“Siberia” is the sixth film Abel Ferrara has made with Willem Dafoe, and by the end of it, were it not for vivid memories of past collaborations with Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken, it would be hard to conceive of him ever having cast anyone else. Ferrara and Dafoe were always an obvious fit — both toughened, wily eccentrics happy to sit outside the system — though their previous pairings, including the surprisingly restrained quasi-biopic “Pasolini” and last year’s navel-gazing doodle “Tommaso,” never made the most of that kinship. You can’t say that about “Siberia,” a beautiful, unhinged, sometimes hilarious trek into geographical and psychological wilderness that will delight some and mystify many others. As a study of a rugged individualist looking back on long-withered connections — to others, to the mainstream world, and indeed to himself — it feels personally invested both as a star vehicle and an auteur piece. If it isn’t, the joke’s on us, and still pretty funny.
Though it’s one of the more anticipated big-name titles in this year’s Berlin competition, distributors may well be shy of an unabashed free-form curiosity that goes as off-grid cinematically as its explorer protagonist does into the unknown: After all, it took the comparatively straightforward “Pasolini” five years to reach U.S. screens after its Venice 2014 premiere, while “Tommaso” is still awaiting a Stateside release. In an ideal world, however, “Siberia” would be perversely double-billed in theaters with Disney’s soul-challenged new “Call of the Wild” adaptation: In its own abstract, roundabout way, there’s rather more of Jack London’s visceral, lost-to-nature spirit in Ferrara’s admittedly less rousing adventure, not to mention better, wholly undigitized dogs too: The captivating team of huskies pulling Dafoe’s hero through assorted landscapes and dreamscapes are perfectly wrangled even when this unruly film is not.
For a time, “Siberia” fools its audience into thinking it might be a straightforward, even austere, character study. Over a black screen as the opening credits run, Clint (Dafoe, the light gravel in his voice recognizable in a flash) delivers an anecdotal monologue, reflecting on childhood fishing trips with his father and brother — the only experiences he can recall of male bonding in a life that, it seems, has been lived spiritually alone for many years. Only gradually and partially do we assemble the life events that have seen Clint retreat to a desolate snow-laden cabin in the Siberian mountains, where he runs a ramshackle bar frequented by a few Inuit locals and the odd foreign explorer. One of his patrons is pregnant: We suspect he’s the father, though Ferrara restricts our understand even of this bare premise by not subtitling any non-English dialogue, situating viewers firmly inside Clint’s already detached headspace.
Those who require a standard A-to-B narrative would be best advised to check out at this early stage, for Ferrara has something far more sinuous and subconscious-led in mind. The term “dream logic” can be casually used with regard to any film that dabbles in surrealism, though “Siberia,” in a manner comparable to Lynch at his freakiest or Leos Carax’s admittedly more expansive “Holy Motors,” genuinely earns the descriptor with its irregular, shape-shifting successful of images, vignettes and occasional erotic visions that sometimes melt together in sequence, and brashly disrupt each other elsewhere. Dissatisfied with his attempts to find true peace in isolation, Clint hauls out his dogsled, gees up his huskies, and embarks an a journey that could be literal, metaphysical or both.
Thus do spectacularly shot snowy vistas give way to disconnected sites of memory, fantasy and nightmare: gaping caves of actual forgotten dreams, caramel expanses of distinctly un-Siberian desert, an abandoned Russian death camp, a spring garden adorned by a pastel maypole. Along the way, Clint is confronted with various versions and reflections of himself, or past loved ones tainted so much by his own soured memory of them that they may be avatars of him too. When an ex-lover accused him of ruining her life, his response (“We ruined our life!”) feels less like a bitter rejoinder than a solipsistic observation: His life and self consumes everyone in it.
It’s a exploration ideally headed by Dafoe, whose noble, jagged features and livewire physicality are called upon here to project just about every male condition in the book — be it stoic hardiness, hysteria, or cathartic, limb-flying dancing to Del Shannon’s “Runaway” — as his Clint seemingly splinters across space and time into the identities he’s left behind en route to frozen self-exile. With an apparent wisp of a script to go by, this wouldn’t come off without a director and star themselves joined at the heart: Whatever the complexities behind its conception, “Siberia” crucially pulls off the sense that the camera has simply followed Dafoe’s instincts with a soulmate’s trust.
“Siberia” is at once a film that’s impossible to spoil — nothing happens in it, as much as everything does — but best experienced, well, very cold indeed. The breaks in register and realities are the surprises here, negotiated with deft, scale-switching wit by editors Fabio Nunziata and Leonardo Daniel Bianchi. (In a film not short of elegant formal trickery, a particular match dissolve, taking us from snow to tundra, is subtly breathtaking.)
To scour Ferrara’s film too hard for meaning isn’t the best way to unlock its pleasures: There’s certainly feeling and fury in its study of disaffected masculinity left to fester in isolation, but just as much playful, knowingly silly revelry in the elastic form and function of cinema itself. “Respect the presence of sleep,” Clint is advised at one point on his mad odyssey. Bored or bewildered viewers could easily turn this line against the film, but perhaps it’s our cue to experience it as we would a dream: pulled along by its strong, seductive, senseless current, and woken when the darkness lifts, to wonder how any of it happened at all.