There’s no more fascinating image in cinema than the human face. But we’ve come a long way since French theorist Roland Barthes waxed lyrical about Garbo’s “mask-like” visage. We’ve gazed into a lot of actors’ eyes, drowned in a lot of delirious closeups. So to be forcibly reminded of that simple image’s connective power is a rare thing these days, and it takes a filmmaker of uncannily focused talent — that, and a remarkable face to be looked at. In her delicate yet daring narrative feature debut, Ukrainian director Marina Stepanska gives us three such faces, and the hesitant, hushed love story and intergenerational drama of her film exists in the clarity and mystery of those fathomless features.
“Falling” has a plot: Anton (Andriy Seletskiy), an astonishingly blue-eyed, talented, erstwhile musician, returns to live with his astonishingly blue-eyed grandfather (Oleg Mosiychuk) in an isolated house in the countryside outside Kiev after an unspecified alcohol- and drug-related breakdown. He meets Katya (Dasha Plahtiy), whose eyes are not blue but are still astonishing. They fall slowly, complicatedly in love, despite Katya having a foreign boyfriend with whom she’s supposed to move to Berlin.
But “Falling” is far more of an ephemeral experience than an event-driven narrative, reflecting the uncertain lives and life stages of a whole generation of young Ukrainians whose passage into adulthood has happened during these last few years, against the backdrop of a conflict that is both oppressively present and yet faraway. There are no shots of tanks or strafed buildings: the war is a peripheral and slightly arbitrary fact of life, happening elsewhere to other people and only occasionally swooping in to snatch some man or other into its clutches.
Lenser Sebastian Thaler, son of Ulrich Seidl’s regular cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, lights and shoots with a crisp, limpid immediacy that makes him a talent to watch. His work gives even the simplest shot a vivid yet pensive effect, whether he’s filming a nightclub scene, a yoga routine, a wide shot of salmon-colored tower blocks in Kiev, or resting on one of the principals’ faces to catch their quicksilver expressions. In this register, Anton’s somewhat tough-love relationship with his grandfather is drawn cleanly, and the scenes of Katya and Anton’s initial attraction are wonderful. Stepanska holds on a shot of them simply gazing at each other across a small kitchen, and though they’re silent, the information conveyed in their glances and the subtle shifting of their bodies feels like a dense conversation.
Indeed, Anton is a taciturn character in general, with a guarded, watchful air that makes his one long, deeply melancholy monologue feel all the more remarkable. Before he and Katya have even arrived at any sort of understanding, Anton suddenly, in a single uninterrupted speech, lays out their relationship from delirious beginning to deflated end, including the inevitability of his future relapse into addiction. He even imagines the excuses Katya will make for him, and dismisses them almost derisively: “It’s one thing to diaper an alcoholic and another to rescue a genius.” The scene is the pivot point of the film, as it transforms from dreamy, possibly redemptive love story into something much stranger and sadder that sees the blush of love as only a brief hiatus between uncontrollable tragedies — whether the catastrophe of war, self-destruction or the slow-acting disappointment of squandered potential.
After so much that is allusive and evocative, the blunt melodrama of the final coup de grace feels a little jarring, but mostly this is a startlingly assured four-way feature debut: for Stepanska, for Thaler as DP and for the two beautiful leads. Perhaps that inexperience is why, even though its storyline is pessimistic, the film feels like such a breath of fresh air. Where the international arthouse is better acquainted with this region’s troubled recent history through the savage, steel-edged often allegorical work of directors like Sergei Loznitsa, Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi and the Russian Andrey Zvyagintsev, the intimacy and unsentimental lyricism of “Falling” provides a much more quietly revolutionary look at post-revolutionary Ukraine. These are the young casualties of war who don’t wear khaki, and who may never even pull a trigger, but whose lives are put into a kind of holding pattern by political and social forces over which they exert no control, in which the only certainty is that nothing is certain, and the only permanent truth is impermanence.