If you can imagine the experience of watching an Abbas Kiarostami film in an Iranian mountain village, or Star Wars on a space station, you’ll have some idea how strange it was to see Julie Bertuccelli’s wonderful Since Otar Left (2003) at a Tbilisi film club less than a decade after it had been shot in that city. In fact, some scenes had been shot directly outside that tiny cinema on Rustaveli Avenue. There were chuckles of recognition.
That season Tbilisi revealed to me its double identity. When the clouds were black the city was an atmospheric post-Soviet ruin stinking of cold mud and acrid cigarettes. The sagging balconies of its nineteenth century apartment buildings sometimes hung by a single bolt, while the Soviet concrete monoliths looked, bizarrely enough, centuries older. Rubble piled up on the footpaths. The flaking and mould-blackened yellow paint, the makeshift patches of rust-red tin, the bare-limbed trees — all contributed to an atmosphere of devastation. And yet when the sun sparkled on the River Mtkvari all that decay seemed diminished and Tbilisi was as delightful as an Italian renaissance town.
Since Otar Left captures that urban duality. Co-written by Bertuccelli and Bernard Renucci, the film centres on three generations of a Georgian family. The elderly matriarch’s adored son, a doctor named Otar, is working as an illegal immigrant in Paris. The report comes of his accidental death. To spare the old woman this devastating news, her granddaughter begins to fake new letters from Otar. This plot is nothing new — E. L. Doctorow’s story ‘A Writer in the Family’ (1984) spins from the same basic idea — and yet the subtle screenplay and the tremendous performances of its three central actresses are the foundations of a powerfully moving film.
Each of the three main characters seeks her own vision of dignity and independence. The elderly matriarch Eka (Esther Gorintin) is stubborn, full of life despite her years, and unfairly critical of her supposedly ambitionless daughter Marina (Nino Khomasuridze). Marina’s daughter Ada (Dinara Drukarova), while dutiful and loving, is bored by her university studies, bored by her casual boyfriend, and bored by the squabbles of her mother and grandmother over the legacy of Stalin in the close quarters of their ramshackle apartment.
All this takes place in an era of economic deprivation. The film repeatedly returns to the failure of Tbilisi’s basic utilities a decade after the end of the Soviet Union. Power outages leave the women in the dark. The water supply cuts while Marina is washing her hair in the shower, causing her to cry out in despair, “Life’s impossible in this fucking country!” (By 2011 the situation had improved, although most of the shops in the city centre had a petrol-powered generator on its stoop ready to start puttering.) To survive, Marina must sell items in the open-air antiques market beside the river with her supportive but inessential lover; at one moment she tells him with a laugh, “I wish I was in love with you.” (That week I had browsed in that very market, where ruined cars live on as permanent stalls selling every imaginable item: swords, canes, pick-axes, rusty pistols, button accordions, 8mm camera equipment, pictures of 1970s Soviet film starlets, cigar boxes decorated in Polynesian kitsch, and century-old adding machines.) When Eka falls ill, the hospital facilities are inadequate and the bill must be paid immediately in cash to the bored, chain-smoking doctor.
Despite hard times, life goes on in Georgia. Eka, Marina, and Ada own an idealic country dacha where they collect fruit. They gather with friends in their apartment to sing folk songs. They pause by the roadside to tie strips of cloth to a wish tree — until Ada refuses to perpetuate this superstition.
The women also follow family tradition as devoted Francophiles — although none of the three have ever actually visited France. This is one reason Eka is so supportive of Otar’s life in Paris. At night Ada reads to Eka from a volume of Proust, part of the valuable library of French books that had to be hidden during the darkest Soviet years. France represents the apex of culture and economic opportunity. There is a powerful conclusion as Ada, with Eka’s complicity but Marina’s distress, decides to remain behind in Paris as an illegal immigrant. As an audience we are left in no doubt that Georgia is a provincial dead-end for Ada. The film boldly depicts illegal immigration as a step towards self-fulfilment. France offers a new life. It might have been a colossally chauvinistic move for these French screenwriters to invent Georgian characters who exalt France in this way, but I have to admit I was totally won over by the humanity of the performances and the universality of the film’s theme: the desire for a better life and to transcend the mundane here and now.
Nevertheless, watching this story about Tbilisi in Tbilisi gave me a usefully unsettled perspective. Is Since Otar Left a film made for international audiences rather than for the Georgians it purports to depict? I’m sure many locals do not consider it a Georgian film. Although acted in a mixture of Georgian and French, only one of the three leads, Nino Khomasuridze, is actually a local (the late Esther Gorintin was Polish and Dinara Drukarova is Russian). I’m not suggesting that Bertuccelli was a superficial tourist — after all, she was a protégé of director Otar Iosseliani — but I wondered whether Georgians consider her a cultural interloper, a Western European condescending to tell a story about the citizens of an impoverished country who idolise her own.
Luckily, Bertuccelli has given me a convenient opportunity to evaluate that question because her second fiction feature, The Tree (2010), was made in my home country, Australia. All the characters are Australian with the exception of its nominally French-English protagonist, Dawn, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The setting is rural Queensland. Dawn’s husband dies and leaves his family in grief. His young daughter (Morgana Davies) comes to believe that the enormous Moreton Bay Fig on their property has absorbed his spirit and can speak to her. Dawn also toys with the belief. But the tree grows wildly, and its roots and branches invade the house. The neighbours are outraged. The family’s grieving process, the slow acceptance of the man’s death, is mirrored by the eventual abandonment of the tree after an act of God.
How well does Bertuccelli grasp the Australian milieu? An interesting question, because I don’t actually think many unquestionably Australian films demonstrate any particular insight into Australia as it really is. Despite tiny box office and indifferent reception, much of the national cinema doggedly sticks with a default set of elements: depressing subject matter, protagonists of limited intelligence who lack agency, and plenty of lingering shots of the landscape. There’s nothing inherently limiting about that, but so far Australia hasn’t produced filmmakers of the calibre of the Dardenne brothers or Andrey Zvyagintsev or Andrea Arnold who would find universal resonance, let alone poetry, in the dark and mundane surfaces of Australian society. Instead we frequently wind up with badly written, pretentious, and crushingly boring movies that nobody really likes.
I had high hopes for The Tree after the triumph of Since Otar Left. Bertuccelli was also a assistant director on Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Blue (1993), a truly great film about a grieving widow. What could go wrong? But I’m afraid The Tree, to borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard, is a film like any other. Although beautifully photographed, its Australian characters have none of the complexity of Bertuccelli’s Georgians. True to the conventions of our national cinema, no character in The Tree is allowed to have any sort of intellectual life — not even a corny worship of Le France. The dead husband and his replacement, a plumber, are almost interchangeable tanned men in flannel shirts, amiably laconic, of whom almost nothing is discovered. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Morgana Davies give strong performances with what they have but the dialogue often sounds unrealistic. The narrative meanders, and many scenes could have been removed with little consequence to its coherence.
To date these are Bertuccelli’s only two fiction features, although she has been a prolific documentarian of French society. I’m happy to see that a third starring Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni is in post-production — a feature film, finally, set in France.
Edinburgh, February 2018