A young Lithuanian couple’s idea of a road trip is to drive from the Baltics to the war-torn Donbass region, in eastern Ukraine, in Frost, the latest feature from Lithuanian auteur Sharunas Bartas (Few of Us, Seven Invisible Men). Shot on the road and on location over a period of three months, this dire drama gets full marks for authenticity, with a scene in which two (actual) Ukrainian soldiers explain to the protagonists why they are fighting the war they are waging a certain highlight. But beyond this sequence, there really isn’t all that much to recommend, with the lead characters never fleshed out and the narrative about as aimless as the GPS-less protagonists. The auteur’s name and the incongruous presence of Vanessa Paradis as a glamorous journalist in a supporting role could entice some festivals to add this pic to their rosters after its Directors’ Fortnight premiere, but beyond the festival circuit, it will face an uphill battle.
Twentysomething Rokas (Mantas Janciauskas) is talked into driving a van filled with humanitarian aid to the Ukraine by someone who can’t leave the country. They meet outdoors, at night and not exactly in summer, and from the start there’s something a little odd and unwelcome about both their encounter — Couldn’t they meet in a bar? Who is this other guy, anyway? — and the discussed cargo, which seems to consist of footwear and food and barely fills just one van. Money is never even discussed but Rokas — blond hair, blank stare — seems to be a decent guy, so maybe the humanitarian motive is enough of a reason to say yes. The Good Samaritan does ask his girlfriend, Inga (Lyja Maknaviciute), to accompany him one supposes because there aren’t that many films about road trips people took on their own.
Their first stop is Poland, where they meet their local contact, Andrei (Polish star Andrzej Chyra of United States of Love), whose behavior is also somewhat strange and who tells them he’ll meet them in a couple of days at a posh hotel. Once there, they hang out with some ex-pats, some of which are journalists and one of whom looks like Paradis. First at a reception and then in room where they raid the mini bar, this motley crew discusses the war and journalism in the fake-profound way favored by both drunks and badly written movies.
Both Inga and Rokas end up pairing off with someone else at the end of that drunken night, which leads to some bickering in the van the next day. Audiences might be excused for cheering on this development, as perhaps the characters will finally reveal a little bit about themselves, but instead everything is resolved in about five seconds and the duo return to staring out the window again. So much for instilling the material with some conflict.
Perhaps it is because of this lack of conflict in his own comfortable, European Union cocoon that especially Rokas seems morbidly fascinated by the armed conflict in the Donbass region, which pro-Russian separatists proclaimed independent from Ukraine in 2014 and where fighting between Ukrainian forces and the Russia-backed separatists continues. When the organization where they were supposed to deliver their goods seems to have moved to an unknown address, Rokas and Inga wander ever closer to the frontlines for no apparent reason — or at least no articulated one — other than Rokas’ curiosity, perhaps spurred on by the fact he speaks Russian, which his clueless girlfriend doesn’t.
What exactly Bartas is trying to do here is hard to fathom. He’s made gorgeous movies wholly without dialogue, such as Few of Us, and others, such as his recent Peace to Us in Our Dreams, that combine images and dialogues to entrancing if not always immediately accessible effect. In fact, Bartas’ films became famous because of his capacity for conjuring images that help tell his stories, with the director having worked as his own cinematographer on quite a few of his titles, often opting for mesmerizing long takes in which the viewers could lose themselves. Here, DP Eitvydas Doskus seems to have been instructed to make the visuals as unremarkable as possible, with dialogue frequently done in the most basic shot/reverse-shot manner and scenes often short and drab, without any poetry (even the film’s last, supposedly transcendent image feels mechanical).
The workmanlike cutting of actress-turned-editor Dounia Sichov further reinforces the pedestrian-feeling quality of the material, as if the director and his cast and crew went into the film without any idea or preparation in terms of what and how to shoot what they’d find on the road. And the pic seems unsure what to do with Paradis’ character, who is seen buying cigarettes alone at one point, suggesting the film might follow two separate stories, but then she’s never seen again after the leads and herself meet at the hotel for that one night. Similarly, the character of Andrei feels ill-conceived and unfocused. What exactly his role is in the story of Rokas and Inga is unclear, and God knows these two insipid leads need colorful supporting characters to bounce off of. If it weren’t for that extended moment of truth from the two soldiers, Frost would make for frosty viewing indeed.
Production companies: Studija Kinema, KinoElektron, Insight Media/Tato Film, Donten & Lacroix Films, KNM, Reborn Production
Cast: Mantas Janciauskas, Lyja Maknaviciute, Andrzej Chyra, Vanessa Paradis
Director: Sharunas Bartas
Screenplay: Sharunas Bartas, Anna Cohen Yanay
Producers: Sharunas Bartas, Jurga Dikciuviene, Janja Kralj, Olena Yershova, Volodymyr Filippov, Maria Blicharska, Monika Sajko-Gradowska, Michel Merkt
Director of photography: Eitvydas Doskus
Production designer: Oleg Dorychenko
Editor: Dounia Sichov
Music: Pawel Mykietyn
Casting: Jurga Dikciuviene, Constance Demontoy
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
In Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, English, Ukrainian