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Knut Erik Grorud,
Bleak picture covering two unfortunate souls caught in a world of sleaze and hurt, although eventually coming to test our patients as its core thesis wears thinner.
I'm not sure if Austrian film maker Ulrich Seidl makes the best use of the extended study of duality between two seemingly random; seemingly disconnected European people plodding on through their lives as he might'v done, in this, his 2008 film Import/Export. As characters, his two leads are motivated and ultimately somewhat decent folk, particularly when placed up against those they spend the majority of their time with, but folk we feel are stuck in an inescapable world of sleaze; violence and discomfort. They travel their continent looking for incident and such in order to advance their existences, but are mostly always greeted with pain; frustration; antagonism and failure – happenings and the like which, whilst often carrying with them degrees of smut which we rightfully find uncomfortable, stick it in a break it off for good measure. The film is good value for its early part; Seidl's piece probably about thirty or so minutes too long, and where the equal balance between either strand felt in place for the first hour, such a parity vanishes by the time his heroine has reached that of a hospital and the whole things beds down into a near infuriating drama peppered with content we begin to question the need of.
The film follows that of two people, one male and one female; one of whom is Paul (Hofmann), an athletic young Austrian living in an apartment whose spare room is rife with items such as boxing gloves; gym equipment and military webbing, and whose interest in such things extends to the fact he maintains a job in security at a local shopping mall demanding constant athleticism through its rigorous training regime. Olga (Rak), a young Ukrainian woman, works in her drab in-appearance; colourless; snowy homeland as a nurse in a hospital, but grows frustrated at her low wages which causes her to head west. This is in sync with around about the same time Paul decides to go in the opposite direction, specifically towards Slovakia, for various reasons linked to his failed relationship with a girlfriend and problems in owing money to some unscrupulous people.
Principally, the film is about the apparent duality prominent between these two people; how, in spite of gender, nationality and differing backgrounds of living in the nations of Austria and Ukraine respectively, two people can wade through similar, if not identical, mires purely so as to reach similar denouements. Perhaps if they'd somehow bumped into each other in this wacky, mixed up world, they'd have been able to solve some of one another's problems and got along better in life. Their quests in either direction both begin with that of frank, sexualised encounters; encounters of which are humiliating and rely heavily on that of a distinct element of power instigated certain people within. Olga, with her low-pay frustrations, happens across an Internet peep-show job operating out of a lonely disused building, whose offices and such have been converted into small dens in which the girls in-front of the web cameras do whatever it is customers logged on at the other end tell them to. During a night shift at his mall job, Paul prowls the underground car park area and is apprehended by a group of youths; youths whom consequently strip him and instigate a demeaning session of mock-sadomasochism involving the man's security equipment that he had with him in the form of belt and handcuffs.
In owing money to various people, Paul hulks out to the bleak-looking East of the continent with his stepfather on a job delivering beaten-up video arcade games and sweet machines. Olga's situation, again infused with that of money, sees her continue to earn very little when the peep-show job falls through out of an inability to understand the required languages online. We find ourselves leaning towards Paul's strand as things develop; Olga's bedding down into a hospital ward-set groove in which elderly men living their last weeks begin to find our Olga rather attractive seeing the whole thing descend into a series of sequences shot on static, tripod mounted cameras bringing more attention to the craft of the thing than is required, whilst more often than not reminding us of Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó's rather unpleasant 2005 film Johanna. Paul's begins to become imbued with a sense of antagonism, as he falls foul of some gypsies en route and then with his stepfather when attitudes in regards to women have them clash; the dragging of Paul into his stepfather's attitudes and lifestyle in regards to women eventually leading to awkward and ill-fated altercations forcing Paul into redistributing his priorities.
There is a sense of frankness about proceedings, and I've little doubt Seidl makes the films he wants to make in spite of the cross-cultural settings and international teams behind the project; a sense of frankness evident in the film's title, a cold and inherently cutoff name balancing two opposites with little more than a cut-and-thrust 'slash' carving the two words and forcing them apart from one another. But we find it difficult to get as excited about the film as we would perhaps like; certainly, the film's sexualised content is disgraceful and constructed in an uneroitc fashion – a character's departure from proceedings as things step up a gear later on in a motel room echoes that of our own mind having already exited the scene. Additionally, cries of sexism on Seidl's behalf ought to fall on deaf ears as Paul is unwillingly dragged through a plethora of flimsy Eastern European girls; the man falling foul of his stepfather's hormonal urges around the same time as Olga herself gets caught off-guard by some of those leering aforementioned elderly men doing very little for the masculine cause in this respect. Therein lies the issue, the sense that these people are precisely the same, and yet light-years apart hammering us on the head again; the film is not without merit, but it is without an awful lot of much else.
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