Issue 51 (2016)

Otar Iosseliani: Winter Song (Chant d'Hiver, 2015)

reviewed by John A. Riley© 2016

Everything about Chantrapas (2013) seemed to hint that it would be Georgian émigré director Otar Iosseliani’s final work. Dealing with a director whose work is censured by bureaucrats and who leaves his home country in search of artistic freedom, the film had the character of an autobiography, an elegy and a valedictory. Iosseliani returns though, with another characteristically whimsical film that, like the rollerblading Orthodox monks of his Gardens in Autumn (Jardins en Automne, 2006), seems to gambol along according to a rhythm and pace all of its own.

Iosseliani spent the 1960s working for Gruzia-Film, where he made idiosyncratic yet unmistakably Georgian films with (what is frequently described as) a Francophile influence: the offbeat humor of Jacques Tati and the ascetic simplicity of Robert Bresson are frequent touchstones for those trying to describe Iosseliani's unique approach to filmmaking. Problems with the Soviet authorities ensued, and after Pastorale (1975) there was a hiatus for several years before Iosseliani re-emerged in France. Since then he has pursued his idiosyncratic vision uncompromisingly. His Georgian films already evinced a nostalgia for a belle époque of mythic proportions; literature, fine wine and beautiful music as a bulwark against the quotidian, the contingent and the iniquitous. Encroaching age and distance from his home country  have given this longing the patina of melancholy.

winter songThere are three distinct spatio-temporal sections in Winter Song. First, a brief prologue in France, at the time of the revolution. An aristocrat is guillotined, nonchalantly still smoking his pipe, before a baying, knitting crowd. The action then shifts to a recognizably Georgian landscape, where soldiers in combat fatigues torch, loot and destroy a local village, taking anything of value, raping women and (bathetically) helping themselves to the food on kitchen table. It's obvious Iosseliani views war as a black farce as soldiers are gunned down with exaggerated parodic movements in a pantomime free of the exhilaration of conventional battle scenes, and a tank trundles across a battlefield laden with spoils of war including an old rug and a disconnected toilet.  Most tellingly, a priest baptizes soldiers in a river before walking into a nearby tent and disrobing, revealing a tattooed midriff which he then covers with combat fatigues. His transformation from priest to soldier complete, he joins the rest of the troops in a belt of vodka from a jerry can.

winter songNext, we arrive in Paris in the present day, where the bulk of the film takes place. Once we arrive, we are in recognizably late-period Iosseliani territory. The chaos of war is gone, but other, subtler kinds of chaos are present. A young Georgian couple briefly glimpsed during the previous section arrive in Paris, suitcases in their hands. This young man and woman aren't the main characters though, as anyone schooled in Iosseliani’s distinctively digressive narratives will have already guessed. Instead, the film moves back and forth between a cast of eccentrics who congregate in and around the courtyard of a Paris apartment building; a former aristocrat and current concierge who deals arms in exchange for antique books; a bullish police chief, a group of roller-skating young women who steal the hats of passers-by, a homeless man building his own shelter (the always intriguing Mathieu Amalric) and many more.

The courtyard, overlooked by apartments, is characteristic Iosseliani. In his three-part documentary series Alone, Georgia (Seule Georgie, 1995) he explains that old Tbilisi was structured around just such an interior courtyard until Soviet architects bulldozed the old courtyard system and placed the balconies on the outside of buildings rather than the inside, beautifying the city but wiping out the old community's way of life in the process.

The film has a labyrinthine, rhizomatic structure that invites multiple viewings; a structure that originated in the detailed back stories which Iosseliani writes but which are only hinted at on the surface of the film. Iosseliani implies that his method is akin to Georgian polyphonic singing (Pinkerton, 2015). This rich tradition, where voices intertwine to produce an arresting concinnous whole, was the subject of Georgian Ancient Songs (Dzveli Qartuli Simgera, 1969) a short documentary by Iosseliani. In his films, if you see an aristocrat beheaded during the eighteenth century, it's not unreasonable to expect his skull to appear later in the film, in a dusty apartment in twenty-first century Paris.

winter songIn the film's most irreverent moment, a staggering drunkard is crushed by a steamroller, leaving a two-dimensional body behind, as might happen in a Warner Brothers cartoon. His friends pick up his flattened body and try to slide it under a doorway. The film never approaches this level of overt rubber reality again, but there is another studied yet cartoonish trope: a Narnia-like magic door that appears occasionally, affording passing Parisians a glimpse of a fecund and serene garden in the midst of the modern city. Within the context of the film these moments may seem jarring, however they are of a piece with Iosseliani’s previous films. Chantrapas featured occasional glimpses of a mermaid in a lake, while Gardens in Autumn featured Michel Piccoli in a pantomime dame-like performance as an elderly matriarch. Chantrapas's title is a corruption of the French phrase ne chantera pas meaning unable to sing. Iosseliani evidently likes to include atonal moments when the harmony becomes too mellifluous, to disrupt the serenity of leather bound books and virtuoso piano music with the irreverence of a roller-skater.
In addition to the whimsy and the irreverence, the cruelty and violence of the film's first two sections is hinted at to varying degrees later in the film. The eccentric concierge is, after all, a weapons dealer. Further, the ramshackle community of homeless people out in the woods (to which Amalric’s character belongs) are rounded up by an indifferent police force as the camera looks on dispassionately. Whether the films lasting image is of a shanty town in the woods being broken apart, a pancake-flat corpse being slid under a doorway, or a magic door leading to a serene garden, is up to the individual viewer, as the film seems equivocal on this point.

Iosseliani perfected his craft early on in his career—despite the move from Soviet Georgia to France, his films’ style, look and sensibility have remained largely unchanged by technological advances or critical fashions. This continuity means that there are few, if any, surprises in store for the seasoned Iosseliani enthusiast. Winter Song, however, is a chance to see a director working with complete confidence, in complete disregard for current fashions and preoccupations, at the peak of his powers. 

John A. Riley
Woosong University

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Works Cited

Pinkerton, Nick. 2015. “Locarno Interview: Otar Iosseliani”. Film Comment. 19 August

Winter Song/Chant d'Hiver, France and Georgia, 2015
Color, 117 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Otar Iosseliani
Cinematography: Julie Grünbaum
Cast: Rufus, Amiran Amiranashvili, Pierre Etaix, Mathieu Amalric
Producers: Martine Marignac, Otar Iosseliani
Production Company: Pastorale Productions

Otar Iosseliani: Winter Song (Chant d'Hiver, 2015)

reviewed by John A. Riley© 2016

Updated: 04 Jan 16