For a while the general consensus on Sharunas Bartas, founded mostly on regular international festival appearances, suggested that the Lithuanian filmmaker was more adept as a cameraman — his prior profession — than a storyteller. “Frost,” which debuts in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar in Cannes, somewhat addresses that reputation, though not in the direction one would hope. Less an odyssey than a snowbound slog, “Frost” is not only severely hobbled by the almost complete absence of drama and characterization, but is also delivered in relentless, claustrophobic, tiresome medium-to-close shots that don’t even provide us with enough background information to lend the film a sense of place.
This is hugely detrimental, as it’s essentially a road movie designed to bring us into the heart of darkness that is the current conflict in Ukraine. But with the visual style remaining so uninspired, and the somnolent performances giving the story’s tepid romance no purchase, the film actually manages to compound the disheartening issue that is stated by one of its incidental characters: When a war is as poorly understood and has been ongoing for as long as that in the former Soviet republic, people tune out and focus their attention on the more headline-grabbing conflicts. In the world of 2017, of course, those are in no short supply.
Bartas’ intentions are unobjectionable and apparently he and his team endured months of hardship and difficulty in engineering the very journey, from Lithuania to Ukraine, that his protagonists undertake. But if that’s the case, he might have been better off delivering a documentary on the making of the film rather than the wan fiction of “Frost,” which puts the tragedy, horror and complexity of that ever-deteriorating situation at an even greater, blurrier remove.
The first of the film’s drab locations is a street corner in Vilnius, where Rokas (the blankly baby-faced Mantas Janciauskas) is smoking a cigarette. He meets a friend who asks him to step in as the driver of a van of supplies — boots, non-perishable foodstuffs and suchlike — to Ukraine, as a humanitarian volunteer. For no well-articulated reason, Rokas agrees, also taking along his girlfriend Inga (Lyja Maknaviciute). Her initially ambiguous reaction suggests some mysterious motivation, before we realize she’s not actually that deep — just very, very dull. The two of them start off on the journey, alternating long stretches of silence with disconnected and repetitively banal conversations that are only marginally more illuminating. They meet up with sketchy customer Andrei (Andrzej Chyra), whose actual bearing on their mission remains unclear, and end up spending one night, and a mystifying narrative detour, in an elegant hotel in Poland.
That’s where they party with a group of journalists (including Vanessa Paradis, because why not) and indulge in a spot of drunken outside flirtation — and in Inga’s case, quite a bit more than that — before continuing on their way. For a film that covers such a lot of geography, spanning two international borders and several checkpoints manned by soldiers of varying degrees of friendliness, the only real sense we get of movement is through endless shots of tree branches whipping by, against a gray sky that is all but undifferentiated from the gray landscape.
“Frost” does make a late bid for our attention with a couple of long conversations that touch, more or less insightfully, on the philosophy of war from the perspective of its frontline combatants. But it’s very much too little, too late. The literally explosive drama and romantic resolution that occur in the film’s closing minutes feel almost laughably unearned, especially given that Rokas only gets himself into his predicament because of a tourist’s desire to snap some photos of the enemy position. These moments are, however, more inventively filmed than anything up to that point. So it’s a shame that they should come so long after engagement has soured into enervation, that in turn gives way to baffled aggravation at the very idea that a story set deep within the terrifyingly present crisis in Ukraine can be so lacking in urgency.