'Don Juan': IDFA Review

Don Juan Still - H 2015
Courtesy of International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
Considerable heat but disappointingly little light

Polish veteran Jerzy Sladkowski's Swedish-Finnish character study of a Russian student with autism won top prize at the Dutch showcase.

Tolstoy reckoned "each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," but even he might have been startled by the Russian domestic dysfunction depicted in Jerzy Sladkowski's quasi-documentary Don Juan. An ironically titled examination of a lovelorn 22-year-old economics student and his nagging, interfering mother, the Sweden-Finland co-production will land numerous festival berths after its triumphant IDFA bow.

Audiences, however, may struggle to share the Amsterdam jury's enthusiasm: Veteran Polish writer-director Sladkowski, enmeshing protagonists and viewers alike in layers of artifice, role-play and theatricality, generates considerable heat but disappointingly little light.

Based in Sweden since the 1980sSladkowski won the European Film Award for Best Documentary with his 52-minute chronicle of Albanian blood feuds, Vendetta. He also reaped ecstatic reviews for 2010's Vodka Factory, in which a blue-collar single parent living with her put-upon middle-aged mother pursued ambitious thespian dreams.

In his follow-up feature, Sladkowski rejigs similar ingredients with less palatable results. This time the mother is the much more domineering Marina, a neurotic, histrionic lady perpetually exasperated with the shyness, fecklessness and general social awkwardness of her 22-year-old son Oleg, who is supposedly studying for a degree in economics by means of online lectures. 

It's mentioned that Oleg is autistic, but it would seem more accurate to place his condition closer to the Asperger's syndrome end of the spectrum. In any case, Marina railroads the lad into various forms of offbeat therapy, most notably finding him a theatrical troupe preparing a full-costumed stage version of Don Juan — in which Oleg will play the title role. The contrast between the legendary libertine's romantic flair and his own deficiencies is exploited for sardonic humor — but he does eventually drift toward a relationship with a beautiful fellow performer, Tania.

Or does he? Sladkowski's Don Juan operates in hazy, quasi-documentary terrain, in which many sequences have the air of being staged or restaged for the benefit of the lens — the equipment's presence is only acknowledged once, in a casual aside (when it's commented that Oleg isn't "shy in front of the camera").

Not so much a fly on the wall as an elephant in the room, Sladkowski's presence often seems to heighten and aggravate the behavior he captures — most uncomfortably during a blazing row in which Marina ("My heart has been bleeding my whole life!") mercilessly insults the hapless Oleg.

The poignancy of the latter's situation is at several points emphasized by Timo Hietala's score  — specifically, Seppo Kantonen's piano, which comes tinkling in at particularly sad junctures. Reliance on the "tragic" piano is perhaps the most pernicious blight afflicting documentary cinema just now, even infecting projects — like Don Juan — that palpably aspire toward the more artistic and ambitious end of the spectrum. 

Production company: Ginestra Film
Director-screenwriter: Jerzy Sladkowski
Producer: Antonio Russo Merenda
Cinematographer: Wojciech Staron
Editors: Jakub SladkowskiAgnieszka Bojanowska
Composer: Timo Hietala
Sales: CAT&Docs, Paris
No rating, 95 minutes