An Entertaining Formal Quest

in 60th Venice Film Festival

by Ikbal Zalila

The second feature of Laila Pakalnina, a young Latvian film-maker, “Pythons”, was in competition in the ‘controcorrente’ section (upstreams). Her first feature “The Shoe” was a return to the Soviet Union in 1950’s. It was well received by the critics as “having revealed Pakalnina’s sophisticated neorealistic charm, reconstructive documentary approach and irony”.

“Pythons” is about an accident, which happened in an average post-Soviet school in Latvia. Somebody has defecated in the attic. The tyrant of the school, the headmistress, starts to investigate the disturbance. Nobody shall leave the school before the guilty one is found. The real hustle and bustle starts when a python disappears somewhere in the school. This is the start but things don’t stop there. Meanwhile, a rabid beaver is supposed to be in the school too. A group of hunters from the village reach the school to chase it. There, they meet the firemen who came to protect the children from the python as well as the vet and his assistant. Progressively, the school becomes a theatre of the absurd, which involves the whole village. The hunt for the python as well for the beaver is revealed to be useless and the film ends without giving any clue. The school is evacuated and the ugly headmistress remains alone with her fears and with the python.

The ‘morale’ of the film (if there is any) is quiet simple: The python remains alone with its human counterpart (the other python, the headmistress). “Two pythons for a school is too much” says the fireman’s chief at the end of the movie. Told this way, we might see in this story all the conventions of comedy as a ‘genre’, with a plot of the intertwining of amusing and ridiculous situations. There are extreme caricatures: the wicked headmistress, the dull hunter, the frustrated middle-aged nurse of the school, the romantic photographer, the monomaniac policeman who keeps on looking quite obsessively for a stolen red car.

Despite the fact that this movie takes some of the conventions of comedy it remains distant from slapstick comedy. The humour is understated, definitely ‘dècalè’ and quiet abstract. “The Python” can hardly be considered as a comedy even if it uses its codes.

Laila Pakalnina defines her feature as an absurd drama. Let’s say it is a formalist absurd drama. Formalism here is to be taken in its positive meaning. In other words, the form here is more important than the content. Movement, composition, texture and sound are as important or may be more important than the story told.

The director captures objects and people without any concern for realistic conventions. Sometimes the tiniest details are given much more importance than people and actions. The distance at which the camera is from things does not correspond to any functional justification. Large close-ups appear where they are not supposed to like the long insert of the headmistress’ hands while she is trying to crack her fingers or the close-up of a workman’s neck while he is trying to find out what was stinking in the attic.

Camera angles are odd and misleading for the viewer. Life seems to be seen from an animal’s point of view, may be that of one of the photographer’s monkey (he owns a monkey as well as a python). Moreover, the originality of the movie lies in its unique ability to intertwine sound and image. The soundtrack is at various moments of the film totally disconnected from the image. Sometimes it looks like it is off-screen sound but this issue is revealed to be misleading. This situation leads the viewer to concentrate on both the image and the sound. This option is quite remarkable in the sequence where ‘shit’ is discovered in the attic. This sequence starts with a very slow camera movement at the same time we hear the sound of somebody sniffing something off-screen. The sound never stops while the camera slowly tracks back. The end of the movement does not lead to the source of the sound which we still hear but, it leads to another odd camera movement from the left to the right and then suddenly the camera turns back by panning and then tilting to finally show us a person’s neck then a face that we might associate with the sound we were hearing.

Laila Pakalnina teases the viewer’s voyeurism by not allowing him to see things and actions he knows are off screen. The director shows things whenever she wants to and not whenever they are supposed to happen. Progressively the eagerness of the viewer turns to be a kind of sweet abandon into the hands of the film-maker and the off screen becomes a space from where anything and everything may happen. Palkanina’s style gives her feature depth and ambiguity despite the apparent lightness of the plot. This was Tati’s main cinematographic invention.