Gunda is an empty, exploitative aesthetic exercise that that has no ideas to speak of.
If nothing else — and it truly offers little else — Viktor Kosakovskiy’s Gunda serves as a handy catalogue of contemporary film-festival affectation. Although it nominally concerns the lives of a few farm animals — mainly a sow and her litter — the film is, rest assured, not your typical nature documentary, so don’t expect anything so vulgar as information. Eschewing dialogue, music, and almost all human presence, the film can thus lay claim to a certain stylistic “rigor.” In addition, as it’s shot in black-and-white (“lustrous” is the go-to descriptor here), with the camera kept largely at ground-level, it is also, one gathers, meant to be an “immersive” experience. As is only fitting for such a film, it’s not really “about” anything in particular, unless one can divine some sort of message at the film’s end, when the sow we’ve been observing at length wanders alone for 10 or so minutes, its now grown offspring having been taken away by a man in a tractor. (Of course, we only hear the pigs being taken away.) But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Gunda opens with the very same sow on its side, half of its body obscured within the interior of a small barn. After some grunting, newborn piglets start to emerge one by one. When they eventually start clambering over each other to feed, accompanied by a soundscape as detailed as the images are sharp, Kosakovskiy floats the possibility that the film might play natural animal activity for discomfort and horror (think Eraserhead’s litter of feeding pups). When one of the piglets gets lost in the hay, and is then possibly crushed under its mother, the film’s aestheticized approach might, to that end, seem rather superfluous. When the film later follows a one-legged chicken and some cows, that initial, visceral sense of unease starts to dissipate.
Still, the question of what, exactly, Kosakovskiy is going for, remains. One could probably point to a film such as Sweetgrass, but whatever their faults, the Harvard SEL films tend to find some sort of consonance between form and subject, whereas Kosakovskiy’s aesthetic palette mainly registers as oppressive and pointless. Gunda displays nothing in the way of genuine observation, as that would imply that it actually revealed anything. Likewise, it’s conceptually unimpeachable because it has no ideas to speak of. At best, Gunda is a dubious technical exercise, a proof of concept for an ostensibly novel, rigidly predetermined aesthetic. At worst, as in its final moments, it’s proof that one can always find new ways to make a vacuous, exploitative wallow in the muck.