Ever since Thoreau published “Walden” in 1854, the eponymous pond has taken on a life far more metaphysical than geographic, appropriated by writers wanting to give a name to their own special place where life at some point in the past had the potential for time-stopping splendid isolation. In Czech director Bojena Horackova’s “Walden,” a lake in Lithuania named by the characters after Thoreau’s book is but one of many recognizable elements suffusing this low-key memory film, composed like a palimpsest where all influences are detectable.
Episodically constructed with conscious tips of the hat to Jonas Mekas, Eric Rohmer, Ingmar Bergman and Sharunas Bartas, the film has a quiet pull, yet the lack of chemistry between characters plus the piecemeal storytelling leave the viewer in customary admiration of co-DP Agnès Godard’s masterful framing without connecting to their emotions. Horackova’s resolve to keep everything in a minor key — feelings, sensations, reactions — is intriguing and naturalistic, but the protagonist’s ambiguity keeps us at arm’s length, both as a teenager in early 1989 Lithuania, just before the collapse of communism, and as an adult returning home after decades in exile.
It’s easy to see why the ACID section in Cannes selected the film, as much for its French producer and crew as its sensibility, and its selection in Locarno’s Secret Screenings also fits given its cinephile credentials. In normal times, “Walden” would pleasantly coast along in festival waters, but now it will likely develop a minor, short-lived buzz on online platforms.
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One of the film’s chief frustrations is the way it appears to be setting up a contrast in attitudes between cautious optimism for a post-communist future and jaded distrust in the possibility of change. The script toys with this friction and then, presumably in the interests of upending any easy black-and-white narrative, lets it fall along the wayside, only for it to suddenly reappear in concrete form when Jakub (Andrzej Chyra) says to the adult Jana (Fabienne Babe), “The saddest thing is to see people who, in the past, placed their hope in the future, and now, in the future, are placing their hope in the past.” It’s a great line, full of resonance, yet the film’s episodic nature and almost perverse way of neutering the younger Jana’s inner life freezes any build-up, so by the end she remains almost as unknowable as she was at the start.
January 1989 in Vilnius: Lukas (Mantas Janciauskas) introduces 17-year-old Jana (Ina Marija Bartaite) to his bad-boy friend Paulius (Laurynas Jurgelis). She’s cautious and unconvinced, Paulius is charmingly pushy. The contrasts pile up: As the daughter of a doctor (Povilas Budrys), she’s part of the elite, and like Lukas, she senses positive political evolution in the air. Paulius’ father didn’t toe the party line so was forced into a menial job and a tiny apartment, leaving his son cynical about change and wanting to get out of the country. While Jana is the good student with plans to be an architect, Paulius earns money exchanging currency for tourists on the black market. Their relationship develops quickly on paper, but their lack of sexual chemistry on screen means we never feel invested in their coupling.
The film moves back and forth between time periods, alternating scenes from 1989 and briefer ones of Jana’s return to Lithuania, when she’s driving with Polish friend Jakub to re-find the lake where she and Paulius went all those summers ago. We already know things didn’t work out — the film opens with a black-screen conversation in which it’s mentioned that Paulius had been in prison — so this is Jana’s bid to reconnect with her emotional past without the responsibility of talking with the people who participated in that past. How much she contributed in making things go south is never spelled out, though the level of guilt the older Jana clearly feels is enough for us to connect the dots.
By unexpectedly setting the film in a country not her own, Horackova (“East of Me”) doesn’t weigh “Walden” down with autobiographical suppositions, and the action could have taken place in almost any Eastern bloc nation. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a sense of place. On the contrary, much of the film’s pleasures come from the way it’s grounded in the physicality of the locations. The title alone signifies a strong connection between an imagined place and a real one, filling the liminal space between the two with unexpressed tension of the “what might have been” kind.
Less understandable is why she’s directed Bartaite (daughter of Sharunas Bartas, who makes a brief appearance) as if there’s an invisible wall separating her from the audience. For the most part, the handheld camera acts as a youthful observer, a bit jaunty and loose, but then it lovingly rests on Bartaite’s face à la Rohmer and Bergman, pondering what’s inside without slaking that curiosity. The closeups are beautiful and glowing with natural light, but the inner light remains frustratingly opaque. That may be deliberate, though the fact that the question even arises says there’s a problem in how we’re meant to interpret the images. Jonas Mekas’ 1968 “Walden” is a warmhearted act of remembrance; Horackova’s “Walden” rarely allows the warmth to penetrate beyond the surface.