Outside of the festival circuit, films from Russia don’t often secure a broad international release. However, every now and then a movie comes along that demands cinematic attention, even if the instances are few and far between. In recent years, the likes of Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch and Day Watch have regaled English speaking audiences with their mix of fantasy and action, whilst Andrei Kravchuk’s The Italian and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Golden Lion winning The Return appealed to fans of drama. Before that, Alexander Sokurov’s historical single-shot film Russian Ark flew the national flag, with fewer features preceding the Cannes celebrated effort. After several years devoid of Russian releases, the applauded How I Ended This Summer (Kak ya provyol etim letom) becomes the latest to meet with global acclaim. Garnering the Silver Bear for best actor at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, and anointed the best film of the London and Chicago events, Alexei Popogrebski’s (Simple Things) gripping offering ponders the impact of isolation in the Arctic climes.
Stationed at an isolated meteorological station at the northern-most tip of the Earth, weathered Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis, The Stroll) and discordant Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin, Black Lightning) comprise the ultimate odd couple. Whilst the former takes pride in his exacting, routine-oriented role, the latter seeks his own amusement in between performing what he deems trivial and pedantic tasks. Their only contact with the outside world comes courtesy of radio reports to home base (Igor Chernevich, Help Gone Mad), as well as Sergei’s fond recollections of his wife and son. Inspired by his upcoming leave, Sergei absconds for a few days to catch fish to take home; however in his absence Pavel takes a tragic call pertaining to Sergei’s family, and is unable to break the news to his no-nonsense companion upon his return.
Solitude, either literal or virtual, real or imagined, or overt or assumed, is a difficult experience to express in film. Yet the problems inherent in accurately conveying isolation haven’t stopped an assortment of directors attempting the feat, with loneliness a constant theme across a range of cinematic output. Both Andrey Tarkovskiy’s and Steven Soderberg’s versions of Solaris tackled the topic in the confines of space, as did Gus Van Sant’s Gerry in the mountainous U.S. landscape. Buried ventured beneath the ground, Knife In The Water and Triangle on to the open seas, The Shining to a haunted hotel, and efforts as diverse as Repulsion, Taxi Driver and The Machinist within the human soul. Each of these films canvassed various aspects of the theme, from the need for human connection to the apparent aimlessness of life, and the struggle for survival to the unfettered influence of a mind left to run rampant. Like Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia before it, How I Ended This Summer considers the consequences of being alone as it delves into the remoteness of the Arctic circle, in a two-hander that contemplates the extreme reactions induced by the extreme climate.
Accordingly, as is often the case in such features, the setting of seclusion – be it in body, mind or both – transcends the bounds of ordinary surroundings to become another character in the story. In the current context, the unrelenting snowscape proves a most cruel and harsh mistress, separating the characters from not only normality, but also their remaining semblance of humanity. At first a mere constraint enforced by their employment, as their situation increases in severity the detrimental impact of the remarkable landscape undoubtedly grows. This rugged, white canvas, as well as shaping the outcome of writer / director Popogrebski’s ambitiously simple narrative, provides a truly vivid yet villainous third player to taunt and tease the protagonists throughout the riveting tale. Although the motivations of the flesh and blood players lack the impetus afforded the stark environment (with many of Pavel’s idle actions, in particular, defying logic), the contrast between their active (and excellently acted, it must be said) struggle and the passivity of their purlieu provides the film’s most potent source of tension. Whilst the atmospheric feature remains a slow-building and at times tonally inconsistent thriller, it thrills nonetheless, as it effectively essays ennui and the intense battle of the elements.
The Reel Bits: The unforgiving landscape is the star of the quietly compelling yet often meandering How I Ended This Summer, although the leads excel with the uneven material. It may not be the masterpiece hailed by many, but it is effective as an examination of isolation in body and in mind.
There is something immediately frustrating about How I Ended This Summer, and one gets the impression that this was Popogrebski’s intent from the beginning. No stranger to hardship, the director followed the treacherous path of an 11-year-old protagonist across Russia (in his debut film Koktebel) by sleeping in tend and living amongst the subjects of his film. Yet in this latest film, the isolation is immediately palpable, firmly establishing a sense of place – or perhaps more accurately, the isolation of a place – from the opening expansive shots of the northern Russian landscape. The imminent threats of this landscape are apparent as Pavel absent-mindedly slings a rifle over his shoulder as he precariously hangs a Geiger counter over a highly radioactive isotope beacon. These seemingly monotonous acts of routine, along with the processes of radio syncing number readings back to base, build the solid foundation of routine that characterise much of the first half of the film. Yet even in these seemingly mundane tasks, Popogrebski is daring us and his leads to get complacent with the hazards, for these will turn deadly in a heartbeat. That these conditions could turn on a dime into life-threatening madness is the conceit that Popogrebski hangs his slow-boiling thriller on.
The frustration of How I Ended This Summer continues as the singular motivations of Pavel take a left turn and he freaks out on us following the tragic news he receives about Sergei’s family. Beyond the isolation itself, the thriller-propelling descent into madness is rapid and somewhat implausible given the limited understanding we have of the character, although in some ways this makes the madness all the more frightening. The compelling character of Sergei, who we only get hints of his clearly lengthy life in the arctic, is barely explored so his motivations are equally uncertain, something that Pavel is also forced to ponder. As the drudgery of their daily tasks gives way to a genuinely tense final act, a new lease on life is breathed into Popogrebski’s film, and the landscape comes into its own as a terrifying tertiary character. Yet even in the midst of all this madness, the repetition of the radio call signs and response continues, providing a weight at the centre of all the insanity. Many of the set-ups and forewarnings do pay off in the dénouement, although it is difficult to say whether the loose ends are just that or the result of some earlier poor pacing.
The Reel Bits: At times genuinely tense and a psychological thriller of the most frightening world, created in a world that feels both alien and lived-in. Yet despite the excellent performances from the two actors that carry the film, the slow pacing of the film conveys the sense of isolation and monotony all too well, potentially leaving many viewers out in the cold before the tension quite literally goes radioactive.
How I Ended This Summer was released on April 7, 2011 in Australia by Palace Films.