Review: ‘Otar Iosseliani, the Whistling Blackbird’

Julie Bertuccelli's portrait of her professed mentor, Otar Iosseliani, benefits from their ease with each other, affording an intimate glimpse into a work process as idiosyncratic as Iosseliani's films. Shot during production of "Gardens in Autumn," the French telepic will be a valuable companion piece wherever that film is shown, with further exposure likely among select artscasters.

Julie Bertuccelli’s portrait of her professed mentor, Otar Iosseliani, benefits from their ease with each other, affording an intimate glimpse into a work process as idiosyncratic as Iosseliani’s films. Shot during production of “Gardens in Autumn,” the French telepic will be a valuable companion piece wherever that film is shown, with further exposure likely among select artscasters.

Now in his early 70s, the Georgia-born director has lived in France since the ’80s; his early career was repeatedly hobbled by clashes with Soviet censors. But the focus here isn’t on the past, beyond numerous well-chosen clips from prior features that convey the auteur’s characteristic wit, delicate flair for the absurd and penchant for long takes with complex activity but little or no dialogue. (“I’m not a filmmaker, I’m a ballet master,” he jokes while orchestrating one scene’s elaborate comings and goings.)

Instead, the pic follows “Gardens’ ” creation, from script (basically a pile of storyboards, as Iosseliani dislikes set dialogue) to wrap.

An arthouse artiste to the core, Iosseliani uses methods that are (as some would call the films themselves) both fascinating and exasperating — the latter, in particular, to his producer, Martine Marignac. It’s her unhappy lot to scold him out of expensive whims and remind that he often shoots enough footage for a four-hour film, only to dispose of whole scenes as he agonizes over cutting the pic down to two hours.

Even the helmer’s indignation at these moments has the scent of a wry pose, however — like an indulged child, Iosseliani seems to know that if he’s stubborn and single-minded long enough, he’ll eventually get his way. Among the eccentric decisions made for “Garden”: putting Michel Piccoli in drag (because, the helmer claims, he can’t find a “real old lady” in France anymore) and deploying a live cheetah to wander among the cast.

Once his assistant, Bertuccelli often compares directorial tactics with him from behind the camera. Their rapport affords “Blackbird” an intimacy well beyond the usual making-of doc — though, as with Iosseliani’s own efforts, the pic’s unhurried attention to detail requires some patience. Tech aspects are casual but adequate.

Otar Iosseliani, the Whistling Blackbird

France

Production

An AMIP production. Produced by Xavier Carniaux. Directed by Julie Bertuccelli.

Crew

Camera (color, video), Bertuccelli; editor, Josiane Zardoya; sound, Bertuccelli. Reviewed at San Francisco Intl. Film Festival, April 27, 2007. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Otar Iosseliani, Martine Marignac, William Lubtchanski, Manu de Chauvigny, Narda de Blanchet, Michel Piccoli, Pierre Etaix. (French, Russian dialogue)

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