There are many good ideas in writer-director Juja Dobrachkous’s feature debut, which is why it’s doubly frustrating she seems not to have had a strong counselor to help reign in all the self-indulgence. One can start with the title, “Bebia, à mon seul désir,” a famously ambiguous motto featured on a medieval tapestry which roughly translates to “to my only love” today: Why have a French title when the entire film is in Georgian and Russian, with no Gallic resonances (the tapestry is also never referenced)?
The story itself is great: A teenage model returns to Georgia for her horrid grandmother’s funeral, and is told she needs to follow an ancient ritual to guide the deceased’s soul from where she died to her burial place. Yet with the idea of prioritizing interior sensations, Dobrachkous employs frequent flashbacks and an at times exasperating mise-en-scène that frequently cuts off the tops of heads, all done in the belief that these attention-getting devices will keep viewers focused on emotions rather than figures.
While the goal is impressionistic, the results feel wrongheaded, saved by the handsome black-and-white aesthetic and the overall intriguing premise. Although the future for “Bebia” will be limited to arty festival fringes, the film has enough interest to warrant keeping an eye on the director’s future work.
Elementary school with her friends isn’t such a bad time for young Ariadna (Anushka Andronikashvili), but idyllic moments of play are interrupted by her mother’s sharp summons home. Cut to the present, and Ariadna (Anastasia Davidson), now 17 and working as a model in London, gets a call that her grandmother (“bebia” in Georgian) is dead. The news prompts a flashback to granny Medea (Guliko Gurgenidze) brushing and braiding her hair while telling her that children aren’t special and a woman’s life is nothing but useless toil. Grandma definitely wasn’t the warm, cuddly, inspirational type.
At the airport in Tbilisi, she’s picked up by Temo (Alexander Glurjidze), a young man whose familiarity with her family makes Ariadna uncomfortable. At home she finds her mother (Anastasia Chanturaia, played as a younger woman by Ana Chiradze) tipsy and waspish, though her hardness is a character trait rather than originating in grief over her mother’s death. During the mourning period, family member Dato (Nukri Archvadze) tells Ariadna that custom dictates she must connect her grandmother’s soul with her body by taking thread to the place where Medea died and unwinding it while journeying to the body, now in its coffin. That’s more than a 15-mile walk, but it must be done, and Temo goes with her.
Rituals of course are cathartic by nature, designed to help us process life’s passages, and while Ariadna’s journey has the feel of something transformative, in the end it’s surprising how little Dobrachkous takes advantage of her story’s centerpiece. The teenager begins as an angry, confused and deeply wounded young woman and doesn’t really transition out of that head space. In the Greek myth, Ariadne is rescued from the Minotaur when she helps Theseus navigate the labyrinth with the help of thread, and while Dobrachkous makes hers a more feminist tale (Temo accompanies her but he’s not her rescuer), there’s no sense that this rite is saving her from anything, or helping her deal better with her dysfunctional upbringing.
There are memorable moments, such as during Medea’s wake, when traditional women mourners shout at the dead body and Ariadna starts to laugh before the tears of sadness flow. The grief isn’t for Medea, who maybe deserves begrudging pity but not tears; it’s for all the years Ariadna felt no love, no warmth. The script allows for a few chinks like this in her armor, yet the viewer longs for more of a trajectory. When neither the character nor the film lets you in, the experience can be punishing.
Veronica Solovyeva’s camerawork is clearly well-considered, her attractive black-and-white compositions centered on body parts in motion rather than faces, aiming for a visceral emotional response to movement, texture and sound. The theory is good, but it lacks modulation, and together with the constant shuttling back and forth in time coupled with minimal character development, we’re left grasping for something to hold on to apart from a general admiration for individual images.