An exquisite, evocative and elusive tale of abandonment and the psychological scars of war, “House of Others” is, incredibly, the first feature from Georgian director Rusudan Glurjidze. Betraying none of a neophyte’s unsteadiness, and orchestrating the outstanding work from each below-the-line department like a virtuoso, Glurjidze’s formal boldness yields an effect that is subtle, strange and silvery. It’s a sorrowful tale, rendered in intimate miniature, about victor’s guilt and the occupation of conquered lands by the conquerors, set in a very specific and authentically realized time and place. But it’s perhaps closest in mood to a ghost story, one in which the haunters frequently become the haunted.
Inspired by the director’s own experiences, the film opens in the 1990s, “after the war,” as a small family — father Astamur (Zurab Magalashvili), his wife, son and young daughter — rattles up a rainy hillside in rural Georgia in a jeep with a cracked windshield. They’re being driven by Ginger (Malkhaz Jorbenadze), a shady opportunist profiting by relocating families to a remote village abandoned by its inhabitants as the conflict approached. The mother, Liza (Olga Dykhovichnaya), looks out with a pinched and anxious face, clutching her daughter to her as Ginger extols the virtues of their new home: the beauty of the landscape and the sweetness of the thin-skinned tangerines that grow in abundance all around.
Their arrival, to a house full of the previous occupant’s furniture, is observed through binoculars by Ira (the striking Salome Demuria), a woman of militaristic bearing who lives in a bigger house higher up the hill with her widowed sister Azida (Ia Sukhitashvili) and her teenage niece Nata (Ekaterine Japaridze). They are the new arrivals’ only neighbors, but while Nata and the boy Leo (Sandro Khundadze) will become playmates (and Leo will develop a puppyish crush on the older girl) the man-hating Ira, who still practices arcane military drills and can shoot a tangerine off a faraway tree branch, remains hostile and hawklike.
From this simple setup, a film of deepening strangeness and enlarging beauty develops. Gorka Gómez Andreus’ camerawork is breathtaking, pictorially shot in the Academy ratio, with Dutch-master lighting illuminating cluttered interiors (the production design is both intricate and authentic) and subtle camera movement building a mood of pensive, melancholic unease. Without ever compromising on realism, the gliding camera catches single images that feel like they ought to hang in a gallery: a woman standing with her back to us, leaning against a post with the sole of one shoe showing; a man sitting near a window through which the directional light of a Vermeer painting slants; a pan across a cluttered table that looks momentarily like a Cezanne still life; a couple having sex in a grove of tangerine trees as the camera silently retreats. This last is a frequent device, and the many shots that pull back steadily from the action give an air of ongoing finality, as if every conversation here is a conclusion, every moment an ending. Glurjidze is delivering her film as an elegy.
There are mysterious allusions and recurring images throughout: mirrors and windows and a sensual attention to the details of fabric and clothing, despite their apparent plainness. There’s a woman in black peasant garb who may be a literal ghost, witnessed in wonder by a bewitched Astamur. There’s elliptical discussion about the village and its vanished people that stands as allegory for any country riven by a recent civil war. And there’s a strong element of sexual envy and gender mistrust, from the men who flirt with young Nata, their submachine guns slung casually against their hips, unaware a scornful Ira is reading their lips from far away, to Aditza bluntly seducing Ginger and then promptly telling him it will be the last time — which incidentally happens just after her daughter Nata gives Leo the kiss he’s longed for and also tells him it won’t happen again. It seems the tangerine does not fall too far from the tree.
But then this is a film about sins inherited, about guilt passed down and anguish that lingers long after the anguished have left. Thematically, and sometimes visually too, it recalls Bergman or Tarkovsky, but it is also its own quiet thing, evoking a suffocating sorrow that has seeped into the very walls and causes the interlopers to speak in whispers, though they don’t know why. It is enigmatic and opaque and does not give up its secrets easily, and to some that might prove frustrating. But though occasionally the Bergmanian aura of doom teeters near to precious, as characters talk to each other but look away out of rainy windows, for the most part, the film earns these moments honestly
, out of the truly artistic impulse to communicate the inexpressible. An emphatic, astonishing debut from a fascinating new director, “House of Others” summons a world where war is ended but not over and where you can live in a house that is still, and forever will be, someone else’s home.