I saw this film at the end of a long tiring day. It think that is why I didn’t have quite the same ecstatic response to it that seems to be the case with so many audiences. It won the ‘Best of Festival’ prize at London last Autumn plus Silver Bears for the two actors at Berlin and it’s easy to see why it might be an arthouse hit in the UK.
Writer-Director Aleksei Popogrebsky has always been fascinated by polar exploration (see the interview in the Press Pack downloadable from UK distributors New Wave). After two previous art film successes (Koktobel, 2003 and Simple Things, 2007) he embarked on this extremely difficult shoot using a tiny crew and two actors transported to remote locations in Chukotka Autonomous Region. In the story these locations are on an island in the Arctic Sea and the two men are operating a polar weather station. The older of the two men is Sergey, a veteran of the service. His younger companion Pavel appears to be spending his first summer on the island and the two men are not entirely comfortable together. Sergey takes Pavel to be lazy and possibly careless. Pavel thinks the older man is too uptight. He plays video games, listens to his MP3 player and is skilled in dealing with computer readings. Sergey’s behaviour is more disciplined and his activity more physical. The boredom and the endless summer daylight are bound to affect both men.They know that they are on their own, that help of any kind can only come by air or ship – and that bad weather and pack ice could leave them completely isolated.
The narrative turns on two events. First Sergey goes fishing for ‘Arctic Trout’. He is away in a small boat for a couple of days. This isn’t allowed of course, but Sergey knows that fresh fish will supplement their boring diet and that the break in routine will do him good. But while he is away, Pavel receives a radio call with urgent news for Sergey. He has to lie about why Sergey can’t respond himself. The news is shocking and when Sergey returns, Pavel fails to tell him about it. Once the lies begin, the relationship between the two men is doomed and what was a slight discomfort becomes the basis for psychological and then physical conflict.
The film is beautifully shot and edited (the cinematographer and sound recordist each have a background in documentary) and the generic elements of the thriller with two men in an unforgiving wilderness are generally very well-handled. Polar bears, especially in September, are a real hazard in this area – the director had a first-hand experience of one! Why then wasn’t I overwhelmed? I think that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the plotting but possibly more important I was irritated by the younger man. My sympathies were all with Sergey but the narrative seems to push us to if not identify with, then at least follow, Pavel. The director says that he doesn’t consciously build parables into his script, but that when they meet an audience, people may find parables. It did seem to me that Sergey represents the Soviet professional – someone who began working life before the break-up of the Soviet Union – and that Pavel represents the ‘New Russia’.
I’m willing to have another go with the film. I think that it is likely to do very well and it certainly is worth seeing. It might be interesting to compare it with Hollywood thrillers in regard to certain sequences. Shutter Island and Christopher Nolan’s version of Insomnia come to mind.
How I Ended My Summer is released in the UK by New Wave on April 22nd – here is a list of cinemas showing it.