I've certainly criticized films for not being original, and as the remake craze continues to ramp up, I can't deny I've complained at length about a few of them. Unoriginality is a growing problem, and viewers have been slowly turning to foreign films to pick up the slack. Yet, the element most commonly missing from American movies is actually joy. The US film industry is such a business, focused on numbers and demographics and advertising potential that even when a film is great, it rarely feels as celebratory and free as many of the foreign films I've seen. Absurdistan may not be the most original or clever movie I've seen this year (at one point, the characters actually invoke the extraordinarily sitcommy cliche of painting a line in the middle of their village to separate one half from the other), but it's certainly one of the most exuberant, the performers seemingly thrilled by the mere fact that they're bringing the story to life.
That story primarily concerns itself with two things. The first one is a budding romance between childhood friends Temelko (Maximilian Mauff) and Aya (Kristyna Malérová). The pair have known each other since birth, but unlike a drama I was recently frustrated by, the will-they-or-won't-they tension isn't because the two are friends. In fact, Temelko and Aya's romance is written in the stars. If they wait until Sagittarius and Virgo meet and bathe in water before their first time, everything will be perfect. "It shall be the eleventh of July," proclaims Aya's grandmother, when the pair comes to her looking for guidance. "In four years!"
Similar to Amélie, Absurdistan addresses sex in a fairly wholesome way. Temelko spies Aya standing naked on her rooftop one evening, and it's more endearing and sweet than lecherous and awkward. The entire village, actually, has a reputation for its sexual prowess. For reasons unexplained, word of the men's aptitude has spread, and the men concern themselves on making good on that reputation every evening. Other than that, however, they concern themselves with very little, and the town's water pipe, built decades ago, diminishes to a tiny trickle. The younger men are sent away to try to learn about ways to fix the problem, but only Temelko returns, with ideas about water being piped into people's houses that gets laughed out of the local bar. On the evening of Temelko and Aya's foretold union, Temelko flies Aya out to his rooftop using a complicated contraption of pulleys and wires, but she finds him standing in a pool filled to the brim with water. Angered, she gives him an ultimatum. Sagittarius and Virgo will be aligned for five days; and the whole town deserves water. Fix the water pipe before then or no sex.
This brings about the story's other plot point: the women catch wind of Aya's plan and adopt it for the entire village. Such a plot twist could easily turn into a bombardment of painful old "battle of the sexes" cliches, but like the sexual themes, the back-and-forth is mostly good-natured and entertaining (although some of the men's actions start out looking creepy). Instead, standard cliches sneak in. As I mentioned, the movie does have the women literally paint a white line down the center of town splitting the two sides apart, and while the sides are separated, there are some contrived conflicts driving Aya and Temelko apart (Aya is disappointed to see Temelko on a bus out of town with the rest of the men, even though he was forced on, and he's later strong-armed into a shooting gallery contest where the prize is a prostitute, which he accidentally wins). Still, even though these things are clearly strained on paper, they work because the film isn't invested in the setups and jokes, it's invested in the village denizens.
Such investment is provided by director Veit Helmer, who stages all sorts of fantastical, offbeat setpieces but never forgets to keep the protagonists involved in his flights of fancy. The aforementioned sequence where Temelko reels Aya in with a hanging boat on pulleys so she can experience the joy of flight is a wonderfully romantic bit of whimsy. Helmer also adopts an unusual but interesting technique where Temelko and Aya almost never speak to one another. Both actors have scads of dialogue, but it's all in voice-over; if you chopped it out, 75% of Absurdistan would qualify as a silent film. Both Mauff and Malérová give loose-limbed, energetic performances that really bring the movie to life, as do the rest of the colorful and amusing townsfolk. The only thing holding Helmer back is the occasional visual effect: there's one involving a nightgown that's clearly done using a wire and two major effects near the end with terrible digital animation. I wish they'd been better, because they're fairly relevant to the movie, but sometimes you work with what you've got, I suppose.
The whole movie bursts with a kind of life and energy; it feels self-affirming and practically leaps and bounds off the screen in ways that many American blockbusters never dream of. I know quite a few film fans who would sing the praises of foreign films over American films up and down. Personally, I don't think a blanket statement can be made; as Americans, we're generally privy to the cream of the crop (a gigantic box-office and critical failure in another country isn't likely to get a shot across the water). I see what they mean, though; watching Absurdistan capture a feeling of unbridled joy similar to the one Aya and Temelko want in their first time lovemaking is a pleasure our films rarely capture.
Absurdistan is fitted with a nice-looking if somewhat sparse cover slathered in critical praise. I don't think the images chosen effectively convey the tone of the piece, but hopefully the title, synopsis and quotes will do a better job. First Run Features also has a logo that looks distractingly like a UK rating symbol from a distance. Inside the case is a booklet with other FRF releases.
The Video and Audio
Absurdistan's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is ruined by the interlacing that mars every shot. The ghosting also decreases the overall clarity of the picture, making edges look alternatingly fuzzy or jagged. The DVD also commits the crime of burning in the English subtitles. At first, when I saw that "English" audio was playing and there were no subs available, I thought, "What a novel idea, a foreign film in English so American viewers won't get all pissy when they're forced to read the captions!", but no, the dialogue is actually in Russian and the subs are just burned in. The worst part is that colors and black levels are very good (I noticed no artifacts in pitch-black cave scenes), so I imagine if it wasn't riddled with these other errors, the DVD would look pretty top-notch.
Speaking of the audio, all we get is a 2.0 presentation that's lacking like the picture. Ultimately, neither of these flaws are enough to repress the film's charm, and they're probably both due to the low-budget, foreign production of the movie, but it is a disappointment that such an entertaining film couldn't have gotten a better presentation. Maybe on Blu someday...
There's not much: we get a bunch of non-video extras like a photo gallery and a short-but-interesting text interview with the director, along with a bio. There's also a gallery with trailers for L'Iceberg, Tuvalu and Mongolian Ping Pong, but no trailer for Absurdistan.
This is a wonderful, charming, sexy movie that audiences (assuming they're okay with subtitles) will likely embrace. The A/V presentation admittedly leaves a lot to be desired, but I'd still heartily recommend the movie regardless.
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