Veiko Õunpuu: The Temptations of St. Tony (Püha Tõnu kiusamine, 2009)
reviewed by Margit Tõnson © 2010
Bodhisattva of Compassion is doomed to fail
“Art is born out of an ill-designed world,” maintains Andrei Tarkovskii in A Poet of the Cinema, a documentary by Donatella Baglivo (1984). Although regarding himself an agnostic, Tarkovskii never ceased to declare that the ultimate objective of human existence is the broadening of one’s mind and spiritual development. True art was born in Stalker, The Mirror, Andrei Rublev etc. Witnessing with sorrow the increasing commercialization of the film world, Tarkovsky found poetic solace in the works of Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and Robert Bresson. He was convinced that of those directors, Bresson had managed to reach a perfect ascetic simplicity of cinematic expression.
In his book Transcendental Style in Film (1972), which is an elaborated version of his undergraduate thesis, Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, 1976) connects the approaches of Robert Bresson, Yasujirō Ozu and Carl Dreyer with a common denominator of “transcendence”:
Transcendental style chooses irrationalism over rationalism, repetition over variation, sacred over profane, the deific over the humanistic, intellectual realism over optical realism, two-dimensional vision over three-dimensional vision, tradition over experiment, anonymity over individualization. (Schrader, 1972)
Even though this description is far too vague and imprecise to be considered a proper definition, it still provides the spectator with some interpretative tools. Yet, what is all this namedropping about? What has it to do with Veiko Õunpuu, a self-taught Estonian filmmaker, who, after the international success of his Autumn Ball, adorned with Venice’s “Orizzonti” Prize in 2007, has been unofficially declared the leading figure of the Estonian “new wave”? Indeed, it is solely on his account that Estonian film has again caught the attention of programming committees of major international festivals.
The aforementioned filmmakers (as well as many others) have undoubtedly served as inspiring sources of grammar and vocabulary for Õunpuu’s unique cinematic language, which becomes more and more meditative, and thus uncompromising, with every consecutive film. In the numerous interviews accompanying his success story, Õunpuu has readily admitted that in Autumn Ball, his second film and first feature-length production, he attempted to appeal to the tastes of too many people, to address broader audiences, feeling the burden of responsibility—as Estonian film industry is largely supported by state funds from taxpayers’ money. Moreover, Õunpuu regards Autumn Ball as too sentimental and beautiful—a mistake now amended in The Temptations of St. Tony, which testifies to an aesthetic closer to its director’s heart.
The film’s title refers explicitly to Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a story in which the strength of mind of Saint Anthony of the Desert is put to an endless test; only in Õunpuu’s film the temptations emerge from the contemporary world, rather than from the supernatural realm. In addition, it is noteworthy that while Saint Anthony is seduced to committing a sin, Tony’s downswing is, on the contrary, brought about by his philanthropic inclinations.
We see the “last men” (an obvious reference to Nietzsche’s concept of “der letzte Mensch” from his Thus Spoke Zarathustra) of a world where God is no more and people can become gods of their own by efficiently and ruthlessly enforcing their will to power. The categories of good and evil have been surpassed, for everything profitable is also regarded as moral. Compassion, on the other hand, is a capital condemned to yielding a loss, or, as Nietzsche put it in The Antichrist, compassion is in discordance with those feelings that lead to the celebration of life, for it attempts to maintain what is destined to perish.
In 2008, Õunpuu earned the European Talent Award in Cannes for the screenplay of The Temptations of St. Tony. The finished film, although significantly different from the initial proposal, has nevertheless retained its essential, globally comprehensible point that capitalism feasts upon human flesh and that Darwin was right about the stronger surviving and the weaker being gorged.
The first glove is flung down during the funeral of Tõnu’s (Taavi Eelmaa) father—a man with a smashed head (Juhan Ulfsak) demands the right to sit, even if for a brief moment, in Tõnu’s luxurious car, with white leather upholstery and a 6.0 liter engine that signify the true earthly paradise for the fellow, sobbing then that Tõnu is a good person after all. Tõnu, whose face initially bears no trace of emotion—his icy passivity is even somewhat repulsive—drives back to the city, accidentally killing a black dog on the way, as his attention is drawn away from the road by a smudge on the white upholstery. Dragging its lifeless corpse into the woods, he stumbles upon a mass of disjointed human hands… But recounting the plot does not make much sense; the film sets an appropriate atmosphere by the means of a motto borrowed from Dante’s The Divine Comedy—Inferno:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Tõnu’s father had been a humble man, as suggested by the expressions on the people’s faces around the table of the funeral wake. Tõnu himself, however, with his ostentatious functionalist villa erected in the middle of a field, without a single road approaching it (even though house and car are considered two quintessential attributes of human existence), is a typical example of a successful, self-made, middle-aged mid-level manager whose coronary arteries are threatened by calcification due to rich nourishment and abundant consumption of high-quality wines, yet whose life is otherwise quite carefree. That is, until the accident, upon which Tõnu’s hitherto perfectly functioning nihilistic attitude is slowly undermined by a sense of guilt. Having thus far stuffed his pension funds with investments in the manner of an emotionless zombie, Tõnu suddenly realizes with astonishment that all of this comes at somebody else’s expense. That he literally builds his future on the foundation of corpses. Astray and confused, Tõnu embarks on a journey—both imaginary and real—in search of the lost track, fantasizing about redemption and dreaming about salvation, but all in vain. Similarly to Faust, who intended to save an innocent virgin, Tõnu, too, ends up violating Nadezhda (Ravshana Kurkova), the daughter of a blue-collar worker, who becomes yet another building brick in the understructure of his bright future. Õunpuu thus reaffirms Lars von Trier’s assertion that well-meaning people are dangerous. Bodhhisatva of Compassion is doomed to fail.
