Credit: ©Panama Film/FIDMarseille
by Öykü Sofuoğlu Featured Film

Bluish — Lilith Kraxner, Milena Czernovsky [FIDMarseille ’24 Review]

July 10, 2024

The depictions of early adulthood in cinema have, until recently, been characterized by an odd, dizzying sensation: portraying it as a period where one’s life has never been, and would never again be, so far from being a perfectly orchestrated and coherent course of growth — a sensation similar to those moments in cartoons when a character sprints off in haste, losing themselves in the momentum of exhilaration and freedom, only to realize mid-air that they’re off the cliff and about to be devoured by the void. The manic and messy adventures of 20-somethings from the aughts and early 2010s, mostly championed by American indies and with GIFs that decorated Tumblr and Pinterest feeds, are now being turned into running gags on TikTok to satisfy the ever-growing nostalgia of millennials. While it is indeed difficult and perhaps irrelevant to make generalizations about the globalized, tentacular film industry, where any argument can easily be invalidated by numerous counter-examples, an interesting trend of ‘introvertism” regarding the portrayals of young people can still be observed within the relatively loose frame of arthouse cinema. Primarily influenced by the long-term social and existential effects of COVID-19 on young people living in big cities who still struggle to reengage in their old habits of “being in the world,” a number of films and filmmakers explore how these individuals search for self-expression within the confines of domestic space and come with alternative ways of intimacy and connection, albeit clumsy and awkward in their interactions and sometimes becoming easily and suddenly unavailable for communication.

With their films Beatrix (2021) and bluish (2024), which recently won the Grand Prix in the international competition at FIDMarseille, Austrian filmmaker duo Lilith Kraxner and Milena Czernovsky provide vivid, empathetic glimpses of a different, relatively solitary young adulthood through their female protagonists. Beatrix had already demonstrated the directors’ fascination with the sentiment of chaos and rebellion expressed through small, mundane gestures, bringing together the sun-drenched ennui and idleness à la Rohmer and the domestic performativity of Akerman. Through its elusive titular character, who was spending her summer in the countryside, that film offered a fragmentary portrayal of a self-contained woman indulging in boredom and loneliness, all the while being resistant to forging human connections.

Working once again on 16mm, Kraxner and Czernovsky adopt a similar formal approach in bluish as they did with their first feature — characterized by static, austere shots and a keen focus on visual economy. Beatrix, bathed in warm lights and bright colors, epitomizes the quintessential summer film. In contrast, bluish, equally luminous yet distinctly different, could be described as a winter film, resonating with the cold, pale ambiances of short days and long nights. While Beatrix features a titular character who furtively tries to sabotage others’ attempts to approach her, the protagonists of bluish, Errol (Leonie Bramberger) and Sasha (Natasha Goncharova), seek connections in their own way, whether through a small touch, a game of eye-blinking, or a furtive smile. bluish is shot in Vienna, but like the characters’ names, it is never overtly addressed, conferring on the film a vague but familiar atmosphere that is easy to relate, where similar situations could happen to any young woman in any given European city. 

We follow Errol and Sasha as they go on with their daily lives, in an anti-climactic narrative built on vignettes in which every “event” is given equal attention and importance — an aspect that echoes, to a great extent, Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Audrey Benac films, with which bluish bears formal and aesthetic similarities. Errol, who can be described as the timid one of the two, has a more self-conscious and observant demeanor that the film captures in various instances of social interaction — the blinking game she plays with a kid before her doctor appointment, the constant glances she gives while changing in the local swimming pool’s locker room, the dissociative face she inadvertently makes while a friend tries to teach her a card game, and many more. Whereas Sasha, who seems to have recently moved to the city and doesn’t speak German, displays a more extroverted nonchalance and a physical expressivity. She goes to art galleries, performances, parties; even when unable to speak the language, she looks for other ways to connect and interact with people.

Kraxner and Czernovsky accommodate these varying sensitivities by resorting to different artistic forms and formats — performance, dance, VR film, songs, and even Google Earth imagery — that channel a wide range of sensory, social, and psychological experiences. While every frame and segment of the film feels meticulously structured and organized, one cannot fail to notice the inherent naturalistic aspect in them, expressed through a certain fascination of the camera with mundane, random things and events unfolding. In a similar fashion, both Errol and Sasha, though different in temperament, seem to constantly oscillate between the state of letting oneself go and feeling extremely aware of one’s presence among others. Living the moment and observing oneself live the moment: performing the self appears to be the ultimate existential dilemma of our times. 

In bluish, the blurring lines between reality and performance transcend the story and are explored on a conceptual level as well. In one particular scene, Errol helps an artist with the preparations for her art show, which Sasha is later seen attending. The artist asks her to put adhesive tape on the wall in a perfect rectangular form to see if the wall can be used for a projection. The result is a meditative, nearly mesmerizing scene that draws the viewer’s full attention to the wall itself, which mirrors the diegetic frame that the filmmakers chose to separate from the pre-filmic reality. Errol’s adhesive tape thus functions as a self-reflexive device that draws parallels between the cinematic framing process and our perception of it, raising several questions. For us, the audience, at what point does a wall stop being a simple, ordinary wall and become part of an artistic construction? Or, more broadly, when and how does a chunk of reality start acquiring new meanings beyond what it was intended to have — or have these meanings always been latent and indistinguishable? 

An inverse rendering of the same tension occurs near the end of the film when Sasha comes home after the party. Before going to sleep, she puts on an audio recording for meditation that helps the listener become aware of different parts of their body and environment. With the lights turned off, Sasha listens to it — but she is not the only audience of the recording. The soothing instructions pierce through the narrative and speak to our own physical bodies as we see and hear the film, offering a similar experience to Lois Patiño’s Samsara and its interactive segment illuminated with colorful lights. Here, though, after all those hues and tones of blue that populate the film, we find ourselves in pitch black, without knowing when exactly the darkness of Sasha’s bedroom fully transforms into a depthless void, into blankness — or whether we still remain within the limits of the physical world. Maybe it’s both and never fully any of them. Maybe, like the film itself that exists in this in-betweenness, what we call self, too, is a mere approximation. By way of an answer to the song we hear in the opening which asks, “Are you normal? Are you good? Are you fast?” one would indeed “come up short anyway” at being oneself, only capable of showing a tinge of it.

Published as part of FIDMarseille 2024 — Dispatch 3.