'Winter Song' ('Chant d'hiver'): Locarno Review

Courtesy of Festival del Film Locarno
Amusing diversion from a world-wise international auteur.

The veteran France-based Georgian auteur's latest comedy premiered in competition at the long-running Swiss festival.

Sauntering gracefully into his ninth decade, Georgian-French writer-director Otar Iosseliani delivers another of his whimsically droll confections with Winter Song (Chant d'hiver). A beguiling, episodic, low-key comedy that favors visual gags over dialogue and tone over plot, it will amply satisfy the octogenarian's established coterie of admirers without recruiting any new additions to their ranks.

Premiering in the Golden Leopard competition at Locarno, the Franco-Georgian production's ensemble cast is headed by popular, mono-monikered veteran Rufus and includes thespian contributions from revered director-actor Pierre Etaix. Arriving 40 minutes in for what amounts to little more than an extended, intermittent cameo: longtime Iosseliani collaborator and sometime Bond-villain Mathieu Amalric.

Aimed squarely at older, cultured audiences, this genial if ultimately overlong compendium of variable vignettes — the director's first outing since the quirkily semi-autobiographical Chantrapas (2010) — will pay its way on French release and elsewhere enjoy the generous exposure long afforded to Iosseliani on the global festival circuit.

Based in France since leaving the USSR in the early 1980s, Iosseliani has steadily maintained a high reputation among cinephiles and critics without ever threatening to become any kind of a household name. His first French production, Favorites of the Moon (1984) — screen debut for teenager Amalric — remains perhaps his best-known work and was belatedly released on Blu-ray in North America last fall.

A brisk, offhandedly erudite Parisian roundelay praised as a combination of Altman and Tati, Favorites of the Moon is in many ways a direct precursor of Winter Song in terms of style, subject matter and personnel. Where Favorites followed a set of china and a painting through various hands, here it's the skull of an aristocrat executed during the French Revolution which unifies different individuals and chronologies.

A short prologue shows the guillotining of a dignified baron, who — in a typical Iosseliani touch — insists on smoking his pipe as the blade falls. More than two centuries later his cranium ends up in an apartment adjoining a cozy Paris courtyard, in a Bohemian neighborhood inhabited by various oddballs, thieves and eccentrics.

Gossamer-flimsy strands of plot radiate out from this den-like hub, allowing Iosseliani to poke fun at authority figures of all stripes while thumbing his nose at Russia (whose soldiery is depicted raping and pillaging their way through a civilian warzone), the European Union (whose anthem, "Ode to Joy," is bluntly pilloried) and the bureaucratic excesses of the French state.

Iosseliani's sympathies unambiguously lie mainly with aristocrats, dilettantes, mavericks and representatives of society's uppermost and lowermost echelons. A troupe of mongrels occasionally trots happily through the frame; benign characters are unfairly evicted from shantytowns and castles alike; the bourgeoisie are patsy prey for pickpockets and roller-skating hat-thieves.

At its best, Winter Song — that valedictory title may or may not be a deadpan in-joke — plays like the kind of high-toned, sophisticatedly romantic European farce which Woody Allen and Peter Bogdanovich still patently dream of making. With deft, seemingly effortless touches Iosseliani conjures up a bygone, alternative reality into which we may segue as a retreat from the banalities of the modern world.

This escapism is epitomized by a door that occasionally opens up in the wall of a quiet Paris street, allowing temporary access to a secret garden of graceful elegance. The thoroughfare in question is the Rue Messier, named after an influential pre-Revolutionary astronomer who identified which heavenly bodies were fixed and which were transient — just the kind of discerning judgment to which Iosseliani evidently and plausibly aspires. 

Production companies: Pastorale, Studio 99
Cast: Rufus, Enrico Ghezzi, Amiran Amiranashvili, Pierre Etaix, Mathias Jung, Mathieu Amalric
Director / Screenwriter: Otar Iosseliani
Producers: Christine Marignac, Otar Iosseliani
Cinematographer: Julie Grunebaum
Production designers: Denis Champenois, Vaja Jalaghania
Costume designers: Maira Ramedhan-Levi, Anna Kalatozishvili
Editors: Emmanuelle Legendre, Otar Iosseliani
Composer: Nicolas Zourabichvili
Sales: Les Films du Losange, Paris

No Rating, 117 minutes

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