Tuesday 3 May 2011

Cold fronts: "How I Ended This Summer"

Alexei Popogrebsky's 2003 debut Koktebel (co-directed with Boris Khlebnikov) was a road movie, inhabited by a drunken father and his increasingly independent young son who felt like avatars of the Old and New Russia. The expansive follow-up How I Ended This Summer - Popogrebsky's third credit, after 2007's Simple Things, unreleased in the UK - plays out a similar tension on a bigger canvas, and a more remote location still: an island somewhere in the Arctic, where two men assigned to a weather station check the dials and dutifully log reports for their superiors back on the mainland every quarter-hour.

The older of the pair, Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), who we learn grew up in something akin to Arctic conditions, is a stickler for rules and regulations, refusing to cut corners in his work because he knows all too well the risks that follow from living in this environment. By contrast, his young apprentice Pasha (Grigory Dobrygin) sports an earring and headphones, and knows what a smiley represents at the end of a text message. Pasha treats the locale like his own personal playground, swinging on satellite dishes and marching around with an unloaded rifle slung over his shoulder; he's playing at being a man, where his colleague, taciturn and practical, simply is one. Inexperience, however, will out: while Sergei is away on a fishing trip one day, Pasha takes down a grave radio message he can't bring himself to pass on - and at once, a whole new degree of isolation begins to set in. The title is that of a school report Sergei accuses the "tourist" Pasha of writing during his time at the station - but that "ended" is ominous (why not "spent"?), and it's clear the kid sorely needs to grow up, if he's ever going to survive in this harsh terrain.

Koktebel had the benefit of being one of the more approachable Russian films of recent years - emerging around the same time as Andrei Zvyagintsev's entirely opaque The Return could only have helped its cause - and here, too, Popogrebsky folds in those elements (Pasha's pop music and computer games) denied by, to cite two examples, Zyvagintsev's airy allegories and the diffuse, impenetrable nightmares of Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy. How I Ended This Summer deals in graspable concepts, easily picked up. Pasha's first-person, stalk-and-shoot console games are evidently meant to foreshadow the cat-and-mousing of the film's final hour. Sergei sports a blue windcheater, Pasha a red one, and never the twain shall meet; you can imagine a director doing similar with colour-coded hard hats in any American remake set on board an oil rig. This simplicity of approach pays off beautifully in places: with the radio interference Popogrebsky leaves on the soundtrack as Pasha becomes fully attuned to the messy repercussions of his hesitation, or in the later sequence that finds the young man out on the hills, lost in a fog that's both literal and metaphorical.

If Popogrebsky appears better equipped for international success than many of his compatriots, it may be because he forsakes those hard-to-translate spiritual and transcendental characteristics most commonly associated with the Russian cinema for a sort of front-and-centre physicality. This Summer, essentially an action movie that shuns pyrotechnics to better preserve the chill in the air, was shot on a location fraught with pre-existing dangers (extreme weather, polar bears, radioactive remnants of the Soviet era, transmitting Geiger-counter echoes of mutually assured destruction), and the actors deserved their Berlin prize in part because it's clear they're doing so much of the film's heavy lifting themselves: they can't help but convey a sense of the stress of being attacked by gnats, climbing a sheer rockface to retrieve birds' eggs, sleeping out in a makeshift bivouac in freezing conditions, because that's exactly what's going on in that moment, and any additional psychological tension has to be mapped onto this.

I think it perhaps needs a stronger reason for Pasha to withhold the message in the first place, beyond the vague sense of unease he feels in the older man's presence - surely full and immediate disclosure would give him the time off he so dearly craves? Yet the idea is cleverly developed, on both a narrative level - Pasha goes from being unsure how to break the news to a deliberate withholding of same after Sergei is verbally and physically abusive to him - and in the way our sympathies are allowed to see-saw between two men at a near-total remove from the rest of the world. The scenes where Pasha tries to hide from his stampeding colleague (even in the wide-open spaces of the Arctic) will chime with anyone who's ever had a fractious relationship with a flatmate, but this slow-burn thriller reserves its iciest grip for the final reel, as a cold front blows in that further endangers these men's existence, and reveals their remoteness to be not just geographical, but emotional, and potentially lethal with it.

How I Ended This Summer is on selected release.

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