In a highly amusing opening scene, a gaggle of old men barter over the quality and dimensions of their caskets in a coffin shop. In these few moments, Otar Iosseliani wittily articulates his film’s central concerns regarding the folly of human ambition and nonsensical materialism. What follows are two meandering hours of variations on these themes which, even when they fizz with humour and striking visual metaphors, still feel like a drip-fed, diluted version of the punchy prologue.
The plot – of which, by design, there isn't much to speak – revolves around Vincent (Séverin Blanchet), a statesman ousted from his stale life of luxury and privilege by popular protest. He proceeds to negotiate his change of lifestyle with bumbling charm, ricocheting from one former lover to another; now dependent on mistresses who once clung to his status, as well as his surreally hilarious ‘maman’ (Michel Piccoli): a quasi-Mafiosi transvestite matriarch.
Neither is Vincent without his quirks, which include standing on his head in moments of anxiety (a trope ingeniously echoed in a later shot of a set of mechanical figurines). Such idiosyncrasies are all very droll, while the non-specific setting underscores Iosseliani’s characteristically fabulist style, as do the ubiquitous animals – from the caged toucan which passes between grey-suited bureaucrats, to the pampered leopard found lolling in the corridors of power.
Classic themes of the incontrovertible cycles of life and reversals of fortune are at the crux of the film, and Iosseliani enjoys poking fun at the absurdity of humankind for trying to swim against the tide. No doubt there’s a horticultural cross-reference to be teased from the famous closing line of Voltaire’s Candide: ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin’. Iosseliani's rambling grounds could do with a little pruning but, hey, one person’s weed is another’s wildflower.
French-Georgian auteur Otar Iosseliani has serious arthouse cred.
Not so much slow paced as no paced – sufferers of attention deficit disorder beware.
Hard work for those accustomed to linear narrative, but there’s no denying its charm or cleverness.