'Comets': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Comets - TIFF - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of TIFF
Confident storytelling that concludes with a head-scratcher.

Teenage lovers reunite decades later in Tamar Shavgulidze’s Georgia-set feature.

Part exacting drama, part sci-fi romp, Tamar Shavgulidze’s Comets tells the story of two teenage lovers — Nana and Irina — who are now fiftysomethings and reunited in Nana’s backyard. When their small town discovered the young Nana and Irina’s relationship was a romantic one, the pair were shunned. Nana later married a man and had two children, and Irina left for Krakow to work. Now back in town to settle an inheritance, Irina shows up to confront the past and see if any spark remains between her and Nana.

The film is set in the Georgian countryside, and Shavgulidze lets the story of her second feature unfold at a plodding pace that fits its pastoral scenery. (Georgia is nestled between Russia and Turkey, and also shares a border with Azerbaijan.)

The opening frame shows Nana and Irina as teenagers watching a movie outdoors as they cuddle on a blanket. It’s a visual that’s as endearing as it is opaque. Then we flash forward to the present. This movement back and forth forms the basic structure of the film, but they're not flashbacks in the traditional sense; the temporal shifts feel almost like movements between the interior and the exterior of the characters. Largely thanks to the thoughtful sound design choices (innovative work from Irakli Ivanishvili?), it’s the first indication of the pic’s underlying avant-garde sci-fi tone.

In a film with only one location, Shavgulidze takes care to set up her frames. Grown-up Nana sits at a table with her indifferent teenage daughter, whom she named Irina, shooting the breeze. The filmmaker keeps the camera on the table setup even as the characters move in and out of the frame; she’s not afraid to let us linger there in the spaces between the action.

The first scene of Nana with her daughter goes on for about six to seven minutes, and it’s basically just the two of them chatting. The camera captures them from a variety of angles and with each shot allows the audience to notice something new. Gradually the extended time spent on the same setup reveals a frame full of Easter eggs. It also becomes a callback that grounds the film in a clear sense of place. Another movie might not waste time emphasizing such details, but here it feels as artful as it does economical and serves as an example of how production limits (financial, logistical) can sometimes result in creative risks that work.

While the slow pacing functions as a strength, the pic’s ending, without giving too much away, feels like a miscalculation. It wants to come across as a surprising twist, but lands more like a sucker punch we don’t deserve. One can’t help but wonder if the production ran out of money (the film was shot on a budget of 45,000 euros over a seven-day period in 2017). Because the movie doesn’t cohere at the end, you're left feeling cheated by the fact that it has required so much patience up until then.

Still, if we’re going to theorize about what the film is saying despite its flaws, there might be a clue in its epigraph: "The comets have such a space to cross, such coldness, forgetfulness." It reads like a Zen koan of Nana and Irina’s history, reminding us that as quickly as their bond is rekindled, it can slip away.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Production company: Nushi Film
Cast: Nino Kasradze, Ketevan Gegeshidze, Kato Kalatozishvili, Nina Mazodieri, Mariam Iremashvili
Director-screenwriter: Tamar Shavgulidze
Producers: Tekla Machavariani, Aleksandre Shervashidze
Director of photography: Giorgi Shvelidze?
Editor: Nodar Nozadze
Music: NaBa Sartania
Sound design: Irakli Ivanishvili?

71 minutes