Sügisball [Autumn Ball] is the first feature film of Estonian filmmaker Veiko Õunpuu. He wrote the screenplay based on Mati Unt’s novel and directed the film. Autumn Ball has already won the Venice Horizons Award at the Venice Film Festival, and it is currently playing at the Warsaw International Film Fest as well as the Festival Nouveau Cinema, which is where I saw it.
The synopsis from the Warsaw International Film Fest web site goes like this:
Fragments of six lonely lives, stuck in the humdrum world of Soviet-era tower blocks.
How close can we get to other human beings? Is it possible to live a life completely devoid of love? The questions are painfully apparent and the answers much less so. On the other hand, the film offers a possibility of warmth, of laughter. A sparse commodity, true, but inherently present. A tale of human seclusion and the incapability to reach others. Director`s statement: “But you also find humour and the absurd, and the properly attuned viewer might even find themselves laughing out loud. If I were to define the film, I would say that `Autumn Ball` is a pitch-black comedy about loneliness, despair and hope”.
Sügisball is not a comedy about relationships, the drunken director of comedies about relationships is beaten up (maybe even killed) by Theo, the doorman, in Autumn Ball. Loneliness and despair is felt throughout the film, exaggerated to a point of humour; I am thinking of Mati getting caught looking into his rival’s apartment window and setting off a car alarm as he runs away. Veiko Õunpuu shows us a picture of hope and love within a world of loneliness, alienation and despair. The Soviet-era tower blocks are reminiscent of Kieslowski’s “Dekalog” and Robert Gliński’s “Cześć Tereska”.
Theo is seduced by an intellectual who idealizes him until the very moment she learns that he is not a humble genius writer or academic that only’ appears to be a regular person. Perhaps literary conferences are indeed contrived attempts at identity construction, and perhaps ‘the west’ is financing all kinds of nonsense out of an overfed guilt that is just a continuation of colonialism; but neither of these thoughts sounded quite so comical before I heard that academic intellectual use these lines to strike up a conversation with Theo at a literary conference that he was crashing. He really is a regular person, or is he? She quotes Fernando Pessoa,
“I made of myself, something beyond my knowledge
and what I could make of myself, I failed to do.”
The poem from where the line is taken is called Tabacaria [Tobacco-Shop] and once I read it I realized just how much of an inspiration Pessoa might have been for the film. The edition that I got my hands on actually has the original Portuguese side by side with the English translation.
Fiz de mim o que não soube,
E o que podia fazer de mim não o fiz.
and the translation reads,
“I became what I couldn’t,
And what I might have become, I didn’t”
There is no such thing as a perfect translation, but I did want to know if the word “knowledge” was in there or not, and I am told by my Portuguese speaking friend that it is, “’Soube’ is from ‘saber’ an irregular verb for ‘know’, conjugated at the first person of the conditional past (think: ‘that I hadn’t known’ or ‘that wasn’t known’).”
Some of the characters in Autumn Ball seem to be stuck in the type of existential void that is described in Pessoa’s Tobacco-Shop. Jaana leaves Mati in search of happiness, and when she does come back, he tells her that happiness is just what everyone else wants too. The sense of despair that can overwhelm us when we consider ourselves not as individuals, but as interchangeable units that form a more significant, statistical collection, is in focus. All the more so as the camera moves to pan across endless identical windows in the rows of a grey cement apartment block complex.
We yearn for permanence in a constantly changing world. I recently read an interview with Godard, where he explains that film is the only art that deals with mortality directly, because to film actors is to film mortal creatures in the process of change.
The cinema is the only art which, as Cocteau says (in Orpheus, I believe) “films death at work.” The person one films is growing older and will die. We film, therefore, a moment when death is working. Painting is immobile; the cinema is interesting because it seizes life and the mortal aspect of life.
source: “An Interview With Jean-Luc Godard.” First published in Cahiers du Cinema, December 1962. Found in: Jean-Luc Godard – A critical anthology. E.P. Dutton & Co., 1968
Mati concludes in an inspired state, after days of drinking following the painful parting with Jaana who has left him for another man,
“it’s not boredom that ends love, but impatience
impatience of bodies yearning to live, yet dying each day”
She comes back to tell him that she loves him, and in this there is hope. We know that Mati is happy, because he has dreamt of this happiness. He admits that he does not believe her when she tells him that she loves him, but his words are lost to the reality of their embrace.
[Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from 2007]