Thursday, 29 March 2007

13 Tzameti (2005)

A bullet to the head

There are times when directors have this crazy idea - in our modern day and age, they will attempt to shoot a genuine black and white film, using production techniques, using only the visual grammar of that era - close-ups, dissolves, odd angles, and throwing away modern cinematic techniques like cross-cutting, quick edits, and so on. Often, they do this because the story they tell can't be told in any other style, and because these directors really want to show off how much they can stretch themselves by mastering their limits. I'm thinking of 2005's The Call of Cthulhu by the HP Lovecraft Society, a faithful and imaginative (even surreal) film version of Lovecraft's original short story - its depictions of the labyrinthine world of nightmares, dream fevers, cult orgies and arcane monsters (using stop motion, forced perspectives) proved that the German Expressionist style is a sensible approach to making a serious and dark horror film set in the 1920s. I'm also thinking of 2000's Shadow of the Vampire, where the only logical way to retell the making of Nosferatu ("What if Nosferatu were played by a real vampire?") could only be in black and white, with intertitles and elided action forming the film's visual grammar.

In the same vein this year, we have the French-Georgian director's debut film, 13 Tzameti. Instead of making a horror movie, Babluani is interested in 1950s noir. So, when you enter the cinema and the film starts playing, don't be alarmed that the film is in black and white (the projection hasn't broken down), or that the first 2 minutes where almost nothing remarkable happens even though the cinematography is flawless - a pail containing rotten wood is pulled down from a roof to the ground, a man walks from the house to the beach and collapses, a workman observes from the roof (the projectionist hasn't put the wrong film into the projector). I'll admit that for a moment, I thought this was one of Monty Python's long-running gags where they parody French art films. However, 13 Tzameti looks, sounds, and is indeed a French noir film, or an evocation of one at any rate.

Sebestien, the odd-job labourer and Georgian immigrant, loses his pay when the owner of the house whose roof he fixes dies off an accidental drug overdose. But no fear - eavesdropping on the curious stream of visitors to the house, he figures that the late M. Godon was due to participate in as yet-unknown scheme (a heist, perhaps?) where he would come into a great fortune at its successful conclusion. There is no clue about what the scheme might entail; the young (and desperately trying to support his entire Georgian immigrant clan) man is owner of only a train ticket and a hotel room reservation. What deed is it that he will end up having to perform? Why is the dead man's widow/daughter/acquaintance and his old-time buddy so apprehensive about the scheme? And who are the mysterious group (or groups?) of people who are determined to track this young man down, or even prevent him from fulfilling the dead man's mission?

All these elements are ingredients for a great thriller, and the interesting thing about 13 Tzameti is how the director turns them into the ingredients of a great noir film, and a classic noir film as well. It's one thing to tell a good noir story, and quite another to film it as such, with the cinematic grammar of noir, and still quite another thing to convince viewers, in the duration of its 90 minutes, that this is the best way to tell the story.

All things considered, I'd say Babluani succeeds wildly. The trailer for the movie - as well as its official synopsis - gives away the revelation of the movie - Sebestien will discover too late that he is taking the place of his late employer in a high stakes game of professional Russian roulette. You should be able to predict that he survive and succeeds in getting his money, but the journey towards the ending is makes you forget the destination: every frame and sequence is composed to exact the highest amount of tension and suspense from the minimal amount of props and razzle-dazzlery, relying instead on good camera placing, stretches of silence, and the intensity of acting - all brought out by Babluani's noir direction of the movie.

13 Tzameti might not break new grounds in storytelling, but it proves that in this day and age, someone can pull off a true noir film without botching it (Hollywood should take notes on this!). I can only marvel at how 13 Tzameti feels like an even darker, French noir version of Battle Royale, MCed by a charismatic Walter Koenig-lookalike instead of a frighteningly genial Beat Takeshi.

First published at incinemas on 16 March 2007

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