Patrick Preziosi on Cristi Puiu’s ‘Malmkrog’ (2020)
As five aristocratic, French-speaking Russians—two men, three women—debate the maddeningly precise intersections of religion, philosophy, militarism and politics, the most “educated” of the group, Edouard (Ugo Broussot), a self-proclaimed Franco-Russian (“the ideal European”), smugly offers from his seat at the dinner table: “First, show us how you breach the impasse!” Cristi Puiu’s acerbic film, Malmkrog, is nothing if not an endless cavalcade of impasses, one which no amount of mannered conversation or healthy discussion can ever resolve, much less sway the opposite party. Eduoard is but an observer to the host Nikolai’s (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) dressing-down of the most obstinately good-natured of the group, Olga (Marina Palii) when he acknowledges the frivolity of discourse on display. Although just a stray line in a dense, 200-minute film, Eduoard’s exclamation still outlines how the desired endpoint of each parley curdles even beyond even the general upper-crust obliviousness and rank intolerance that conspicuously wends all throughout Malmkrog.
Although the film’s setting resides on the precipice of international upheaval, perched on the Christmas Eve of 1900, its central location—Nikolai’s estate, tucked somewhere in the Romanian mountains—is inextricable from the privilege of isolation that’s flaunted via the opulence and decorum. The principle of compulsory military service and how it’s compromised by religion is the topic of the film’s first chapter (separated is it into six, with two interstitial passages), following a single-take prelude that gives a front-facing glimpse of the snowbound manor and a disorienting view of the activity therein. Ingrida’s (Diana Sakalauskaité) impassioned diatribe practically opens Malmkrog in medias res, left are we not only to assume relationships amongst the five present, but accustom ourselves to the physical parameters of the space, which in itself is laden with candelabras, decanters, towering bookshelves, paintings, cherubic sculptures, and a servant staff that glides through seen, but not heard.
A didactic unravelling of each character’s psychological and philosophical comportment does not interest the objective Puiu, but as dialogue continues at a near-breathless clip whilst servants rush around refilling glasses and offering finger food, the vicariously imparted effect is one of almost delusional self-satisfaction, a stage set for circuitous debate that only these five patricians are privy to, much less even affected by.
As the latent fear of the state of the world—and the assets of white Europeans—grows more pronounced, Puiu never cedes any ground to melodrama, or any sort of emotional logic. Malmkrog is Puiu’s second film to “adapt” Russian writer and friend of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s, Vladimir Solovyov (the first being 2013’s Three Interpretation Exercises), and it is similarly bereft of soliloquies and exchanges that position characters within purely symbolic realms, much less facilitating any sort of personability or identification on the part of the audience.
2016’s Sieranevada conducted itself at arm’s length, but that film’s now a powderkeg compared to its successor, its simmering family tension compounded by the circumstances providing an undemanding point of entry. As has been his modus operandi since 2010’s Aurora, Puiu’s errant dramatism is most present in his camera, which eschews any sort of mobile motion for operating from a fixed position. Movement is conveyed by graceful and minute pans, not unlike the dollys Roberto Rossellini deployed for his historical films, which similarly probed the physical makeup of a scene in the absence of tangible interiority.
Given Puiu’s writerly caginess, those coming to view Malmkrog as symptomatic of the director’s recent streak of dispiriting intolerance—he lamented mask-wearing protocols at the film’s Romanian premiere, which brought his otherwise too casually ignored anti-LGBTQ outspokenness from 2018 to attention—will find no leeway in positing the film as such. Malmkrog is being postulated as a document of colonialism in decline, but that may only be true by happenstance. The superficiality of each character’s pontificating already undercuts the authority in which they adopt complacently racist and xenophobic rhetoric. In turn, Puiu seems to be taking aim at the inherent politesse of the ruling-class, and not necessarily their predispositions, which are of secondhand concern given Malmkrog’s dialogue-choked script. The film is intriguingly knottier if we don’t first presuppose any sort of innate liberal outlook in its construction, an attitude that’s perhaps become too synonymous with film festival inclusion, regardless of the actual content. Puiu’s personal politics are unfortunate in their backwardness, and his unwillingness to self-interrogate is, for better or for worse, his film’s most shielding asset.
Is it then worthwhile to ask, given the extracurricular controversy, what does it all mean? Malmkrog—and by extension, Puiu himself—is almost too perfect in its courting of ineffectual critical thought; any critic can chase their own tail trying to unpack the sheer intellectualism on display. However, the most agreed-upon, cogent thesis of a colonialist takedown feels, at the very least, too obvious. The technical formalism is subtly modulated with each chapter, and this feels to be the method most indicting of the characters. The elderly Ingrida foments the catalysing drama, and her section houses the film’s longest takes; Eduord’s turn to speak is largely broken up into shot-reverse-shot setups, and his bigotry is countered by numerous interruptions by servants and his cohorts, the latter granted numerous giggly and bored reaction shots, as if to telegraph their own lack of investment in what he has to say. The head servant, István (István Téglás), in his own section, victimises one of the kitchen staff for burning the coffee, enacting the class-system in miniature that Piui’s assembled. Olga’s plays similarly to Eduoard’s, although she more bears the brunt of Nikolai, statuesquely defending herself from her end of the table, not giving into his patronisation, as goaded on by the other guests.
Piui’s maximised monotony absorbs any sort of damning interval of hubris or painful unawareness into its luxuriating runtime, and thus pinpointing specifics for some spit-shined thesis feels—to be blunt—pointless. The influence of satire looms over Malmkrog, particularly that of Luis Buñuel, whose The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) provides something of a blueprint, and not only in how the promised mealtime seems both handily delayed and even ignored throughout. In Eduoard’s section, a jazzy, anachronistic tune begins bellowing throughout the house, and their unease is stoked by István not answering Nikolai’s call. In what can qualify as a spoiler, the group go to investigate, and after finding the waitstaff running in terror, a hail of gunfire downs three of the five aristocrats, before an unceremonious fade to black. Then, in a tableau-esque quality reminiscent of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs (2013), five cloaked and hooded figures, presumably our protagonists, move dreamily throughout the snowy, surrounding garden.
We once again return to the impenetrable tête-á-têtes the film has otherwise maintained throughout, although it is now night, and changes have been made to each person’s dress. This brief foray into the inscrutable (is it fantasy? Is it real and the film isn’t as linearly structured as it appears to be?) plays as if imported from Buñuel’s film, as the surrounding scenes possess the same materialist back-patting so thoroughly taken to task in Malmkrog’s spiritual predecessor. That this discombobulating event returns to the same kind of normality as a discussion of the antichrist does suggest an unnerving constant present in these upper-class lives: immunity to the tumultuousness of the outside world. Is the world hurtling towards death, or is the lack of clarity to be chalked up to Eduoard’s worsening eyesight? The conversation continues; it matters little to them.
‘Malmkrog’ is playing as part of the 58th New York Film Festival.
You can read our interview with director Cristi Puiu here.
Director Cristi Puiu
Writer Cristi Puiu, based on a book by Vladimir Solovyov
Cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru
Editor Dragos Apetri, Andrei Iancu, Bogdan Zarnoianu
Cast Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Agathe Bosch, Marina Palii, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot
Duration 201 minutes