An experiment in long unbroken takes amid crowded public spaces, the gimmick-driven “The Stroll” benefits from and transcends its technical novelty. A sort of time-compressed “Jules and Jim” following three youthful protags — two best-friend guys and the newly met girl who’s bewitched them — pic offers bountiful energy and charm. Adventuresome offshore distribbers should take a look at this refreshing look at a modern Russian urbia not dominated by criminal mischief. It would make a clever rep double bill with Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” as wildly contrasting exercises in camera wizardry and capturing historic St. Petersburg’s spirit. For viewers who can handle the almost nonstop motion of hand-held DV lensing, latest pic by helmer Alexey Uchitel (of fest prize-winner “His Diary,” Russia’s 2000 Oscar contender), made in collaboration with Moscow theater troupe the Petr Fomenkos Workshop, pulls off the impressive stunt to often exhilarating effect.
Cool jazz version of “Wild Is the Wind” over opening credits reps the last canned music we hear as buxom blonde Olya (Irina Pegova) steps from a car to take her “stroll” around the crowded city streets. Seconds later she’s being aggressively chatted up by shaggy-haired, gangling and puppyish Alyosha (Pavel Barshak), who professes love at first sight, though whether it’s her bubbly personality or gravity-defying torpedo bust in a clingy black turleneck that won him over is unclear. Surprisingly, she puts up little resistance, letting him tag alongside on a brisk walk she claims is her daily salve for a back injury. Olya is mercurial, falling into sudden snits but bouncing back just as fast. Evasive when pressed on personal particulars, she says she just might go along on the overnight ferry to Moscow for which Alyosha has impulsively purchased tickets. Then again, she might not.
Searching for ways to formalize this fresh, unstable liaison, he summons cynical best friend Petya (Yevgeny Tsyganov) to join them and vouch for his character (as well as gauge Olya’s worthiness). This tactic backfires, however, since Olya showers the newcomer with equal flirtatious attention. Soon the two men are are loggerheads over a woman who has committed to neither.
Her chatter sometimes contradicts itself, while frequent cell phone calls from a mystery source suggest this “stroll” may have an ulterior motive. That purpose is finally revealed as day turns to night, and Olya introduces a fourth party (Yevgeny Grishkovets), whose role in the preceding hours proves deflating to the younger suitors. This twist ending, which switches to conventional camera/editing methods, detracts from pic’s ebullient spirit, but cold-slap resolution is effective and well handled.Though screenplay is credited solely to Dunya Smirnova (daughter of vet director Andrei Smirnov), incessant dialogue has an improvisational feel, thanks to attractive leads; pic’s romantic atmosphere springs primarily from their personal appeal. As in Richard Linklater’s similar (though less idiosyncratically staged) “Before Sunrise,” support characters are a gallery of humorous types glimpsed in passing, all portrayed by members of the Workshop.
Often grainy, sometimes out-of-focus lensing (by Yury Klimenko and Pavel Kostomarov) may prove too much for viewers who experience such hand-held frenzy as cinematic motion sickness. (At Mill Valley Fest screening, several older patrons were early walk-outs.) But gambit does work, lending tale spontaneity and zest. Miraculously, the real-life hordes of thesps who weave through (ranging from soccer-match revelers to Palace Square tourists) are almost never seen ogling the camera. Whether dubbed or recorded live, dialogue recording is remarkably good. Pic’s continuity errors are miniscule considering its logistical challenges, and 35mm transfer looks fine.