Berlinale 2020: Notes on Malmkrog

29 February, 2020

In Malmkrog, Cristi Puiu’s new film (selected at Berlinale in the Encounters section), the characters are the host, Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard); Olga (Marina Palii), a young Christian-Orthodox and maybe Nikolai’s wife; Madeleine (Agathe Bosch), a pianist; Edouard (Ugo Broussot), perhaps a politician, and Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), the wife of a Russian general. All of them meet at the old mansion to celebrate Christmas together, apparently; the connections between them are never truly revealed by Puiu, but rather left in the open. Although inside the house there is a paralyzed general, whose identity is unclear, the five aristocrats do not seem to have met to keep him company, but rather to celebrate some kind of ultra-intellectual, closed-door game where a certain topic is dissected as thoroughly as possible. Basicly a sort of debating Olympiad for extremely wealthy intellectuals.

Based on Vladimir Soloviov’s writings published in 1900, Malmkrog isn’t Puiu’s first approach to the text. In 2013, Puiu used it as a support for an acting workshop held in Toulouse – the result, although it wasn’t deliberately filmed for the public (but rather a functional exercise for the actors to examine their act), it turned into a movie, Three Exercises of Interpretation. Throughout the 3 parts, the same text is used in different contexts, which gives it an experimental vibe. Moreover, the actors (without giving the impression in any way that they are making a movie) have improvised the text, while keeping their ideas consistent. Malmkrog uses the same source-material, however in the film things are much different: first of all, Malmkrog starts as a period film and is much less meta; secondly, the actors weren’t asked for an improvisation, this time they’ve given the text ad-litteram. Puiu’s obsession with Soloviov is not very clear (although not very difficult to guess) – it’s a pessimistic philosophical text written before the World Wars, the abolition of the Austro-Hungarian empire, etc. Therefore, the evening wasn’t only just a lot of redundant discussions about irrelevant dilemmas, but history was actually going to happen.To this end, Puiu himself marks two such historical clashes (one present at the very beginning of the film, when the image of the grand Transylvanian mansion is suddenly invaded by a flock of sheep, and the second, in a kind of prophetic nightmare in which the aristocrats are apparently hit by a disaster, a sign of imminent war, an event that further goes unmentioned to the guests).

From a formal point of view, Puiu and Tudor Panduru embrace a remarkable static mise-en-scene: as in Sieranevada, the camera is carried left and right by the characters, only that its movements are much slower, because the characters themselves move very little. It’s as if, driven by a kind of unnatural grace, their mere movement through space would generate much more chaos than is the case. For the most part, the composition is impressive – a sum of geometrical lines made by the characters’ position, an in depth mise-en-scene, a character who, looking in the mirror, seems to reconstruct Magritte’s La reproduction interdite.

But what’s really interesting in the film is the way the actors are interpreting the text: as the characters lay out their more and more precious sophistries about the legitimacy of crime, empathy or the Antichrist, there shows up a kind of “self-pleasing” (which, of course, implies a “pleasing others”): often, they applaud each other for using a pun or a triumphant final sentence to take over the opponent. Undoubtedly, in such a context,  this kind of social evening becomes itself an endless game, whoever gives up is considered weak or under-documented. Without giving any big spoilers, the symbolic winner of the argument seems to be the host himself, Nikolai, who not only humiliates his (possible) wife by reading the passage from the Bible he had previously twisted, but is the only one who puts in the effort to keep the game going on – he also initiates new arguments and, at the same time, seems to be the one who started the game in the first place. In fact, the very widespread comparison between Sieranevada and El Angel Exterminador, Bunuel’s anthological film about several aristocrats trapped by invisible forces in a room, starving and drinking water from flower vases, seems a much less appropriate comparison in retrospect. In Malmkrog, it’s quite clear that the guests cannot even enjoy the fine cuisine, because eating means losing ground in front of the opponent. Puiu actually emphasizes this not eating gesture (except for Olga who is much more relaxed and somewhat cool to Nikolai’s phlegmatic tone, who from one point begins to challenge her) by repeating the same camera movement several times (a pan from the character’s face to his untouched food). In Sieranevada, however, the guests seem to be truly dedicated to following traditions – but, even then, they all break the local customs, they all sneak out of the apartment, they all blame each other for things that happened in the past (so they end by spoiling the idea of a family wake).

Although Malmkrog has an aseptic seriousness, there are so many marks on the way Puiu points out that, although the aristocrats’ lives are dry with genuine joy, “breaches” of false-improvisation are happening around them, meant to destroy this apparent perfection (both in the aristocrats’ waltz, who walk as if flying, as well as in the repetitive way the camera tracks them) – a child trying to barge in by running around in the living room that hosts a solemn meal, a character fainting which destroys the harmony within a static triangle captured by the camera. Every single time an argument becomes overheated, there is a noise outside the shot that breaks the argument – and so it forces the speaker to repeat his last sentence. So it’s very clear that Malmkrog-Puiu, unlike Sieranevada-Puiu, is much less attached to its characters. Starting from the way the characters are built, some appalling human sketches that carry an overflowing text, there are no openings for the viewer to reason with them. At the same time, even such characters are easy to perceive from one point on; the pianist, for example, has an appetite for scandal, so she won’t miss any chance to spice up a more heated controversy; the politician feels strongly attacked by the anti-hedonistic theories of the religious woman; Olga, the Christian, on the other hand, advocates for a humble lifestyle precisely here, in this environment. The hypocrisy of the characters is crystal clear and disgusting – it’s a world so contaminated by perfection and narcissism that even their butler (Istvan Teglas) gets to act like a brute with his subordinates.

Since this project started before Sieranevada, Malmkrog is a lot like it (the same concept of behind closed doors, where several characters have to stand each other for a couple of hours). Where they part ways, however, is the level of accessibility – Malmkrog is a precious and sumptuous film, which will somehow bring Puiu’s fans of Aurora back, and alienate those who prefer Sieranevada. Even so, there isn’t necessarily a perceptible novelty to it: although it demands attention not to the visual details, but to the dialogues, this way involving the viewer rather on a semantic level, Malmkrog doesn’t bring any satisfaction at the end of the three and a half hour tour, but rather shows a mere grandiloquence of an author who has long reached his peak.

Journalist and film critic, with a master's degree in film critics. Collaborates with Scena9, Acoperișul de Sticlă, FILM and FILM Menu magazines. For Films in Frame, she brings the monthly top of films and writes the monthly editorial Panorama, published on a Thursday. In her spare time, she retires in the woods where she pictures other possible lives and flying foxes.