I was really looking forward to this week's movie for Spout Mavens, 13 Tzameti. I had seen a flurry of reviews(many positive), and the DVD case was packed to the gills with glowing blurbs from some very respectable sources. The director had won Best First Feature at the Venice Film Festival, and the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so obviously people liked this film. The description on the back painted the film as a thoughtful, if gritty, meditation on poverty and the temptations of violence. And then I opened the DVD case and was greeted by an ad for a 'real time version' of the game of Russian Roulette that forms the center of this film, which asked 'do you dare play?' So now I didn't know what to think as I began the movie.
Luckily I find uncertainty to be the best state of mind for watching a new movie, and I found myself being drawn in as the movie unfolded. And I do mean that the movie unfolded, like a road map, piece by piece becoming larger and clearer and more informative. The film begins with Sebastian, a 22 year old immigrant in France, and his brother as they work as handymen on a seaside house. We get glimpses of the owners of the house; an affluent-seeming junkie and his girlfriend. There is no effort on the part of the director to explain this scenario, letting the actions speak for themselves, giving a much more realistic feel to this film than many others. How many people speak in exposition that clearly delineates what they are talking about? None, most people have their own shorthand when they get together with friends, and although it isn't really obtuse, it never includes the backstory and explanation that most movie dialogue has. And what eavesdropper is lucky enough to hear every conversation from the beginning, so everything is laid out for him? Again, none, and it is in this way that Sebastian makes the unfortunate choice of stealing an envelope from the seaside house shortly after his employers death. All he, or the audience, knows is that this envelope holds a train ticket to Paris and a pre-paid hotel room, and the promise of a big payout. This is so tempting to him not out of selfish greed(or, not entirely anyway), but out of a need to support his family, who share a tiny apartment. Had he been in a more typical movie, one where eavesdroppers get all the pertinent information, he probably would not have decided to go to Paris.
But, of course, he does go. There would be no film if he hadn't, and now the movie really begins to unfold. In Paris Sebastian receives a phone call with more instructions, which lead to even more instructions, which in turn leads to a secluded house in the middle of a dark, imposing forest, and a very dangerous game run by very dangerous men with very large gambling addictions. This first section of the film, with Sebastian moving from place to place with no idea what is going to happen at the next stop, sets up a good deal of tension. It's twisty and a maybe a little fun to figure out the rules and follow along, but there's a fatalistic dread eating at the edges. Once he makes that first, almost innocent blind step(although lets not fool ourselves, Sebastian is well aware that whatever he's going after is illegal), Sebastian is pulled along on a trip he has no control over, towards an unknown destination.
The tension builds towards that inevitable game in the forest, and although most reviews, and the case for this DVD, seem happy to give spoilers, the details of this game are revealed in a way so integral to the films effectiveness that I would advise you to skip over any part of a review that goes into too deep a description. The tension built in the first half of the film begins to pay off here, while ratcheting up the intensity at the same time. With every round of the game the tension builds, releases for a moment, and then builds again, reaching greater heights each time. Some of this may become a tad bit repetitive, and have a slight numbing effect, but the craftwork is still to be admired, as it unravels with an almost clockwork precision. Sebastian's reaction to this 'game' is at first shocked refusal, but he finds himself unable to leave, stuck by his own bad decisions. As the game continues, and the stakes are raised, he finds himself becoming emotionally numbed even as his internal horror rises. At the end, it's impossible for the viewer to tell if he's laughing or crying as he raises the gun.
So obviously I enjoyed this one. My main complaint with the film itself would be the ending, which seems a little too tidy. It robs the character, and the audience, of the opportunity to reflect and deal with the aftermath of the 'game'. I suppose it fits with the feel of the film, which is spare and concise to the point of feeling like a short film. An extra 15 minutes or so of reflection and aftermath would have made the ending feel a bit bloated. Still, it is a bit of an obvious ending, and a slight disappointment.
Now on to that online game. I went to the site advertised, but the game took a long time to load and then asked me to download a bunch of attachments, so I never went forward with it. But I did look around the site, which is far too tasteless for this film. You can look at the leaderboards to see who's killed the most and survived the most games, read discussion threads full of bloodthirsty trash-talk, or even look at the 'Best Shots', which is a list of famous suicides and Russian roulette losers. I found nothing to indicate whether the filmmakers were involved with this, or if it was a site put up as a marketing tool by clueless studio executives, but it shows no understanding of the film itself, and is as crass as can be. The marketing for this movie, even down to the DVD case, seems to be selling this film as an exploitation piece, capitalizing on the central figure of the infamous game. So maybe I'm the one who's clueless. Perhaps this is merely a bit of modern snuff torture porn, wrapped up in classy french clothes that has fooled me into thinking it's art. Whatever the outcome, it's an interesting ride, and an effective film that I may actually be buying one day, to see it without the screener warnings and maybe check out some of the special features. And that, actually, might be the highest recommendation I can give this film.