Wednesday 5 May 2021

Road to nowhere: "Atlantis"

Atlantis is one from the arthouse spectrum's altogether agonised end: a fixed-camera, long-take plunge into the depths of PTSD that offers but a small handful of consolation at the end of what seems a very long, often strainingly hard road. (Fair notice: your mileage may well vary.) Valentyn Vasnanovych's film establishes its intention to be a Real Glum Time from its opening sequence, a heat-camera surveillance of a war crime; a couple of scenes later, we witness a gloomy welder throwing himself off a platform and into a smelting tank; and while this could just be suicidal ideation - at this point in the film, the clouds are so low it's almost impossible to get a read on anything - a few scenes after that, we watch as protagonist Serhiy (Andriy Rymaruk) takes an iron to his own thigh just to feel something, and discovers that the device isn't hot enough to cut through. (In the circumstances, this qualifies as a very bleak laugh.) Why the long faces? Relentless militarisation, for one: an opening title suggests all of the above is happening in the Eastern Ukraine of 2025, two years after the conflict with Russia has ended, leaving an entire generation of Ukrainian men shellshocked. Grinding industrialisation, for another: Serhiy lives in the shadow of an ICI-style processing plant - so big and ugly we can practically smell the toxic vapours - and the general feeling is that all those who've defended the Ukraine have returned to is a smattering of low-paid blue-collar jobs in factories being phased out as part of costcutting measures. If ever a film was a post-punk holler of NO FUTURE, this would be it.

Nevertheless, Vasnanovych sighs, pulls himself together, and - not unlike a Cormac McCarthy of the East - sets out to plot a path through a world upon which he dreads to look. He achieves this by dispatching Serhiy's bestubbled, beanie-sporting sadsack to drive a truck through this rainy, snowy, most often desolate grey zone, and to observe what's been left behind as part of some wider state clean-up mission. Surprise! It isn't cake and party balloons. Instead, as the film rolls onwards like a boulder approaching a cliff edge, it takes in: unexploded IEDs the Russians have left at the roadside, corpses they've left on the road, decomposed bodies in the morgue, overflowing cemeteries, ransacked properties, hollowed-out industries, very little of which has apparently had to have been faked up for the camera. (The implication: that the Ukraine has long been set down this particular road.) If you're up for a grand tour of despair and disrepair, that's what you get here: the camera plods along behind our man through countryside that's had all the colour leeched from it by fracking or fighting, and the occasional, generally lifeless interaction with numbed fellow travellers. Vasnanovych is so focused on the cold virtuosity of his camera set-ups that he leaves his performers to mumble in medium-long shots, and while there are passing exceptions to the prevailing rule of glum - at one point, our hero converts an abandoned digger's cradle into an inpromptu hot tub - the trouble with these long takes is that they conceal very few surprises. Going mostly untempered by even the merest flicker of human warmth, the bleakness never really varies; there's just more of it, that's all. (The sparks that do fly tend to be snuffed out by circumstance: the consolation, when we reach it, is a bunk-up in the back of a mortician's van crowded with corpses while driver and passenger wait for a breakdown vehicle to arrive. Oh, and it's pissing it down with rain.) You emerge in little doubt that this region is entering the deepest of depressions, but - and I write this as no kind of Pollyanna - this is not the kind of movie that's likely to get anyone out of any such rut. Atlantis seems more likely to pull you in and keep your head under.

Atlantis is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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