Imagine Ulrich Seidl cross-pollinated with a bit of Aki Kaurismaki and the tone of “Autumn Ball” becomes clear. Bleakly pessimistic yet marbled with moments of very dark humor, pic hovers within the transition period immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, presenting characters desperately reaching for unattainable happiness. Winter of discontent is more like it, with helmer Veiko Ounpuu withholding any hope that interpersonal connections will germinate in the unfertile soil. Cool, detached and very much a specialized taste, pic took home the Horizons prize at Venice, guaranteeing fest play but no further.
Though the era isn’t signaled outright, it’s clear the setting is the depressed period between Communism’s fall and the emergence of Baltic economic growth. Most of the action takes place on a housing estate, the kind of dreary, late-Soviet blight that dictates misery to all its inhabitants. The riveting, extended opening shot of a distraught Mati (Rain Tolk), struggling with whether to throw himself off a balcony, sets the stage for the suppressed turmoil to come.
Four main stories connect only in superficial ways and, despite a rigidly enforced formalism, equal screen time is not accorded to all. Mati’s wife Jaana (Mirtel Pohla) is leaving him, sending the fragile writer into a tailspin of violence and booze. Architect Maurer (Juhan Ulfsak) is a representative of Estonia’s approaching future, dressing stylishly in black with a streamlined apartment echoing Scandinavian modernist cool. But he’s still in the housing estate, despite the open puzzlement of wife Ulvi (Tiina Tauraite) and friends.
Theo (Taavi Eelmaa) is an apathetic coat-check guy at a restaurant/nightclub on the outskirts of the projects. His one ambition is to bed as many women as possible; only when he picks up Ulvi does he sense a real partnership is possible, but she’s not prepared to break away from her ill-suited marriage.
Finally, there’s Laura (Maarja Jakobson), a single mom working in a garment factory. The one source of comfort in her daily drudgery is daughter Lotta (Iris Persson), but older Finnish barber Augusti Kaski (Sulevi Peltola) has been hanging around the schoolyard, and his interest in Lotta doesn’t appear to be innocent.
Helmer Ounpuu burst onto the scene in 2006 with his 43-minute pic “Empty,” a dry, deadpan take on ill-fated love after a story by Mati Unt, whose 1979 novel was adapted for “Autumn Ball.” Where the first film questions the validity of love, the second marks its doom: Even when people connect, such as Ulvi and Theo, the impossibility of continued happiness comes as a sharp slap-down.
Viewers aware that life in Estonia gets better may take some comfort, but even a hint that spring might eventually follow this autumn is denied. Explanations are withheld and transitions absent, resulting in characters who slip from memory until their sudden reappearance. Incongruities are meant to offer some kind of quirky comfort, but don’t always work.
An integral part of Ounpuu’s bleak emotional terrain is the physical landscape, from the concrete apartment block to the late Soviet-style nightclub. The brutishness of this environment acts as an incubator of despair, creating a direct link between outer ugliness and inner emptiness, all lensed with unemotional passivity.
Background music is kept low and insistent, while several scenes are accompanied by indistinctly heard background radio speeches, as if there’s something out there no one can quite grasp, despite being close by.