sad story of Erna, Heldur and Eliide, and through them that of the tens of thousands of Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians who shared their fate. And the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’: this film succeeds very well indeed, not only in telling the story without a hint of exaggeration, sentimentality or unnecessary melodrama, but also in expressing the sadness of loss and separation, the hardships of life in a Siberian labour camp, and the general hopelessness of the situation – and it does all this better than the average ‘normal’ film could possibly hope to achieve. No, this isn’t by any means ‘just straightforward story-telling’, but a unique and original work of art which says something, in a powerful and poetic manner, that couldn’t be said in any other way.

It’s quite amazing that a director who’s still in his twenties would take the risk of attempting such an endeavour as his first full-length film, and perhaps even more amazing that he made such a good job of it. First of all he chose a very sensitive subject, one which is important to the history of his country, which calls up many negative emotions and memories, and about which little has been said or written. He then chose to spend four years of his life on a technically ambitious project using a highly original technique – one which made enormous demands on the actors and was pretty well guaranteed to produce a result which would alienate the average cinema-goer (even I had my doubts about a film consisting almost entirely of tableaux vivants!). It was a big gamble, but it paid off, and there’s absolutely nothing in this film, at any level, to suggest that it wasn’t the work of an established director with decades of experience behind him. In other words it’s a definite masterpiece, and that’s not something I often find myself writing.

When I left the cinema after watching this film I had the strange feeling that the entire world was running in slow motion, to the extent that I even wondered whether I’d be able to drive normally in traffic. That turned out to be no problem, but the atmosphere of this film lingered in my head long after it had ended. I would definitely watch this film again (right now if I had the chance!) and I shall be looking out for more films from Martti Helde.

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Details:

title Risttuules (In the Crosswind)
director Martti Helde
released 2014
actors Laura Peterson, Tarmo Song
language Estonian
subtitles français
seen 01/06/2015, at the cinema
further information IMDb

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