This week’s new offerings at Ogden’s Art House Cinema 502 run from brutal Ukrainian realism to frisky French farce. ---
Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy—making its American premiere here this Thursday—feels like a cinematic demonstration that when Thomas Hobbes described life as “nasty, brutish and short,” he must have been talking about the Ukraine. The episodic narrative primarily follows a truck driver named Georgi (Viktor Nemets) as he navigates his way through a society of power-abusing petty bureaucrats, casual vice and even more casual violence. The story also occasionally swings into the era’s Soviet and World War II past, making for some occasionally jarring shifts that primarily serve to demonstrate that as much as things suck there in the present, they sucked just as much (if not more) in the past. Loznitsa continually keeps you off-balance with out-of-nowhere moments of violence, and as grueling an experience as the film is, it packs an undeniable punch in portraying a country so deeply steeped in corruption that no sane response seems possible.
There are some dark edges to Michel Leclerc’s The Names of Love (pictured), as well, but they’re used primarily in service of a comedy with the absurdist bent of early Woody Allen. At its heart, it’s an odd-couple romance between Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), a repressed French animal epidemiologist, and Baya (Sara Forestier), who inspires curiosity as to the French translation of “manic pixie dream girl.” In an extended prologue, we learn about the family histories that inform their respective hang-ups: half-Jewish Arthur’s family never discussing that his mother was a Holocaust survivor, and half-Arab Baya’s childhood including sexual abuse by her piano teacher. It’s impressive enough that Leclerc and co-writer Baya Kasmi fold such tricky topics into comedy that doesn’t feel exploitative. But there are several truly inspired comic set pieces strewn throughout—including a sequence devoted to Arthur’s parents and their affinity for cutting-edge technologies instantly replaced (the Betamax, laserdiscs, etc.)—and the surreal flourishes like Arthur’s conversations with his adolescent self rarely feel obtrusive. Things get broad and overly busy at times, and the subtext of muddled ethnic identity never fully clicks. Good thing it’s funny enough that pointed commentary isn’t required.