Saturday, 5 February 2011
"How I Ended This Summer": A thriller from the Russian Arctic
I feel pretty safe in telling you that there are layers of social and political allegory beneath 'How I Ended This Summer,' Russian director Alexei Popogrebsky's thriller about two men alone in the Arctic. I mean, it's a Russian movie -- that goes with the turf. But you don't have to go spelunking for deep meanings below this impressively crafted piece of cinema to enjoy it. Filmed at an actual meteorological research station in the Russian Arctic coast that was built under Stalin, 'How I Ended This Summer' combines memorable images of the gorgeous, rugged wilderness, meticulous sound design that emphasizes the characters' isolation, a dash of dark wit and a dose of madness.
Yes, if you're keeping score at home that makes three weeks running that Pick of the Week has settled on a foreign film from a snowy northern country (with a fourth, I suspect, on the way next week). I'm not exactly doing it on purpose, but it may well have something to do with the amazing winter those of us in the eastern two-thirds of the country are enduring. Actually, compared to the frozen slush of the Northeastern megalopolis in February, the desolate beauty, perpetual sunlight and endless seafood buffet of an Arctic Ocean summer look like Barbados.
Officially, we learn very little about Pasha (Grigory Dobrygin) and Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), the entire crew of this remote island station. They're spending the Arctic summer monitoring instruments and sending the numbers back to some central authority, but we're never quite sure what they're reporting and why, we don't know where they came from, and we don't learn much about their lives back in civilization. There might be 20 years or so between them, and Pasha, a sleepy-eyed, earring-clad, Brad Pitt-looking hipster type, is familiar with all kinds of new technology that the grizzled Sergei views with disdain. It's Pasha's first and probably only summer on the island, while Sergei's been coming there for years, and feels intimately connected with a tough-guy history that goes back to 1935.
Popogrebsky builds the psychological tension slowly but inexorably, delivering spectacular time-lapse shots of the changing landscape in this barren but beautiful place (the cinematography is by Pavel Kostomarov) and an entire litany of subtly disorienting sounds: The nearly constant background crackle of radio static; the sloshing of the sea, the hammering of wind and the cries of birds; the ubiquitous house-metal dance music from Pasha's headphones. The film is often so spectacular, so hypnotic, that you just want to swim in its sensual wonders -- but it's propelling a narrative too. Eventually we notice, without anyone mentioning it, that while Pasha and Sergei sleep and cook walrus meat and report incomprehensible data and play video games (OK, only Pasha does that), the sun never, ever goes down. The landscape goes from morning to noon to afternoon to early evening and then starts all over again. You know, it might be enough to make you a little crazy....
- Andrew O'Hehir, Movie Critic - Salon.com