Issue 31 (2011)

Otar Iosseliani: Chantrapas (2010)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2011

chantrapasThe Georgian film director Otar Iosseliani, a student of Aleksandr Dovzhenko, has been working in France since the early 1980s. Chantrapas is his first film on a Georgia– and Russia–related topic in almost fifteen years. The film’s title derives from the phrase ‘(ne) chantera pas’ (won’t sing), apparently used in a distant past by the French tutors of privileged Russian children to indicate their tutees’ lack of vocal skills. In Russian, this expression has come to mean ‘good for nothing’.

Set in late Soviet/early post-Soviet times (with many deliberate anachronisms implying the genre of universal parable), Chantrapas tells the story of a young Georgian film director Nicolas (Dato Tarielashvili), who finds himself in conflict with Communist censors and studio executives and, in search of artistic freedom, decides to emigrate to France. There, he promptly discovers that the respect of capitalist film producers for the artist’s right to self-expression is hardly any higher than in the Soviet Union. Nicolas is deemed “good-for-nothing”—an outsider, to be more precise—because his films have no place in a world ruled either by money or by an ideology. In a deus ex machina denouement, Nicolas, while fishing, is snatched away by a mermaid, as if to stress the point that a true artist does not really belong among mere mortals.

chantrapasA master of discovering allegorical fairy tale components in the most mundane circumstances—such as the lives of a migrant worker in Lundi matin (2002), and an ex-politician turning a gardener in Jardins en automne (2006)—Iosseliani surrounds Nicolas with unlikely magic assistants, including a hard-drinking Communist party functionary in charge of the national cinema (Bogdan Stupka), who authorizes Nicolas’s departure to France first, and afterwards, upon becoming an ambassador in France, helps him to improve his standing in that country.

A more traditional support group consists of Nicolas’s family (especially his Granddad and Grandma, played by Givi Sarchimelidze and Nino Tchkheidze), as well as his friends since school. Flashbacks into Nicolas’s childhood are introduced to link his non-conformism as an adult to the irreverent mischief he and his mates indulged in when at school (this included not only underage smoking but also freight hopping and stealing from a priest).

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Nicolas has grown into a rather loveable rogue: even those Communist officials who collegially ban his films in public (under Big Brother’s watchful eye, personified by a secret police lieutenant who observes people’s conversations from a hidden room), shake his hand and express sympathy in private. But how good is Nicolas as a filmmaker? In order not to turn Chantrapas into a boring morality tale about an underappreciated genius, his films are humored too. Scenes from his Soviet motion pictures are mostly devoted to the revolution and the civil war in the Caucasus, while those he made in France seem to be dominated by religious themes and gangster melodramas – and look somewhat clichéd, whatever the subject (unless they are meant to be parodies themselves).

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Coming from a Georgian film school background, with its trademark surreal and absurdist (but usually comical if not farcical) view of reality, Iosseliani likes working with non-professional actors (thus, the philosopher Aleksandr Piatigorskii and the journalist Iurii Rost have been engaged in bit parts), because their natural awkwardness that they can rarely shake off completely, enhances the sensation that something is not quite right in the world as portrayed on the screen.

chantrapasAt the same time, Iosseliani never passes up a chance to revive the career of a great professional of olden times, who could easily add an element of surprise and a spark to the action. For example, the Oscar-winning actor and director Pierre Étaix, who became a filmmaker in the 1950s under the tutelage of Jacques Tati but has not directed for the big screen since at least the 1980s and has not been much in demand as a film actor since 1990, brilliantly plays a delightfully flamboyant French producer in Chantrapas.

Although the visual metaphor of art’s vulnerability to cuts, both financial and editorial (beautiful flowers disappearing under a mechanical plough that is going over a blossoming field) is a quotation from Iosseliani’s student film called Flowers (1959), Chantrapas is only obliquely autobiographical. Iosseliani’s last Soviet feature, Pastorale (1976), had been shelved for six years, which influenced his decision to leave the Soviet Union. Yet he does not seem to have been in any particular trouble with French producers (who rarely enjoy the same level of interference in the process of filmmaking as the one ridiculed in Chantrapas, anyway). In almost thirty years in France, Iosseliani has managed to release eight full length feature films (not to mention shorts and documentaries), most of which won awards at the prestigious film festivals in Venice, Moscow and Berlin.

chantrapasChantrapas reportedly had a budget of four million euros (one of which was donated by the Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia)—a sign that Iosseliani’s art inspires confidence and admiration in some quarters, at least. The film has recently been released in France and will also be distributed in Russia in February 2011. Let us hope that it will do well enough to enable Iosseliani to secure funding for his future projects. He may be approaching eighty and has just received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Malatya International Film Festival in Turkey, but this seems to be no obstacle to his vitality—and, consequently, creativity. It is hardly accidental that his Georgian peers—the characters in Chantrapas—dance, fistfight and keep chasing women.

Andrei Rogatchevski
University of Glasgow

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Chantrapas, France, Georgia, Ukraine, 2010
Color, 122 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Otar Iosseliani
Cinematography: Lionel Cousin and Julie Grünbaum
Art Director: Emmanuel de Chauvigny
Music: Djardji Balantchivadze
Cast: Dato Tarielashvili, Givi Sarchimelidze, Nino Tchkheidze, Bogdan Stupka, Pierre Étaix, Iurii Rost, Aleksandr Piatigorskii
Producers: Martine Marignac, Guka Rcheulishvili, Maurice Tinchant
Production: Pierre Grise Productions, Sota Cinema Group, Sanguko Films

Otar Iosseliani: Chantrapas (2010)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2011

Updated: 12 Jan 11