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The one joy in the lives of a mother and daughter comes from the regular letters sent to them from Paris from the family's adored son, Otar. When the daughter finds out that Otar has died suddenly, she tries to conceal the truth from her mother, changing the course of their lives forever.Written by
Sujit R. Varma
Some kind of masterpiece: viewers of all ages and genders will be swept off their feet
Three women -- a grandmother, a middle-aged daughter, and a university-student granddaughter, live together, male-less, in Tblisi amid post-Soviet economic collapse. An occasional hard-currency bill shows up in letters from a beloved son/brother/uncle, who has qualified as a physician but is working as a clandestine laborer in Paris. The women snap at each other, manipulate one another, and confront life as best they can, each from her own perspective and unique experience. There is a large apartment filled with treasured bibelots and French books, and the suggestion of a more respectable, Tchekovianly Francophile pre-revolutionary past.
An image, among many arresting ones in the film: during a thunderstorm the power has gone out, as it frequently does in crumbling Georgia along with the water and the gas, and the apartment is lighted by candles, allowing the granddaughter to study and to be bathed in a kind of De La Tour luminescence. Then the storm ends, the power comes on, and the magic effect yields to harsh electric whiteness. The three generations peel off electronically: mother tunes in local radio to Georgian pop, grandmother turns on the black-and-white TV to watch a comfortingly boring Soviet-style newscast on a new dam (for her, order has gone and all is lost), granddaughter pops a rock cassette into her player and continues to study in a room suddenly flooded with a light in which everything seems more banal, including herself. Great stuff.
The dramatic anchor of the film is an extraordinary performance from the ninety-year-old Esther Gorontin. This is anything but a sweet old lady: she is misanthropic, querulous, petulant and willful, and when she and her daughter are not spitting and spatting, she immures herself in self-satisfied nostalgia, muttering in Russian (never Georgian) that things were better under Stalin. The beloved son is yearned for, spoken of and asked about compulsively, something that is ostensibly treated by her daughter as a tolerable quirk of age, to be humored -- but you can tell it hurts. Stalin and Soviet order are long gone, and son Otar's absence (which is far greater than she is supposed to realize) has left the other huge void in her life. The family's Francophilia allows Otar's experiences in Paris (which are shown to have in reality been quite miserable) to be lived via a romanticized vicariousness that is fed by each letter, always in stiff, old-fashioned French.
Language is an issue, both for Georgia and for the cast, since only the striking, Jeanne-Moreauesque Nino Khomasuridze, who plays the mother, is a native Georgian and speaks the language. Gorontin is Polish, but speaks French and Russian, as does the granddaughter Dinara Drukarova, who is faultless as a bright young woman who keeps much inside and, as the absent Otar puts it in a letter, "rounds out the angles" in the family until, as young people do, she suddenly explodes at her mother with all her long-repressed, Hamletian resentment and spite (and, as young people do, does this at the worst possible emotional moment). Drukarova learned some Georgian for the occasion, but Gorontin understandably refused to do so. Writing and managing the script must have been nightmarish, but the way in which the characters switch from Russian to Georgian and back depending on context and interlocutor seems entirely realistic for post-Soviet Georgia, and the use of French as a language of refuge and a bastion of dignity is in this context completely plausible.
The film will no doubt hold special resonance for woman viewers -- the depiction of a universe from which men are kept at a distance, and of the bitter joys of aging and of inter-generational love and tension is all done with heartbreaking accuracy. But Julie Bertucelli's first film is, with a lot of help from the tremendous Gorontin, some kind of masterpiece and should sweep viewers of all genders and generations off their feet.
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