Back To Kotelnich

In the great tradition of French print intellectuals pratfalling into the motion picture medium, well-respected author Emmanuel Carrere (whose fiction has been adapted for the screen by Claude Miller, among others) uses his first venture into cinema as an excuse for a dreadfully self-indulgent, meandering "personal essay" with the creator himself seldom out of camera range.

In the great tradition of French print intellectuals pratfalling into the motion picture medium, well-respected author Emmanuel Carrere (whose fiction has been adapted for the screen by Claude Miller, among others) uses his first venture into cinema as an excuse for a dreadfully self-indulgent, meandering “personal essay” with the creator himself seldom out of camera range. It’s bad news when a film admits straight off in voiceover that the project was commenced with “no precise goal” in mind. Alas, worse is to come. Only artscasters who breathe the most rarefied air will want to touch this docu with a 10-foot pole.

Carrere and crew first traveled to Kotelnich (a town 500 miles east of Moscow) in search of a Hungarian POW discovered to have been abandoned in a local psychiatric hospital for 55 years, long presumed dead. But they’re distracted by Ania, a young Francophile and folk singer involved with Sacha, the local FSB (formerly KGB) chief who’s left his wife for her. Sniffing (wrongly, it seems) possible political intrigue, helmer visits them later when duo have a baby, then returns again after Ania and infant have been brutally axe-murdered in an apparent random attack.

This tragedy ought to jolt the pic into sorrowful focus, but instead Carrere spends much aimless time over drunken dinners with the woman’s surviving relatives — in particular her mother Galia, whose rants and general obnoxiousness strangle the spotlight even as she cries, “Don’t film me washing that sink! It’s disgusting!” for the 20th time. Not much insight arises from such sequences, let alone from those in which the filmmaker comments on his footage as we watch it (again). He and his crew are invasive toward their subjects without actually revealing much about them. A streak of dishonesty (they often claim not to be filming when they are) further heightens the air of pretentious exploitation.

The coup de grace arrives when, in last few minutes, Carrere abruptly decides that all this attention paid to “people who mean nothing to me” must be intended to put him in touch with his own familial Russian heritage. Needless to say, pic seems oblivious to the fact that this upbeat, climactic “It’s all about me!” message seems to cavalierly brush aside the memory of a woman we’ve grown to like and mourn.

Often tedious package shows little instinct for the medium, with mediocre lensing arbitrarily shifting between color and B&W, and other aspects bordering on amateur.

Back To Kotelnich

France

Production: A Les Films des Tournelles production. Produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint. Co-producer, Raphael Bebdugo. Directed by Emmanuel Carrere.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W), Philippe Lagnier; editor, Camille Cotte; music, Nicolas Zourabichvili; sound, Ludmilla Rubina, Herve Odyader, Emmanuel Groset. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 23, 2004. Running time: 110 MIN. (French and Russian dialogue.)

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