How I Ended This Summer

How I Ended This Summer

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"Man is the warmest place to hide."

So ran the tagline for John Carpenter's antarctic horror The Thing – and while there are neither aliens nor mutations to be found in Alexei Popogrebsky's latest film, its subzero setting, exclusively male cast and thematic preoccupation with treachery all recall the Carpenter classic – while Popogrebsky's slow-burn handling of tension proves every bit as gripping.

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Still, How I Ended This Summer is no mere genre piece. For, shooting on the rocky shorelines and icy tundras of the Chukotka peninsula on Siberia's northeastern extremity, Popogrebsky has crafted an existential sort of thriller, where any human warmth is exposed to isolation and emptiness as much as to the elements, and where heightened actions and emotions are located in a universe of sublime indifference. The film may be essentially a two-hander, but the inhospitable environs of Chukotka (standing in for the fictitious Russian Arctic island of Archym) become a mute tritagonist, both framing and overwhelming the human actions in every scene.

Located near an abandoned radioisotope generator, the Archym Island weather station is manned by Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) and Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), who are also the island's only human residents. Middle-aged, old-fashioned and somewhat formidable, Sergei is a seasoned meteorologist whose strict devotion to his work is softened only by his attachment to the wife and infant son awaiting him on the mainland. Pavel is a somewhat feckless graduate student who seeks escape from the island's realities through headphone music and first-person shooters. As clouds are shown in timelapsed wide shot sweeping across the sky, these two men reduce the climatic chaos to a series of readings and calibrations, taken on an array of measuring devices, and relayed by radio back to the mainland base with clockwork regularity.

"If anyone asks, just make up some story," says Sergei, before setting off alone on an unauthorised fishing trip. In fact, this is an act of great faith, as the older man for the first time entrusts the running of the whole station to his young ward – but his invitation to deceive will come to resonate with a tragic irony. Mistaking his supervisor's gruff fatherly concern for bullying, Pavel will falsify the records of his inadequate work, and when told off for this by the returned Sergei, will neglect to pass on to him some dire news radioed in from home. As time passes, measured in the audible ticking of clocks, Pavel's lie will snowball until it leads, inevitably, to confrontation.

Aided by his DP Pavel Kostomarov and a committed crew, Pobogrebsky spent three months shooting at the Valkarkai polar station on the northernmost tip of Chukotka (described by the filmmaker as "literally the end of the world"), in conditions every bit as harsh as those depicted in the film. The result is a work of chilling beauty, whose sparse, unforgiving landscapes can accommodate all manner of allegorical readings. For the essentially Oedipal conflict between a father and his adopted son also evokes the relationship between the smoldering embers of the Soviet age and the altered values of the new Russia. Nature is most certainly savage, but man-made contrivance – whether in the form of deception or radioactive machinery – proves no less dangerous.

"This is not a playground," Sergei warns Pavel. The scenario on the island may soon approximate one of the combat-themed video games that Pavel likes to play, but the stakes here are life and death, for keeps. As the drama unfolds, almost wordlessly, on this vast and desolate stage, and Pavel's desperate yearning for food and warmth leads to his ultimate undoing, themes of alienation and exile collide with tautly wound suspense at the horizon of sea and sky – and the only monster, apart from the odd polar bear, resides in the human heart.

Reviewed on: 12 Jan 2011
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A youngster on a remote Arctic research station engages in a series of deadly deceptions.
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Director: Aleksei Popogrebsky

Writer: Aleksei Popogrebsky

Starring: Grigoriy Dobrygin, Sergei Puskepalis

Year: 2010

Runtime: 124 minutes

Country: Russia


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