By Sheri Linden
In the reductive lingo of movie genres, you could call the central characters of Gavagai an odd couple on a road trip. The differences between the two men are essential to the film, but not as the wellspring for personality-clash punchlines. Those differences connect them, much to their mutual surprise: each peering into a chasm, one from the profound solitude of grief, the other in the fumbling, urgent leap of romantic commitment.
Meditative and dreamlike yet gem-sharp, director Rob Tregenza's fifth feature in 30 years is an elegantly told story that churns with emotion beneath its deceptive stillness. Exploring the ways that language can pierce the surface, Tregenza and co-writer Kirk Kjeldsen have spun their contemporary, Norway-set tale around the poetry of Tarjei Vesaas, one of that country's leading 20th century literary figures. Used judiciously and with illuminating precision, lines from Vesaas' poems are heard in voiceover. As might be expected, the words imbue the eloquently framed landscape with a sharp ache, but they also cast a fresh light on such familiar movie tropes as the listless traipse of modern-day searchers through overstocked supermarket aisles. At one point or another, every road-tripper needs supplies.
The first moments of Gavagai signal how fraught a journey middle-aged Carsten (Andreas Lust, Revanche) is on. In the rural Telemark region of Norway he disembarks from a train, enters the quiet village beside the station and then races back onto the waiting train, only to disembark again seconds later. Settling onto a bench, he catches his breath and steels himself for what lies ahead. Just as Tregenza observes a good portion of this fitful beginning from a distant fixed point, he withholds the reason for Carsten's trip until a third of the way into the story.
Language is at the core of the bereaved Carsten's mission: He's translating Vesaas' poems from Norwegian to Chinese, completing a project begun by his late wife. "Nobody asks who we are" is one of the first Vesaas lines heard in the film, and yet Carsten is adamantly sealed off from revealing himself, even when asked. For reasons that aren't explained, he doesn't drive, and the man he hires to ferry him around Telemark, to places that figured in Vesaas' life and work, is Niko, proprietor of a nonstarter of an "elk safari" business and played in subdued Jack Black-esque mode by Mikkel Gaup.
Taking the backseat in Niko's van, Carsten — affectingly hollowed out in Lust's contained performance — won't engage with the driver, rebuffing his hail-fellow attempts at conversation until, finally, Cartsten divulges the painful truth. What seems to Niko like "the Lonely Planet Guide to the most lonely shit in Norway" is in fact a grief-stricken act of tribute to a beloved spouse, information that hits the inquisitive Niko like a sock in the gut.
Though it's fundamentally a two-hander, the film features two other crucial characters. The first, a woman in traditional Chinese costume who trails the men, eventually interacting with Carsten, is the vision or spirit of his wife. The other is Mari, Niko's fed-up girlfriend. That they're played by the same actress, Anni-Kristiina Juuso (The Cuckoo), is a symbolic gesture that further connects the two men's quandaries. It also helps to dispel the exoticism of the operatically Chinese ghost — if not quite a false note, certainly a distracting one amid the film's presiding restraint. The female characters are vital to their respective partners, but to Tregenza and Kjeldsen's credit, they're not meant to be interchangeable, and probably would have nothing to say to each other — much like Niko and Carsten.
Tregenza (Talking to Strangers), whose notable cinematography credits include Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, captures the trip with a lapidary clarity on 35mm, favoring long takes — there are only 21 shots in the film. At key junctures he uses gliding camera moves that are as revelatory as they are weightless, particularly in a remarkable sequence on a boat; as with most serious journeys, this one involves a water crossing. Tregenza handles the editing as well, and though the deliberately paced narrative might at first strike some as the big-screen equivalent of Norway's slow TV, the rhythmic seams grow invisible as the dramatic impact deepens.
Tregenza's heady inspirations include Heidegger, Godard and the American philosopher W.S. Quine (whose theories on the complexities of translation give the film its title). But there's nothing pedantic in the organic emulsion he's created. From morning birdsong to the rustle of leaves in the breeze, from the stutter of stalled car engines to the spare and poignant score, there's nothing extraneous in Gavigai. As in the best poetry, each image and every sound has the rigor and grace of a well-turned line.
Production companies: Gestell Motion Picture Company, Lichtbogen Filmproduktion, Properfilm
Distributor: Shadow Distribution
Cast: Andreas Lus, Anni-Kristiina Juuso, Mikkel Gaup
Director: Rob Tregenza
Screenwriters: Kirk Kjeldsen, Rob Tregenza
Producer: Kirk Kjeldsen
Executive producers: Tom Papa, Rob Tregenza
Director of photography: Rob Tregenza
Production designer: Jay Kay Eareckson
Editor: Rob Tregenza
Composers: Cascade Duo
Casting director: Anne Chapman
In English and Norwegian