Small-Town Sophistication in "Kolka Cool"

in 22nd Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Alison Frank

Here is the Cottbus Film Festival’s synopsis for ”Kolka Cool”, taken from their web site: ”Kolka, a village close to the Baltic Sea. Simona hesitates in answering Andža’s marriage proposal. Still he’s just hanging around with his fellows and drinks way to much beer. Laconic portrait of modern man’s inability to engage in a meaningful way with society, rejecting values of work and family and capable only of meaningless acts and wasting time.”

Sounds like a bit of a nightmare, doesn’t it? If I’d not been on the jury, I wouldn’t have been too tempted by 90 minutes watching Latvian layabouts. Yet this was the film which most surprised me in the international competition, and was among the most pleasurable to watch. You just know from the instant the film begins that it is going to overturn expectations of the contemporary slacker film. Nothing grotesque or humiliating here: instead we have a quiet film, contemplative enough for the audience to appreciate the beauty in the characters, their conversation and surroundings. True, there is a feeling of a void in the characters’ lives: as though the world ends beyond Kolka’s main road and its white sandy shores. When Andža’s brother Guido comes home on leave from his job at sea, there is no evidence of his life outside: it is as though he was magicked out of existence for a few months, then miraculously reappeared. Where recent American slacker films can create a feeling of frustration in the viewer watching lazy young people needlessly wasting their lives with pointless activities, in Kolka it truly does seem that there is nothing to do. The activities of Kolka’s youth take on the feeling of an existential gesture, as though exploring physical sensation is the only possible way to experience life in this still and silent place.

The most obviously impressive quality of this film is its accomplished aesthetic: the gorgeous black and white photography is a pleasure to behold. The audience can lazily indulge in a sensuous experience of life just as the film’s characters do. Of course, the actual sensations of film are limited to sight and sound: director Juris Poskus’ camera reveals the detail of every leaf on the trees, while the film’s elegant, unobtrusive musical soundtrack leaves room to listen to the ambient noise like the sigh of the wind and the roar of the sea. Yet this audio-visual combination makes you almost feel the grass tickling your legs and the sand slipping between your toes. The camera comes close to the strong cheekboned faces of Andža (Artuss Kaimins) and Simona (Iveta Pole), revealing them complete in all their texture and wistful beauty. Guido (Andris Keiss) and wannabe boxer Pale Face (Varis Pinkis) exude a more muscular, warrior-like beauty, but they are equally marked with melancholy. Keiss played a similar role to Guido as the title character in ”Return of Sergeant Lapins” (dir. Gatis Smits, 2010): Lapins comes back from Afghanistan totally unsuited for civilian life—outwardly he may be a gentle giant, but underneath his sense of logic has left him.

Kolka Cool’s black-and-white photography captures the characters as they smoke their cigarettes artistically, playfully imitate each other’s gestures, and lazily lounge on Kolka’s doorsteps, benches and beaches, in its barns and around its public pool: you could compare it to a Nouvelle Vague film transplanted to contemporary Latvia, with Kaimins as the new Belmondo. Yet the atmosphere of this film does more than replicate an old iconoclastic model: its atmosphere is of a different quality, as described above: the emptiness of the countryside’s eternal, uneventful silence, combined with the subtly charged expectancy of characters searching for something to do.

Dialogue takes on a poetic, almost incantatory quality in this film, as though in discussing things they could do, the characters are already doing something. Talking sometimes entirely replaces doing—one notable example being Andža and Simona’s wedding. Even if you don’t understand Latvian, you notice the same word being repeated in the conversation: this repetition draws attention to the word just as the camera draws attention to the texture of the natural environment. Talking becomes an end in itself for these characters, just as experiencing their surroundings replaces more active forms of existence (working, creating, procreating, etc). Those times where the film is lacking in substance are precisely the moments where dialogue becomes too sparse. Dialogue is crucial to the film’s narrative interest, revealing that it is about more than the boredom of provincial life. The film’s major theme is the relationship between the sexes, and the verbal exchanges on the subject frequently make the audience laugh out loud. Male and female, though they can be physically close, have a total psychological disconnect. It seems that in Kolka, this situation isn’t going to change anytime soon: in the meantime, masculine and feminine characters circle each other like cats, lazily most of the time, but with aggression simmering below the surface.

Alison Frank