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Film Review: ‘The Spy and the Poet’

A socially awkward secret service agent meets both a beautiful Russian spy and a barely-tolerable Estonian modern poet.

The Spy and the Poet
Courtesy of Karlovy Vary Film Festival

A socially awkward secret service agent reluctantly makes the acquaintance of both a beautiful Russian spy and a barely-tolerable Estonian modern poet in helmer-writer Toomas Hussar’s absurdist second feature “The Spy and the Poet.” Like Hussar’s debut “Mushrooming,” this is idiosyncratic, cross-genre filmmaking that may have more detractors than champions; nevertheless, festival programmers should check out this highly stylized, convoluted black-comedy/thriller, which provides a sarcastic reflection on the identity and concerns of contemporary Estonia.

With no one in his ultra-modern, minimally furnished apartment to rush home to, the agent, former alcoholic Gustav (Jan Uuspõld), is a regular at a bright, busy downtown café where he mournfully nurses a non-alcoholic beer before returning home to watch nature programs about animal sex on the tube. One evening, the café provides an unexpected dose of excitement when mangy-looking poet Miku (Rain Tolk) makes a pass at Nala (Lana Vatsel), an exotic-looking, dark-haired woman, and is curtly rebuffed.

On his way home, Gustav stumbles across Nala, lying helpless in the street as if she’s been accosted, and helps her get back on her feet. Later, she tracks him down and comes on strong. Suspecting a trap set by omnipresent Russian agents (because, really, what woman in her right mind would throw herself at Gustav?), Gustav’s colleagues install secret cameras in his apartment and order him to play along. Meanwhile, Miku, who lives in some kind of commune/squat, procrastinates instead of taking the manuscript of his poetry volume to the publishers.

When Nala moves in, every rigidly orderly fiber of Gustav’s being revolts, but ultimately he falls for the femme fatale. Nala, who initially rebelled against her assignment, also ultimately seems content. (Is the nerdy agent a tiger in the sack?) As in “The Maltese Falcon,” complicated crosses and double-crosses take place in the background without it ever being entirely clear to the audience what is happening or why. At the same time, quirky minor characters come and go. But here, the peculiar atmosphere and digs at Estonia’s place in world politics are more the point than any straightforward drama.

The positioning of post-Soviet Estonia as a western, Scandinavian country is one of the film’s particular concerns, as is the very notion of Estonian identity. When Gustav first meets Nala, he continually questions her about her background and refuses to believe she is Estonian. And in the film’s final frame, a heavily pregnant Nala is sitting in a café in some other European country. The bartender pointedly asks, “Is it a boy or a girl?” “It’s an Estonian,” comes the reply.

Director Hussar favors a poker-faced performing style, ultra-crisp cinematography from talented DP Rein Kotov (“Tangerines,” “1944”) and in contrast to the rural forests of “Mushrooming,” slickly constructed urban interiors and the mean streets of Tallinn by night.

Film Review: ‘The Spy and the Poet’

Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (East of the West), July 5, 2016. Running time: <strong>95 MIN.</strong> (Original title: “Luuraja ja luuletaja”)

  • Production: (Estonia) An Allfilm production. Produced by Ivo Felt.
  • Crew: Director/writer: Toomas Hussar. Camera (color, HD, widescreen): Rein Kotov. Editor, Tambet Tasuja.
  • With: Jan Uuspõld, Rain Tolk, Lana Vatsel, Peeter Jalakas, Loore Martma,
Priit Võigemast, Pääru Oja, Mari Abel. (Estonian, English, Russian dialogue)
  • Music By: