Tuesday, 10 September 2013

CONCRETE NIGHT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - #TIFF 2013 - Helsinki Hopes. Helsinki Dreams. Helsinki Despair.

#TIFF 2013

Programmed By
Steve Gravestock

Concrete Night
(2013) ****

Dir. Pirjo Honkasalo
Johannes Brotherus,
Jari Virman,
Juhan Ulfsak,
Anneli Karppinen

Review By
Greg Klymkiw

The sins of our fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers before them have a way of swimming about the viscous fluids of creation as aberrant DNA and if the sins of society offer no escape, the cycles of aimlessness, desperation, pain, poverty, and violence keep repeating themselves ad infinitum.

Such is life in Helsinki.

Such is the portrait of despair painted with murkily exquisite monochrome by master Finnish filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo, who last delivered The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, a devastatingly moving 2004 documentary portrait of the effects of the Chechen War upon the children of both Chechnya and Russia. In that documentary, she brought an extremely formal beauty to the proceedings - stunning compositions, gorgeous lighting (though most likely practical lights) and finally an overall sensitivity that indelibly captured the despair of the world by aestheticising it to such a degree that we could not help be plunged into the "3 Rooms" in a way that taking our eyes away from the frame was a near impossibility.

The more traditional documentary approach is a simpler, direct cinema style, but Honkasalo bravely and quite brilliantly made us feel her hand every stretch of the way. Within the context of presenting a drama, Concrete Night seems to allow for even greater stylized approaches to the material - never, in recent memory (save perhaps for that of Ulrich Seidl), has ugliness and despair seemed so beautiful.

Concrete Night is based upon the 1981 novel of the same name by Pirkko Saisio. Honkasalo wrote the screenplay adaptation to update the period to the present, though to be blunt, the movie feels like it's set in some kind of timeless never-never land. Shot in a striking monochrome by cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg, the movie pulses with squalid expressionism and a kind of street poetry that feels like a cross between Charles Bukowski and a skewed Byronic romanticism. This is, of course, exemplified by the film's main character Simo (Johannes Brotherus), a young man who lives in a horrendously cramped apartment with his alcoholic single mother (Anneli Karppinen) and his older brother Ikko (Jari Virman). Simo is plagued by nightmares of suffocation and drowning whilst Ikko and his mother seek the solace of booze. In Finland, it would seem that despair is a family affair - as it should be!

Much of the film takes place over the course of one day and night. Ikko is about to serve a prison term on a drug charge and Simo's duty is to keep a kind of suicide watch over his older brother. Ikko imparts fatherly wisdom upon Simo, though none of it is especially progressive, but rooted in both selfishness and fatalism. As the brothers journey into the heart of a dark Helsinki night, the portent becomes almost unbearable and it's only a matter of time before we're plunged into an explosion of numbing, excruciatingly vicious violence. Most extraordinary of all is how Honkasalo drags us over the hot coals in such a cerebral manner and yet, for every clear touch of her directorial hand, we never feel like we're watching anything less than something raw and real.

Part of this is probably due to Simo's point of view - that of an artistic sensibility that will never have a chance to exploit itself outside of this nasty, brutish world of poverty and dog-eat-dog. The other, is how clearly Honkasalo explores several layers of utter self loathing amongst these characters who all represent differing levels of said hatred. Her mise-en-scène throughout all this is rife with mirror imagery - most of it tied to Simo, but when he chooses to acknowledge his own reflection, his expression is blank - as if he's not even sure what he's supposed to be looking for within himself.

His only hope lies in choosing one of three roads - one of the imagination, another of self-destruction and yet another representing the snuffing out of anything even remotely threatening. So often, though, his expression betrays a void.

We, however, sit watching the film in utter dread - hoping that of all the characters in it, Simo does make the right choice. Life, of course, is never that simple. Then again, neither are great films. Yes, they all begin with a relatively simple framework to allow solid support for the necessary layering, but in the case of Concrete Night, nothing is as it seems. Thankfully, filmmakers like Honkasalo still exist to remind all of us that cinema, as a reflection of life, should never offer an easy way out. Sometimes, for viewers to hold on to what is dear, we need to stumble out of the cinema infused with the horror, the unalterable truth that cycles of violence, poverty and abuse are seldom broken - that in order to break free requires more than personal choice, it demands societal intervention.

And that, is often easier said, than done.

"Concrete Night" is part of the TIFF Masters series at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF #2013). Visit the TIFF website HERE.