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A young writer called Mati is stalking his ex-wife, while also trying to make unsuccessful passes at other women. Augusti is a barber living a dreary bachelor life who forms a bond with little girl, but his approaches are misconstrued as pedophilia. Laura, a single mom, tears up over sappy soap operas, but refuses real-life advances from clueless men, because her ability to trust has been ruined by her violent drunk of an ex-husband. Maurer, the architect, worries about the wellbeing of humanity, but ignores his own wife Ulvi, who in turn looks for solace in the arms of a coatroom attendant named Theo. Women have always liked Theo, but due to his low social status, they don't take him seriously. All of these people might inhabit identical tower blocks, but they couldn't feel more alienated from each other if they tried. Written by
Considering the close geographical, ethnic and linguistic connections between Estonia and Finland, it is a shame how few Estonian films get proper commercial releases here in Finland. In spite of my limited knowledge about the small country's cinema, I enjoyed director Veiko Õunpuu's first feature film Autumn Ball a lot.
Based on a 1979 novel by Mati Unt but set in present day, the film examines the separate but intertwining lives of several people living in the colossal Soviet era housing units in the Lasnamäe district of Tallinn. Mati (Rain Tolk) is a bohemian writer who has just been left by his wife (Mirtel Pohla), while Maurer (Juhan Ulfsak), a trendy architect, is still together with his girlfriend Ulvi (Tiina Tauraite) despite his growing sense of disillusion with his life and the people around him. Theo (Taavi Eelmaa) works as a doorman and is also completely bored with his job, coping with his frustration by seeking numerous sexual encounters with various women. Laura (Maarja Jakobson) is a single mother of a young daughter Lotta (Iris Persson), who is in turn approached by a middle-aged Finnish barber named Kaski (Sulevi Peltola), upsetting her mother and caretaker.
Life in the suburb appears to be highly forlorn; the methods to escape the banal reality range from getting drunk and having a lot of meaningless sex to just watching television or making seemingly obnoxious but secretly sincere advances to whoever is close. Although the overall mood remains desolate almost all the way throughout, there is plenty of deadpan comedy to be found here and there, such as Mati's unsuccessful attempts of stalking his wife, discreetly buying pornography or talking his way out of getting a parking ticket. The film also avoids judging the characters despite their flaws, particularly Kaski, whose true nature is cutely implied even when he is shown little respect inside the story world. Finnish veteran actor Sulevi Peltola is as good as always in his small role, but the Estonian actors deliver enjoyable performances in their quiet roles too.
Narrowing it all down to just the most common elements shared by all the characters, the film's theme could be said to be loneliness and difficulty of communication. Õunpuu utilizes many visual techniques to emphasize the states of mind of his characters: the sickly greenish glow of the exterior scenes at night and the angular shape of the towering apartment buildings against a cloudy sky look great per se, and the carefully planned mise en scène of the wide static shots of run-down urban landscapes follow the tried and true traditions of art cinema beautifully. A spoken reference to the works of the Swedish director legend Ingmar Bergman also cements Autumn Ball's thematic connection to the continuum of similar efforts by earlier filmmakers. However, the film does not only consist of quiet long takes like many stereotypical art films; Õunpuu moves the camera whenever necessary to follow his characters in their daily (and nightly) wanderings, even getting outright shaky at points.
Even if the director's reluctance to provide neat little conclusions and some story lines receiving more attention than others result in there being a risk of the whole feeling slightly incoherent, it is always pleasant to see this type of visually driven storytelling amidst the talky soap opera style of many less skilled directors. The constantly compelling atmosphere keeps Õunpuu's collection of human fates fascinating from start to end, so Autumn Ball can be unhesitatingly recommended to all admirers of good-looking and tragic but sometimes also hopeful stories.
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