It’s winter, sometime in the late 19th century, somewhere in Russia or Eastern Europe. A small group has gathered at a country estate to discourse — over Champagne, tea, brandy, lunch and dinner, supplied by a squadron of silent maids and waiters — about matters of the utmost seriousness. How can we distinguish good from evil? Is killing ever justified? What is the future of Europe?
Imagine a Chekhov play without drama, an Oscar Wilde farce without humor, a Visconti film without desire, or a very long party at the home of a distant acquaintance, and you will have some idea of “Malmkrog,” Cristi Puiu’s latest film.
Drawing on works by the 19th-century Russian mystical poet and thinker Vladimir Solovyov — once a friend of Dostoyevsky and reportedly a favorite of President Vladimir V. Putin — Puiu makes no concessions to modern sensibilities. This movie is an extravagant, elegant gesture of intellectual and artistic nonconformity, a gauntlet flung at the viewer’s feet. It’s also a bit of a puzzle. You might be transfixed by the long and passionate arguments depicted onscreen, and intrigued by the larger argument the film itself is making, without having much sense of what all the fuss is about.
The hosts are a young, aristocratic couple (unless they are siblings): Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) and Olga (Marina Palii). They speak French to their guests and German to their servants, who speak Hungarian to one another. “Malmkrog” may refer to the movie’s setting, but this too is ambiguous. With short breaks to tend to an older relative in a back room, to listen to Christmas carols or to step outside to look at the snow, Olga and Nikolai convene a daylong seminar with Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), Edouard (Ugo Broussot) and Madeleine (Agathe Bosch), slightly older friends of varied backgrounds, all possessing strong and complicated opinions.
To summarize their respective views on metaphysics, ethics and world history would be a spoiler, and would require more space than this newspaper could possibly provide. And while some of them — Edouard, in particular — can drone on a bit, the charisma and skill of the actors and the exquisiteness of Puiu’s eye prevent the proceedings from collapsing into absolute tedium.
The rooms and costumes are beautiful, the people are interesting to look at, and the camera observes everything with a discreetly sensual gaze. At times it stands at a distance, pivoting slightly from side to side like a watchful butler. Occasionally it moves closer, studying faces and hands like an attentive guest.
The images and the words, in whatever language, possess an alluring clarity. The filmmaker’s intentions are more opaque. Puiu — whose second feature, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005), is a touchstone of contemporary Romanian cinema — has moved from that film’s rigorous naturalism into more esoteric realms. Not that the concerns of “Malmkrog” are obscure, exactly. It seems like a faithful representation of what people like Olga and Nikolai, and their friends, might have thought in the 1890s, and it doesn’t condescend to them or flaunt the easy ironies of hindsight. Nor, however, does it make an especially compelling case for why we should listen now.
Not rated. In French, Russian, German, Hungarian, English and Romanian, with subtitles. Running time: 3 hours 21 minutes. Watch on Mubi.
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