Parisian by way of Soviet Georgia, director Otar Iosseliani, whose new film Winter Song premiered this past week at the Film Society of the Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, is what one might refer to as a citizen of the world. Admittedly, this designation is a bit broad and bright-eyed for an artist who traffics so thoroughly in the specific and minor key. Although his work can be difficult to describe, much less categorize, the bygone authorities of the filmmaker’s Marxist-Leninist homeland did manage to coin a number of useful aesthetic terms with some bearing on Iosseliani’s practice: “formalism,” “rootless cosmopolitanism,” and the ever-evocative “parasitism.” No matter that these labels were intended only to denigrate; for all his irreverence, Iosseliani has been laboring for decades to earn them with a seriousness of purpose bordering on the pious.
Iosseliani (b. 1934) studied both music and math before entering Moscow’s VGIK, the USSR’s primary film school. By the time he graduated in 1965, Khruschev’s thaw was in full swing, and a young Soviet artist could look forward to a more open and vital socialist culture. Iosseliani instantly proved himself as an uncommonly astute chronicler of everyday life, drawing from the comic rhythms of his native Georgia to great effect in such films as There Once Was a Singing Blackbird (1972) and Pastorale (1975). Alas, the thaw was to freeze back over, and the intractable Iosselliani would emigrate to France rather than continue attempting to push his luck with the Moscow censors.
In France, Iosseliani reinvented himself with his international breakthrough Favorites of the Moon (1984). Augmenting the naturalism of his early work with a slapstick absurdism pitched somewhere between the worlds of Luis Bunuel and Wile E. Coyote, the Georgian populated the City of Light with an assortment of layabouts, vagabonds, and ne’er-do-wells, concentrating their personal storylines into elegant vignettes that he wove into a larger network of intersections and juxtapositions. And so was born Iosseliani’s mature style, the vision of neither bewildered tourist nor native son, sympathetic yet supremely ironized, untroubled by an obligation to get to anyplace in particular, but always on the move.
Winter Song finds the now octogenarian director working again in this vein, wasting no time before showing off his gift for imbuing stand-alone visual gags with a certain philosophic eloquence. A prelude set in Paris’s revolutionary days depicts the execution of a treasonous aristocrat, dividing Iosseliani’s bemused affection between the bawdy, gawking throng and the condemned man, who refuses to part with his pipe. The guillotine drops, and the man’s head is lifted — pipe in mouth — for the crowd to see, preserving a sort of civility even in death. A few minutes later, the action has shifted to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, where the Orthodox chaplain of a particularly rapacious and kleptomaniacal Russian unit changes from his religious costume to his military one, briefly revealing his mob tattoos.
After these temporal and geographic digressions, the film settles down in contemporary Paris. Loosely held together by the friendship between two older men (French veteran Rufus and fellow Georgian Amiran Amiranashvili), the film’s manifold threads involve an aristocrat in default, bickering couples, the black market exchange of weapons for rare books, escaped livestock, an instance of voodoo, and the wooing of a woman through feigned contempt for Ludwig van Beethoven. Iosseliani dispenses with any overt narrative signposts, leaving it to the viewer to figure out the action for themselves (I will admit that it took me some time to reliably tell apart the various older men, each of whom boasts facial scruff of varying length). To this end, the camera maintains enough distance from the characters to clearly show them moving within the landscape, sometimes gently gliding between one line of action and another, or reframing to punctuate a joke.
These streetwise balletic set pieces have earned Iosseliani comparisons to Buster Keaton and legendary French actor-director Jacques Tati, who reimagined slapstick as a kind of high modernist formal gamesmanship. The recurring madcap crime sprees of a team of petty thieves led by a pair of girls on roller skates demonstrate the director’s capacity for harmonizing performer and camera movement, resembling a low-key variant on the delicately rendered scenes in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), in which the titular protagonist plies his trade. Winter Song even features French physical comedian Pierre Etaix, who lent his agile hands to Bresson’s masterwork.
Yet while Tati and Keaton privileged unbroken takes that showcased their athletic brilliance, Iosseliani’s preference for misdirection and insinuation place him more in the lineage of German-Jewish émigré Ernst Lubitsch. In such cutting, subversive comedies as Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933), Lubitsch dreamt up his own embodiment of the French capital on the Paramount sound stages, later confessing a preference for “Paris, Paramount” over “Paris, France.” Despite working on the streets of the actual city, Iosseliani’s Paris is no less his own creation, teeming with a society that’s a reflection more of the filmmaker’s convictions and fantasies than mere reality. Like Lubitsch, Iosseliani works under a peculiar idea of civilization, refusing to distinguish between aristocrats, thieves, and tramps so long as they maintain a certain endearing — if faintly ridiculous — noblesse oblige. These comic heroes are opposed by a similarly composite class of goon, exemplified by the priest-soldier-criminal or one character who carries himself like a banker, lives like a crime boss, and works as a cop. Though his satire remains untethered to any specific doctrine, Iosseliani seems to gravitate towards a sort of conservative-minded anarchism, throwing his support behind characters who insolently insist on enjoying life, regardless of what circumstance and society demand of them.
For all its undeniable comic verve, though, Winter Song packs a melancholic punch worthy of its title. Shot through with gray winter light, its visual palette is unmistakably bleak, all bare branches and chilly urban blocks. A director uncommonly sensitive to streetscapes and parks, Iosseliani’s dismay with increased policing and privatization of public space is palpable, as he films conflict between the indigent and the authorities with uncommon frankness while also indulging reveries about the possibility of escape — into a handmade home of one’s own or, in the film’s most surreal sequences, through an elysian courtyard replete with nymph and stork. By the time the comic conclusion comes around, it feels like a warm respite after the harsh weather of an active winter’s day. Winter Song isn’t a departure — one could imagine Iosseliani’s later work being cut together into a single sprawling movie — but any opportunity to return to Iosseliani’s singular world is a rare delight. It’s well worth visiting.
Otar Iosseliani’s Winter Song premiered at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (10 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan) on March 11.
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