Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Father and Son

Sokurov, Pere et Fils


(Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia, 2003)
Original title : Otets i syn
Duration : 83 mins (original version reportedly runs 97 mins)
World premiere : May 23rd, 2003 at the Cannes Film Festival (competing)
Jigsaw Lounge rating : 4/10

Sometimes you burst out of a film just longing to communicate your feelings about it to the first person you meet. Usually this is to urge them too to share the great experience you 've just had. Just occasionally it 's quite the opposite  €“ you feel it your bounden duty to prowl by the ticket office like the ancient mariner, fixing folk with your glittering eye, grasping them with your skinny hand, and telling them not to waste an hour and a half of their lives in the fruitless pursuit of satisfaction from a dud. Unfortunately my impulses after sitting through Father and Son were of the latter kind.

Over the credits the film begins with gasping, groaning sounds that in the dark one can only interpret as erotic, then we see close-up fragments of arms and bodies and caressing hands. As the picture takes shape, we realise that it is Father (Andrei Schetini) comforting Son (Aleksei Neymyshev) after a nightmare. These shots, and others (and there are many) of naked male flesh, have been likened to Caravaggio by one critic  €“ but Caravaggio painted flesh luminous and tactile  €“ here a bleary, or maybe beery, beige wash overlays everything, and continues to do so throughout the film  €“ an arch blurring of meaning and images which is obviously (too obviously) meant to lend romantic mystery and melancholy to the proceedings.

In this motherless household, Father and Son 's relationship is enigmatically presented as part erotic, part uncomprehending, part resentful.   When speaking to each other they glide around like dancers, scarcely making eye contact, never finishing sentences. When eye contact is made, it becomes intense and holds for minutes. The problem is, the enigma never gets anywhere near being resolved. The relationship neither resembles nor illuminates any father/son relationship that I know. And it 's not helped by ponderous but empty pronouncements like (Father to Son)  'A father 's love crucifies; a loving son lets himself be crucified. '  'I don 't know the meaning of that ' replies Son, to which one 's inner voice replies,  'so it 's not just me €¦ ' At one point, after considerable waltzing around in this enigmatic way, Son remarks  'I feel bad! ' Don 't we all, mate, came the unspoken response from the audience.

We are let out of the claustrophobic home on occasion  €“ onto the roof, where Father, with his increasingly manic Val Kilmer smile, applies himself with relish to his body building, (even barefoot in the snow); to the barracks, (extremely beige!); and a brief sortie into the street and onto a tram, where the camera lovingly lingers on the glowing brass controls (Go forward! Backward! Brake! Uncouple! €¦ ah what symbolism there €¦). The rather intriguing city in which these scenes take place is allegedly Lisbon, although the film is clearly set in both narrative and spirit in Russia, so quite what the significance of this injection of slightly southern European ambience can be eludes me too. Otherwise  'Russian soul ' is the order of the day. The background music, sometimes heard emanating from a radio in the flat, is  'themes based on Tchaikovsky ', by  'sound designer ' Sergei Moshkov, and Sokorov after all prides himself so much on being Russian, and deeply imbued with all the melancholy that that entails

Unfortunately writer Serge Potepolov has also joined in the communal imponderability. When a subplot arrives involving the son of an ex-army colleague of Father 's who comes looking for news of his disappeared dad, I could make neither head nor tail of it, apart from the fact that it involved a helicopter coming down and some kind of vengeful intentions. But the characters soon seem to forget about it too, so that 's all right. The fact that it 's another little exercise in father-and-son-ness seems to be all it 's required for. There 's also a neighbour who acts as an irritant (he plays the wrong kind of music) and initiates some puppyish skirmishing on the plank that leads over the vertiginous height between their attic windows, usefully setting the scene for a test of bravado between the two  'Son ' figures later.

Some of the  'beautiful and mysterious ' shots just irritated me profoundly  €“ one is scarcely allowed to LOOK at anything fully or properly. An early example is a scene at Son 's barracks, where his girlfriend turns up to speak to him through a window. All we see of their meaningless conversation are wheeling shots of images of their faces constantly broken up by window frames – OK, metaphor understood, but what 's really going on? It all feels like we 're being led on by fancy trimming around a something that doesn 't really exist  €“ or if it does, the director 's not telling us about it. In the end we 're no further forward, as they say where I come from, and exasperation is complete with a final hug-in session on the roof between Father, Son and Neighbour  €“ tears all round. Why?

I don 't like to diss a film that so many august reviewers have drooled over (winner of the Critics ' Prize at Cannes* last year, no less!) and one that clearly has been made with much feeling and intent. But being beautiful (as it undoubtedly is on occasion) and mysterious is not enough, especially if one doesn 't bring any insights or even raise any questions about the purported subject of the film. It just won 't do. As the credits streamed up the screen, I felt frustrated, bamboozled, adrift in a big beautiful beige bubble of nothing.

September 30th, 2004
seen at The Other Cinema, Soho

* FIPRESCI award citation : “For brilliant images and the director’s original way of depicting the powerful bond that unites a father and a son.”