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Veiko Õunpuu's Last Men

by Malkin
Veiko Õunpuu's Last Men by Malkin
“I guess we’re the same nation really, Finns and Estonians, just divided by a sea and with a different history because of that. Estonians are just bitterer (for the obvious reasons). I think humour is inevitable, inescapable, omnipresent and absolute (said with a smile of course).” In a mere three films, Veiko Õunpuu has carved out a niche in world cinema (to say nothing of his impact in his native Estonia). His films, he describes as rhythms; armed with an expansive knowledge of Bresson, Fellini, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Kaurismaki, Lynch, Bunuel, and Antonioni for a start, he threads familiar filmmaking tools through his singularly visceral… Read more

“I guess we’re the same nation really, Finns and Estonians, just divided by a sea and with a different history because of that. Estonians are just bitterer (for the obvious reasons). I think humour is inevitable, inescapable, omnipresent and absolute (said with a smile of course).”

In a mere three films, Veiko Õunpuu has carved out a niche in world cinema (to say nothing of his impact in his native Estonia). His films, he describes as rhythms; armed with an expansive knowledge of Bresson, Fellini, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Kaurismaki, Lynch, Bunuel, and Antonioni for a start, he threads familiar filmmaking tools through his singularly visceral tone poems.

Õunpuu is, in many ways, a nihilistic director, and his deadpan characters approach the middle of their lives and struggle to come to terms with their failings. They do it silently, of course – emotionlessly – with a lift of an eyebrow or a stroll through an ocean or maybe an occasional attempted murder. There is anger simmering beneath the surface of his characters, so heavily worn down by a society that is incomprehensible to them. In The Temptation of St Tony, Õunpuu’s camera is equally disbelieving whether it looks at prim socialites dancing with abandon to techno music or the ground splitting beneath the feet of the very same cultural elite.

His third film is his most explicit, his darkest, his sparsest, and his best. In its sonic cavern thrum hollow and terrifying sounds, and Tony is beset on all sides by the darkest apparitions. He is surrounded by an society in decline – or maybe it’s just him in decline, and the society continues as it always has, with him only now becoming aware of all the places where it leaks ink and blood. Õunpuu has called Autumn Ball too sentimental, too aesthetic – perhaps, too hopeful, although for most of its ensemble it ends with his usual cruelly ironic punctuation mark. Said characters are misfit and wanderers packed into homogenous apartments and forced to confront their inability to find companionship or, indeed, anything other than disappointment in the people around them; Õunpuu puts the saint of his most recent film through the same perilous revelation, but he does not do it gently. Tony is a patient man, and handles all but the very worst of his trials with poise and a poker face; by the film’s bitter denouement, he has accepted the dish that God has served him. He’s been a good boy, has Saint Tony.

“So when you take everything that’s wrong with the world and channel it through the parody of the media that we enjoy in these parts, you instantly realize, that the world has become the waiting room for hell. To my mind the cabaret scene is quite an accurate if simplified description of the world we currently inhabit: People feed on other people.

Americans especially shouldn’t be surprised to see such a parable presented to them. The long history of cubicle feudalism, the recent outbreak of the “financial crisis” and the ever strong onslaught of the military-industrial complex should make that grim truth clear even to unborn babies.”

In Tuhirand, meanwhile, Mati yearns most for what he cannot have. Simultaneously lighter and sharper than Autumn Ball, it charts in a sparse forty minutes the weekend retreat of a man, his wife and her lover. He is resolved to win her back, and the staccato altercations that result provide some of Õunpuu’s most winking and cheery moments. But when the weekend ends and all seems resolved, there is not a trace of the happy ending. Mati finds himself once again empty, no better off than when he thought he had lost her; the weekend was just a temporary relief from this crushing sense of emptiness that dominates his life. And after all, he will never be able to rely on her, or on anybody, and he has no faith in himself.

This is the place where Mati, Tony, and the whole cast of Autumn Ball find themselves: drifting, lost, forlorn, abandoned by all the institutions that they’ve leaned on for all of their lives. There are flickers of hope, soon extinguished by the cruelty of their fellow man and the God who has turned his back on them. They are the forgotten ones, the middle managers and petty clerks of life, the dead-faced watchers who can see things with their own eyes and remain without, hovering. And when they look in on a decaying civilization and the people too blind to stop themselves from hastening its whimpering end, they are indeed the last men.

This is said with a begrudging humour. Said with a smile.

For me, Õunpuu’s films are not only about the knife’s-edge humour and the existential despair. They’re also about the permeating sense of chilliness, the plaintive soaring camera, the frozen expressions. They’re about a rhythmic ebb and flow that bears down harder and harder on the viewer’s psyche and gets more furiously intense with each film he makes. The anger is as veiled as the melancholy, with every emotion bleached into the in-between zones of his films until all that remains on the surface is that persistent chilliness and the willingness to bite one’s tongue and do that which supposedly needs to be done – whether that is to succeed, to be loved, or to be good. Õunpuu answers nothing and questions everything, and he does it in the margins of the margins.

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