Unlike Puiu’s similarly-shaped Sieranevada, Malmkrog is all empty abstraction, mistaking prattle for praxis.
“For a talking cinema”: that’s the title that a young Maurice Scherer, not yet christened Eric Rohmer, selected for his signature polemic, and the apparent aim of the current Cristi Puiu project. The Romanian New Wave stalwart certainly wouldn’t object to the implied comparison. Puiu dedicated his 2013 documentary/experimental theatre hybrid Three Interpretation Exercises to the long-winded elder brother of the original Nouvelle Vague, and the subsequent trajectory of Puiu’s career suggests a deepening commitment to the Rohmerian concept of the “spoken film.” Indeed, his newest film, Malmkrog, much like his last one, Sieranevada, largely confines itself to a single interior location and tracks — via re-framings and re-positionings both visual and verbal — the salvos and volleys that accompany tense conversation in tight quarters.
But unlike Sieranevada, which breathes with rich, contemporary social detail despite its claustrophobic two-room setting, Malmkrog is mostly restricted to abstractions and theories. To be fair, that’s part of Puiu’s design: the film was born from the work of Russian thinker and spiritualist Vladimir Solovyov, whose writings also inspired Three Interpretation Exercises, and whose philosophical preoccupations set the agenda for a group of six aristocrats trapped together in a snow-bound manor house around the dawn of the 20th century. Naturally, they have nothing better to do than argue the finer points of Christ’s resurrection and the nature of evil. Because Puiu stages their stuffy, interminable debates within an opulent period frame (and tosses in a few surrealist gestures for good measure), he asserts — in the widely recognized language of the festival economy — that Malmkrog is not simply another talky exercise, but rather a fully fledged, fully cinematic work.
It’s a problem, then, that Malmkrog’s dialogue elucidates precious little about time, place or character, and doubly so that it plays, finally, like another tired feat of performance art masochism. In fact, the film operates best whenever you give up on the subtitles and simply look around instead: Puiu’s compositional skills are—as ever—razor sharp, and he offhandedly details the background action of the servants with thrilling fastidiousness, proving that he ought to consider following in the footsteps of his fellow countrymen Corneliu Porumboiu and shift to making perfectly mediocre police procedurals. But if Puiu’s going to insist that his people keep on carrying on, he would do well to revisit M. Scherer’s old essay and heed the master’s words: “The director’s art is not to make us forget what characters say but, rather, to help us not miss a word.” If he doesn’t, he will continue to mistake mere prattle for talking cinema praxis.
You can currently stream Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog on Mubi.
Originally published as part of Berlin International Film Festival 2020 | Dispatch 4.