Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Portamanteau films are notoriously difficult to pull off, after all, getting several directors to come up with a satisfying tone and continuity when faced with a loose theme is a pretty big ask. Frequently the theme is something slightly abstract, say the self-explanatory Eros or the rather self-important RoGoPag, which saw the directors “limit themselves to recounting the joyous beginning of the end of the world”. Failing that, they are often united by setting (New York Stories, Tickets), which can lead them to feel slightly aimless in places, struggling to hang on to the emotional heart of the audience.

Here, in this film from Latvia, we are at least guaranteed one constant throughout - protagonist Teodors - who is captured by four different directors at different stages of his life, childhood, adolescence, maturity and middle age. The word vogelfrei itself is, like the protagonist, given several definitions, including "free as a bird", "the start of the hunting season" and "latitudinarian". All of these themes are touched on to a certain extent as Teodors ages. The problem, however, is one of shifting tone - and one alarming change of character - which mean that despite the central tenet you can't help feeling that you are watching films about different men.

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Things start well, with a childhood sequence that could easily be extended into a longer film of its own. Igors Suhoverhovs takes the acting honours in the segment by Janis Kalejis which creates the sort of lazy, hazy days of summer we all like to pretend we remember. There's a sense of adventure in the air as Teodors plays with his pals and experiments with the first pangs of 'love' courtesy of the girl in the group. Kalejis's emphasis is definitely on the freedoms of childhood, although there is room to show the constraints children also find themselves under. The naturlistic performances hold the attention and so it comes as all the more of a jolt when we are thrust into the teen world of Teodors.

The contrast is enhanced by the fact that the second segment of the film is set against an urban backdrop. Here, Teodors - now played by Karlis Spravniks - has grown into something of a lonely teen, although it's hard to fully believe that a boy who apparently seems to be very good at ice hockey and part of a team could be so isolated. Here he is again tentatively trying out the relationship game and, again, Gatis Smits's short segment feels as though it could easily be expanded into something more. If Teodors childhood evoked a European twist on Stand By Me, as a teen he slips into Gus Van Sant territory - although he has much more purpose than that often given to Van Sant's protagonists.

It is in the third segment of the film - by Janis Putnins - that the film really loses its way. Here Teodors is successful in business but lonely in private. The trouble is that it is hard to believe that this is the same boy from the previous segments. There's nothing wrong with Ints Teterovskis' portrayal but he looks totally wrong for the part. Also, the character arc feels all wrong. Would someone so isolated be able to hustle so successfully in the workplace? I doubt it. This segment, unlike the proceding two, seems to last forever, feels like the dull bits of every indie domestic drama you've ever watched, and you could be forgiven for thinking you are going to be old yourself before it comes to an end.

Thank goodness then for Anna Viduleja's concluding segment, which sits much more easily with the first two parts and ends the film on a high note. Here Teodors, played with a reserved intensity by Liubomiras Lauciavicius, has learned a thing or two about life an fully intends to teach a pair of yuppy city slickers a lesson about what freedom means. Here it is the bird they come to hunt that represents that sense of liberty and this section most clearly and adeptly explores all the various definitions of vogelfrei, while still leaving room for a contemplation of Teodors character.

Like the film's themselves, star ratings for portmanteau are also notoriously difficult - and rather unfair. Segments one and four are probably worthy of four stars each, while the second instalment is a solid three to three and a half. The sedentary third part, however, warrants nothing more than two, meaning that the best way to watch this film may well be on DVD, when you can freely fast forward through the doldrums, although this is a shame since parts one and four are engagingly cinematic.

Reviewed on: 07 Jul 2008
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Vogelfrei packshot
An experimental directorial quartet taking on the four ages of a single character's life.

Director: Janis Kalejs, Janis Putnins, Gatis Smits, Anna Viduleja

Writer: Janis Kalejs, Gatis Smits, Janis Putnins, Anna Viduleja, Jurgis Liepnieks, Kaspars Rolsteins

Starring: Igors Suhoverhovs, Karlis Spravniks, Ints Teterovskis, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Tatjana Jansone-Nazarova, Girts Krumins, Emilija Leiskalne, Jurgis Liepnieks, Armands Reinfelds, Kaspars Rolsteins, Irena Tjunina

Year: 2007

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Latvia

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