Friday, February 15, 2013
A candlelit cottage. It could be today or five hundred years ago. A bald man in a formless coat is stabbing a man to death on the floor. Another much younger man comes in and watches in horror. Fade to black.
A meeting at a campsite between the two men we've just seen and a group of military looking Russians. The younger man from the previous scene is a cartographer. After decades of warfare Russia and Sweden have called a truce and it's time to draw a new border. Everywhere. Where they are is a huge silvery swamp where it seems that no human has ever lived. The line needs drawing. Off they go.
The swamp seems like a life-free intensification of the wasteland around it and as the party moves through it they seem to be retreating irrevocably from the world beyond it, the one they soldiered in, the one they were born into. And at the centre of the swamp there is a building set into a dirty pond. The construction is almost featureless, a large white concrete box, but for a lightless doorway with a flash of what looks like fire damage extending from one of its corners. And then, really only a few metres from this unsettling thing there is a village peopled but for one member by folk over fifty years old. I said almost: the sole person under middle age is a child of around ten, a boy who is curious to learn about the newcomers. A tour of a kind of hospital area reveals a number of people at such an advanced state of living decay it is a wonder that they still live. And then comes the real creeper: they are afraid to live, a guide explains, and afraid to die.
I'll stop with the plot details here as I'm approaching spoiler territory but I thought it was necessary to include this build up because one of this film's strengths is its atmosphere. As I've said heaps o' times on this blog give me atmosphere and you can keep your plot. Sauna is all Stalker and Satantango, the world it lives in feels like it was grown within it, its colours paid for by the pixel. Once in there we exist there. I'm happy.
"So, does that mean there's only atmosphere, that I, Lady Mondegreen of forty-one Thuglett Avenue Dorchamstogue, must endure style o'er substance?" I hear you ask. Well, this is where it gets interesting. I invoked the feel of some glacial cinema above, the work of cinemasters whose films do not resemble anything but their own imitators (as in this film, in fact), who build their own worlds. Now add to this a more conventional sense of narrative motive and flow and you have Sauna. Continuing the fun but ultimately unhelpful strain of comparison you could get away with saying that this is the film John Carpenter might have made after seeing Stalker. And in a way wholly distinct from the compacted vehicle Stephen Soderberg made of Solaris. Sauna feels like Andrei Rublev but plays like Prince of Darkness.
This is not a perfect system, though, much as I'd like it to be. Some of the pacing of this already sub-ninety minute feature is not high Tarkovsky but low Carpenter. These slumps are small and very few but they are noticeable and can lessen the power of crucial scenes and that all important atmosphere.
And then there's the score. The music here begins with a kind of icy string section turning the temperature down. This all too soon degenerates into a by-the-numbers strings = emotion vat of treacle. As I was thinking of Tarkovsky when I saw it I remembered how unsettling, eerie and quietly powerful was his use of Scandinavian folk song appearing in the audio distance. There is an extraordinary scene early on involving a figure in a landscape which carries a great thematic and narrative weight which would have gone through me like x-rays had it not been for those first violins sawing away. In this layered cinema presentation age, couldn't we have an option to ditch the score? Well, we can and should. I'd dislike The Road a lot less and might be among its fans if I could click off that overblown orchestral blag telling me how I should be emoting. Anyway...
Sauna plays out with a satisfying darkness that doesn't let its strong beginnings down in the slightest. It is derivative from the roots upward but uses rather than merely displays its influences, finding its own voice and colour as it weaves. I love films that defy easy categorisation. Suicide Circle, Hierro, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Juliet of the Spirits, Werckmeister Harmonies and so wider and so wider .... All of these (and there are so many more) only need stumble upon some path fresh or antique and overgrown to find something enticing to bring back. Sauna, hampered though it is by the stasis between two contrary traditions, has at least caught sight of such a path.
PS - seen on DVD as no local release outside of MIFF 2009.