In the same way as no economist is capable of offering a viable alternative to capitalism and as no sociologist has been able to find a better system of government than democracy, neither is Õunpuu’s film a lighthouse for lost souls.
In order to characterize the film’s style, let me quote Ozu, who was annoyed by pictures with obvious plots: “Naturally, a film must have some kind of structure or else it is not a film, but I feel that a picture isn’t good if it has too much drama or too much action” (Anderson and Richie, 1982: 300). Ozu, like Bresson, whose perfect simplicity of expression serves as a source of inspiration for Õunpuu, is a true master of “not showing”—the act itself remains hidden from the audience (elliptical editing). For example, Tõnu and Nadezhda leave a club called Das Goldene Zeitalter and in the next scene we see Tõnu smoking on a window—the culmination has been omitted. Or, Tõnu is assigned a task to shut down an inefficient factory and lay off hundreds of workers—and the next scene shows morose men exiting the plant’s gates! In Õunpuu’s toolbox there’s no room for emotional engagement achieved according to the fixed rules that have evolved over a hundred years of film history.
And neither are the characters motivated in a traditional sense, which is based on the premise that they have to have good reasons for their actions—a murderer without a motive does not fit into the conventional narrative framework. In Bresson’s, Ozu’s and Õunpuu’s work, however, this is a rule regularly ignored and comparable gaps dominate the structure of individuals. For instance, Tõnu runs, but no explanation is given why, where to and from who he runs. As one of my colleagues said after the screening, “I don’t understand what Tõnu’s problem is.” This vacuum is left for the spectators to fill, and it is precisely for this reason that St. Tony looks like a promising treat for semioticians and cinephiles.
Interestingly enough, the lack of characters’ inner logic has been considered a pathological weakness of Estonian cinema. And now Õunpuu is suddenly determined to turn it into a strength. Believe me when I say—this will not entail any popularity measurable in money. Incidentally, this is not Õunpuu’s objective, either; in an interview to a local newspaper he was asked if he regards filmmaking as disagreeable, and he responded: “Not if we talk about filmmaking as an artistic activity. But yes, if we take into account all the vanity and bullshit surrounding it. A lot of money is at stake, and apparently the power to herd a whole flock of people, too… and fame. All of this attracts some pretty nasty folks. Filmmaking is a big business and in general business irritates me. I don’t have any commercial pretensions.”
In October 2009, The Temptation of St. Tony opened in the multiplex cinema at the newly built Solaris Cultural Centre in Tallinn—a project initiated in the flourishing days of the economic boom and completed in a situation where business is conducted in “horror-film-like” conditions. In 2010 the centre is designated to serve as venue for the annual European Film Awards Ceremony.
Õunpuu’s auteur work doubtlessly lacks the qualities of a box-office hit, and most likely it will also be a disappointment for the fans of Autumn Ball. Yet the metaphor of cannibalistic capitalism is universally comprehensible all over the world as the pressing need for change seeks appropriate forms of expression in all countries impaired by the financial crisis. And this allows us to presume that the fate of St. Tony is similar to Béla Tarr’s works: they don’t reach wide audiences in a matter of months, but over a period of several decades. Katrin Kissa, the film’s producer, would be entirely satisfied with this sort of perspective.
Translated by Eva Näripea
Margit Tõnson, Eesti Ekspress
Anderson, J. L. and Richie, D. (1982), The Japanese film: Art and industry, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Schrader, P. (1972), Transcendental style in film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, New York: Da Capo Press.
Püha Tõnu kiusamine, Estonia, 2009
Black and white, 110 min.
Director: Veiko Õunpuu
Script: Veiko Õunpuu
Music: Ülo Krigul
Director of Photography: Mart Taniel
Production Designers: Helen Ehandi (costumes), Aldo Järvsoo (special costume designer) and Jaanus Orgusaar
Editing: Thomas Lagerman and Veiko Õunpuu
Cast: Taavi Eelmaa, Ravshana Kurkova, Tiina Tauraite, Sten Ljunggren, Denis Lavant, Hendrik Toompere Jr., Katariina Lauk, Harri Kõrvits, Taavi Teplenkov, Marika Barabanstsikova, Rain Tolk, Liis Lepik, Valeri Fjodorov, Evald Aavik, Tarmo Mitt, Raivo E. Tamm, Juhan Ulfsak, Moeno Wakamatsu, Tõnu Tepandi, Peeter Volkonski, Andres Puustusmaa, Alar Sudak, Kristjan Mändmaa, Jaak Müürsepp, Markku Pätilä, Voldemar Kendra, Hannes Kaljujärv
Producers: Kristina Åberg, Jesse Fryckman, Tero Kaukomaa and Katrin Kissa
Production: Homeless Bob Production (Estonia), Atmo Media Network (Sweden), and Bronson Club (FInland).
Veiko Õunpuu: The Temptations of St. Tony (Püha Tõnu kiusamine, 2009)
reviewed by Margit Tõnson © 2010