Signs and Meanings in Vilnius

in 26th Vilnius Film Festival – Kino Pavasaris

by Eithne O'Neill

People We Know Are Confused

Can I help you? I, who need help myself! This theme triggers the action of a début feature film dealing with a trio of adults in present-day Vilnius. Unaware of each other’s existence, they include two women, young Juste who doubts her feelings for her fiancé, and Goda, a widowed 50-year old coming to terms with her bereavement. A schoolteacher and the father of an adolescent boy, Vytas is plucking up the courage to ask his wife Elena for a divorce. In the hot summer weather, a storm is brewing over the capital. What may it all signify?

According to the different age-slots, each story in People We Know Are Confused brings up the prospect of moving house, thereby linking past and future in a common turning point. The time for the well-kept secret of Vytas’ double-life is running out, since Jurgis, his sole confidant, lies dying. Through text-messages and hand written notes, lonely Goda tries to connect with a man she never meets. Juste’s job with a help-line company involves phone-contact with Anitolijaus, a depressed young man; will he unwittingly play a role in these separate fates?  Dialogue and décor are equally minimalist; although the different Vilnius scenes come smoothly into view, nothing is staged for mere entertainment. Neither satirical in thrust, nor an organizer of chaos, the camera observes and encourages us to read the signs.    

The opening sequence sets a tone of mystery:  feet walking over the bare ground in the heat of the day move to the river’s edge while a hand strikes match after match and the birds cross overhead. In one swoop, the classical trope of the four elements is conjured up. This portrait of a specific, bustling small capital in the throes of change simultaneously embraces universal dilemmas. For this film is a philosophical tale, about thought prior to action. As the old man in his familiar outdated Sixties flat says to Goda: it’s not easy. Anatolijus’voice on the helpline reaches Juste. She is both drawn to him and uneasy about her dealings with the high-risk caller. His suggestion that they meet echoes her misgivings: is she herself really in love with her fiancé Paulius?  “I don’t want to live in the middle of fucking nowhere ” is one of the few aggressive statements made in the movie.  Her own reluctance to accept the gift of a brand new flat from her prospective parents-in-law upsets him. But Juste’s quandary strikes a familiar chord:  is there not a price to pay for financial or material dependence, however well intended? Yet it pinpoints the truth that for her generation the centre of Vilnus is the place to be. A phone-conversation with her mother who stirs up concern for an aging pet dog seems to be a reminder of her own childhood. A threat of euthanasia for an animal, and Jurgis’ impending death remind us of our mortality. Controlled acting, subtle intonation, seemingly studied, but in the circumstances motivated, length of sequences and the near freeze-frames on spaces drained of people combine to convey a latter-day memento mori.

Ivory, white and cream hues and harmonious lines promote the fashionable good taste in interior decoration, halfway between the Scandinavian hygge to lagom trends in an – at times over-stated – spirit of less is more. The flatness of effect corresponds to being socially correct; and repressed. Solitary Goda says little; we learn about her through her behavior when she is alone. Her profession brings her closer to a truculent senior citizen, reluctant to accept modernizing. Instead of showing effusive emotion or self-pity, to emphasize remoteness, the camera shuts Goda off from others, behind glass panes and doors. Does Vytas actually have to break the news of his sexual orientation to Elena? Later, she and Juste will shed tears, of grief and relief. The nature of Vytas’ secret is made clear when we see him watching the teenage boys in the school. Throughout, a struggle between commitment and independence allows for believable characterization and situation development.

Anatolijius says: his favourite spot in Vilnius is under a bridge where he can view the whole city, without being seen. The Jurgis Matulaitis Church is a tramway stop, a discreet reference to a monument of the country’s turbulent history. It is on the river and a nearby wasteland that Smulkis’ film opens. Goda shrinks from the touch of a strange hand in the lift, but fantasizes about the man she is putting up. Dressed expensively, she returns home to her immaculate boutique hotel, loaded down with purchases. Close-ups are for Justé, listening to Anatolijius, forever unseen: his own calls make up a basso continuo, strengthening a tension mounting to its inexorable climax.

Is the confusion in the minds of these people due to their quest for a balance between freedom and happiness? Far from being psychological, the mise-en-scène invites the viewer to decipher the unsaid. Justé is certain that the pet dog must not be “put to sleep”. Yet she is pleased not to be pregnant, to her boyfriend’s dismay. The fine photography includes the shot of fish coming to the surface with open mouths: a distant answer to the reproach made by her caller: “You never open up.”  Stubble on the wash-hand basin is the forlorn trace of a male presence in Goda’s place. Justé’s blocked kitchen sink overflows: an objective correlative of things getting to be too much for her.  Here too, we appreciate the interlocking of motifs. Goda finally sees her own body in the mirror, not a photo from her carefree youth, and accepts it. Ironically, the off screen disaster is watched on video by a young crowd enjoying the sun on the roof- top, where guitar-music is being played. But for the individual, peace and reconciliation are reached through catharsis. The mosaic of personal dramas ends in a deluge of cleansing rain. A film for all to appreciate, especially the discerning; a film too about the confusion in people that you yourself might know ?

Eithne O’Neill