Malmkrog (Cert 15)

Digital/VOD (Distributor: Sovereign Film Distribution) Running Time: 200 minutes approx.

So you invite a few friends around for dinner, naturally you talk a lot. Once you are done chewing the fat, the conversation turns to heavier subjects – politics, religion, morality, the meaning of life – and you learn more about your friends than you did before. If that sounds like a very long night, wait until you watch this film…

Christmas Eve circa 1900, wealthy Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) is playing host to his friends Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), Edouard (Ugo Broussot), Olga (Marina Palii), and Madeleine (Agathe Bosch). They spend the day together discussing a number of topics, with each subject providing an insight into the varied attitudes and opinions of the host and his guests.

One look at the runtime – 3 hours and 20 minutes in old money – and the brief plot summary and you may wonder how the two are related. Usually, I would say, “but it isn’t that bad” yet I cannot lie – it can get very wearisome. If you thought French cinema was garrulous compared to Malmkrog, the works of Rohmer, Guitry, and Resnais are positively pithy! 

Romanian director Cristi Puiu, who gave us the devastating social drama The Death of Mister Lazarescu which he followed up with the plodding drama Aurora, has changed tact again with Malmkrog. The poster with the cloaked figures and the enigmatic sounding title suggest gothic horror – in fact, Malmkrog translates to “Manor House” and the script is based on Three Conversations by Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov.

Heavy duty stuff indeed. Puiu clearly understands and admires Solovyov enough to take on the challenge of adapting his work for the screen, for which we should applaud him, though the rewards for the audience will be purely subjective and very much according to taste. This is not a film for the pseuds to get snooty about as it has every chance of being just as tedious for them too, making anybody easily forgiven for not being able to appreciate or enjoy it.

Very little is shared about the characters, even their names are thrown about but it takes a while before we recognise to whom there are attached. Slightly helpful is having the six individual chapters of the film is named after the person who will be prominent in the ensuing discussion. The location is a lavish country mansion in Transylvania; host Nikolai’s sharp facial features and stylish beard do echo the suave vampiric archetype of this nation.

Yet everybody speaks French for the most part but that is a minor thing. The guests all seem to be of some breeding – Ingrida is wife of a count who is lying sick in bed at the house, occasionally seen as the harried staff tend to him. She is a very formal woman, her tightly buttoned dress seemingly by design lest she actually enjoy herself. Olga is the youngest of the group and assumed the naïve for her devout faith which is routinely dissected by the others as a matter of course.

Edouard heads his segment with a lengthy diatribe about what being European means, revealing himself to be the resident “I’m not racist but…” of the group, whilst Madeleine, a pianist, has the sharpest tongue and the only one to come to Olga’s defence despite disagreeing with her. Interestingly, the genders of the cast differ from Solovyov’s work, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference other than to show that women can converse with men on an intellectual level.

If the run time, source material, and unexciting premise haven’t put you off by now, I’m sure the word “intellectual” was the deal breaker. Solovyov was writing about war and religion in his original work and has plenty to say about it. The discursive nature of the script ensures balance is respected to avoid subjecting the audience to one-sided rants that go unchallenged, and in all fairness, there are some worthy points raised here.

Atheism might sound like the default opinion of everyone bar Olga, but in fact, they are asking Olga to justify or contextualise her faith and understanding of the scriptures for their own elucidation. Topics like the morality of war and the finality of death invite a religious perspective, and whilst the others are cynical, Olga holds her own and isn’t shamed into silence like Edouard and his oddly prescient Brexit-like tirade.

Prescience is also a key factor in the presentation. I don’t know if this was because the filming took place during Lockdown or if this was Puiu making a visual statement but the cast are largely a distance away from each other, standing around at various points in the room, or at least an arm’s length away whilst sat at the dinner table. It might be nothing but I found it interesting to observe.

Most of the discussion scenes are single shots, the camera kept wide and largely static, save for the odd panning across to the next speaker. The only time editing occurs is when the cast are sat at the table to allow close ups. The execution of the bustle of the servants is military precision in its tightness, so amazingly natural and fluid in how they work around the cast without intruding on the moment. The preparation and rehearsals must have been Herculean but the results should impress anyone.

This also extends to the cast for being able to remember their excessive dialogue, hitting their cues in the single take shots, and performing as well. It must have been a slog for them as much as it is for less patient audiences, though I doubt Puiu felt he was putting people to sleep with this film when making it.

Forgive the paradox of sounding over-generous, but despite its inherent tediousness, Malmkrog is a very rich film, as a structured piece of cinema, thought provoking drama, and clever adaptation of a profound text, but only a few will find these riches which is actually a shame.

Rating – ***   

Man In Black