'Oleg': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Cannes Film Festival
Valentin Novopolski in 'Oleg.'
Down and out in suburban Ghent.

The second feature from director Juris Kursietis ('Modris') follows Valentin Novopolski as a Latvian trapped in Belgium by economic necessity at first, and then just literally trapped.

Building on the journalistic storytelling and the neo-realist aesthetic of current festival cinema that informed his first feature Modris, writer-director Juris Kursietis presents another timely post-industrial story about a naïve Latvian who finds himself up effluent creek in darkest Belgium in Oleg. 

Spun around an affecting lead performance from Valentin Novopolski in the title role, this stirring drama grows darker and more despairing like an unraveling gradient-dyed ball of wool. It cannily illustrates how easy it is for someone to find themselves literally enslaved by exploitative criminal elements, even in what's supposed to be one of the most civilized countries in the world, at the political epicenter of the EU. Thanks to welcome flecks of comic relief, not least from Polish actor Dawid Ogrodnik as the gleefully evil villain of the piece, Oleg is consistently watchable as well as illuminating about an emerging social problem, although the clockwork runs down a bit towards the end.

After a dream-like, snow-napped and drone-captured opening sequence in which Oleg (Novopolski) falls through the ice into a lake — an interlude that remains enigmatic until the film's end — Oleg is seen landing in Brussels. (His fellow passengers all applaud when the plane lands safely, a tiny but spot-on detail that immediately pegs them as Eastern European.) Being part of the Russian-speaking minority back home makes Oleg culturally displaced already, a kind of demographic remnant of the Soviet era, and not an EU citizen like other Latvians.

A butcher by trade but somehow deep in debt back in Riga (it's never explained why), Oleg has managed to get a job working in a large industrial meat processing plant near Ghent, a semi-legit cash-in-hand gig. For digs, he shares a room in a house with other Eastern European guest workers who all send most of their wages back home. At first, everyone seems very collegial and friendly, but it soon emerges that there are tribal alliances and rivalries between the speakers of various Slavic languages, who are in turn wary of the Romanians. English is the main lingua franca, although the Poles and Latvians can sort of communicate via a creole of Russian and Slavic loan words.  

One day, Oleg exchanges cross words with Krzysztof (Adam Szyskowski), a Pole who shows up drunk at work and ends up cutting off his own finger with a meat saw. Out of drunken spite, seemingly, Krzysztof manages to convince the bosses that it was Oleg's fault and gets him fired.

It seems like a lucky break (spoiler: it's not) when Oleg meets two other Poles, garrulous Andrzej (Ogrodnik) and his slinky girlfriend Margosa (Anna Prochniak), who offer Oleg a place to stay and work opportunities even though his visa was only valid for work at the meat plant. Like some sort of insidious real-world version of Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, Andrzej's house has a massive TV and gaming system where the residents can play FIFA in their limited free time, and there's usually plenty of booze and macho banter. But the fact that his nemesis Krzysztof is also one of the residents may be an early warning sign that not all is what it seems.

When a couple of weeks go by and Andrzej still hasn't passed on the wages to Oleg for the building work he's been doing, Oleg packs up his few possessions and leaves in a huff. But there's no room for him back at the other communal house, and although he manages to hook up with a posh Latvian woman (Guna Zarina) during a visit to Brussels, Oleg's inability to find another job takes him back to Andrzej's place, where the reception is less warm. In fact, Andrzej proves to be a semi-sadistic con artist, possibly one with a bipolar streak judging by his manic affect. Before long, he's tricked Oleg into giving him his passport in exchange for a phony Polish one and bullied him into working at a taxi garage that Andrzej is planning to rob.

Per Kursietis in a post-screening Q&A, about two-thirds of the script he co-wrote with Liga Celma-Kursiete and Kaspars Odiņs is based on a true story about a man just like Oleg who was effectively enslaved by a Polish criminal. Anyone who has read about similar cases, many of which have been in the news recently, will find the slow drip by which Oleg comes under Andrzej's spell quite convincing, although at times his hesitancy and failure to seize opportunities to escape can be frustrating. Like the victim-protagonists in Ken Loach or Dardenne brothers films, he's constantly undone by bad choices made for good reasons and thwarted by a social order that's ultimately always on the side of capitalism and profit.

Happily, the ending isn't quite as bleak here as it usually is in the work of the aforementioned filmmakers, although the weird swerve into religious symbolism feels contrived. But technically, Kursietis and his team, especially DP Bogumil Godfrejow, impress throughout with a high level of craftsmanship. Although the use of real locations grounds the story in a very specific time and place, the near 1:1 frame ratio and the long, handheld shots that cleave closely to Novopolski throughout, as doggedly as the camera did to Emilie Dequenne in the Dardennes' Rosetta, grows disorientingly claustrophobic over the long haul.

Unsettling musical choices from modern classical composers such as the late neoromantic Georgy Sviridov from Russia and the more contemporary Peteris Vasks from Latvia bring creepy and ethereal tonalities to the party, especially with cuts that feature choral keening and dissonances.

Production companies: Tasse Film, Iota Production, In Script, Arizona Productions
Cast: Valentin Novopolski, Dawid Ogrodnik, Anna Prochniak, Adam Szyskowski, Guna Zarina
Director: Juris Kursietis
Screenwriters: Juris Kursietis, Liga Celma-Kursiete, Kaspars Odiņs
Producers: Alise Gelze, Aija Berzina
Co-producers: Isabelle Truc, Lukas Trimonis, Guillaume de Seille
Director of photography: Bogumil Godfrejow
Production designer: Laura Disiere
Costume designer: Inese Kalva
Editor: Matyas Veress
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Sales: Best Friend Forever

108 minutes