Credit: microFILM1
by Zachary Goldkind Featured Film

Mammalia — Sebastian Mihăilescu [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 28, 2023

In experimenting with narrative in the cinema, we take on a capacity for expression that currently has no real affinities or structures. The imagination that seethes is one’s most integral collaborator during a process of constructing alternative narrativity. An expanse is opened up, a space where both association and abstraction can feed off each other as to guide us to new forms. Narrative structures within the cinema are largely indebted to the traditions of the stage, and so one often wonders where new structures will be found that position the cinema within a history of itself. Mammalia, Sebastian Mihăilescu’s latest feature, flirts with the capacity to broach tradition, yet falls back onto a retreat into theater. Where plausibly cogent perspectives on both gender sociality and masculinity might manifest (masculinity insofar as it signifies dissonance with a truly reflexive assessment of identity — a vacancy of tangible and introspective faculties produced via the sustained efforts of the reactionary), we are instead treated to slight aestheticism, rudimentary invocations of the theater of the absurd, which cake any observation in a flattening crudeness.

To slow down just a smidge and describe what happens through the film would be to also contradict the nature of experimental narrative, which should be, in principle, elusive to synopsis and discerned more through the experiential than the expository. István Téglás (of Malmkrog and The Whistlers) plays our protagonist, Camil, a middle-aged epitome of the mediocre and dejected. His frustrations and animosity are expressed as spectacle in his interrogation of a fertility cult, slowly shifting spheres from his bureaucratic day job facility — an ornate and ridiculous space, where employees maneuver the multi-floored building with installed ladders — to the oneiric wooded lake where this cult (of which his wife is a member) camps out. Though any clear trajectory is mildly obfuscated, this journey is ultimately one of deliberate stalking, unfurling Camil’s insecurity and loaded resentment in wide-scale compositional gags à la Tati. But it isn’t very funny, and the texture of each shot increases in its broadness, with the most striking work consequently being fashioned in the opening ten minutes. This broadness is further emphasized in the work’s handling of gender dysphoria as binary contrast to the unsettling of Camil in his positionality of the white, male archetype: think Tyler Durden exploring femininity instead of anarchism, without much of an acute sense of the complex at play beyond immediate gesticulation. Contextualizing these gestures is, about an hour in, a dialogue Camil engages in with a cult member that explicates the ennui and disconcertment we are then to project back onto him, as to elucidate characterization in the face of slightly obscured narrativity. The lack of confidence such a decision suggests is, to me, indicative of the consistently frail articulations sorted throughout the film, from opening to close.

The final scene is, in itself, reticent to provide any further aesthetic inquiries to offer dimension to this investigation of gender within the reactionary mind. With the mannerisms of the stage, a troupe of actors hounds Camil in celebration of his pregnancy, something clearly unwanted as expressed through his cries. The ensemble scurries in from the frame’s right and throngs him, their niceties of celebration an inaudible cacophony. With cloyingly unimaginative blocking, this scene of stupendous exhibition is both hackneyed and tedious, an apt summation of all that came prior, rendered through formal means that, in their theatrical modality, emplace the regressive sensibilities of the work writ large.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.5.