Witty and cool, despite the mayhem

Farewell, Home Sweet Home (nc) | Otar Iosseliani, 118 mins
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The Independent Culture

No, I'm sorry, but even if it's about to be "beamed" all over the country - more like a TV programme than a movie, when you think of it - the film of the week is definitely not Rules of Engagement. It's Otar Iosseliani's Farewell, Home Sweet Home, distributed by the ICA and hence doomed to a scandalously limited nationwide release. For British audiences, though, there's at least one advantage to the fact that Iosseliani is an unknown quantity, an X-Man, so to speak. Because it's all of 16 years since the release of the only one of his films ever to be screened here, Les Favoris de la Lune, a new generation of spectators, few as they're bound to be, will finally have the pleasure of discovering his unique approach to narrative, a pleasure denied those of us already familiar with his work.

No, I'm sorry, but even if it's about to be "beamed" all over the country - more like a TV programme than a movie, when you think of it - the film of the week is definitely not Rules of Engagement. It's Otar Iosseliani's Farewell, Home Sweet Home, distributed by the ICA and hence doomed to a scandalously limited nationwide release. For British audiences, though, there's at least one advantage to the fact that Iosseliani is an unknown quantity, an X-Man, so to speak. Because it's all of 16 years since the release of the only one of his films ever to be screened here, Les Favoris de la Lune, a new generation of spectators, few as they're bound to be, will finally have the pleasure of discovering his unique approach to narrative, a pleasure denied those of us already familiar with his work.

So who is Otar Iosseliani? He was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1934, and has been based in Paris since the Eighties. His early Russian films ( There Was a Singing Blackbird, Pastorale) were just as droll and idiosyncratic as those he subsequently made in France. It is, however, the latter ( Les Favoris, Et la lumiÿre fut, La Chasse aux papillons, his masterpiece) that one recalls most fondly, perhaps because the film-makers to whom he has repeatedly paid homage as having had the greatest influence on his own style - René Clair (with whom he shares an affection for tramps and winos, for what Kundera called "the loafing heroes of folk song") and Jacques Tati (with whom he shares a nostalgia for a long-vanished Paris of corner cafés and blind accordion-playing beggars) - were themselves both French. Neither Clair nor Tati is, of course, now fashionable, nor has Iosseliani ever been, which explains why he's of strictly no interest to the British.

Yet Farewell, Home Sweet Home, imbued as it is with that profoundly unfashionable sentiment, the love of life, is an enchantment. The tone of the film, as of all Iosseliani's work, is less one of humour than of good-humour, a good-humour undimmed by reversals of fortune (a mugging, an armed robbery, an attempted rape, even a murder) that would reduce the characters of most contemporary movies to a state of catatonia. The message seems to be that, if there's wine to be drunk, love to be made and songs to be sung, there can't be too much the matter with this vale of tears. If Barthes once described Voltaire as the last happy writer, then Iosseliani is the last happy film-maker. (He is, at any rate, the only one with whom one would entrust a cinematic adaptation of Candide.) In Farewell, Home Sweet Home, even the rain is somehow sunny.

That may make it sound like a wearily rambunctious entertainment, but nothing could be further from the truth. Iosseliani's films are witty, cool and refreshingly unstrident: there is not, if memory serve, a single extreme close-up to be found in his entire oeuvre. He patiently constructs his plotlines piece by piece, at so leisurely a pace, indeed, that he runs the occasional risk of alienating a less than completely motivated spectator.

Consider Farewell, Home Sweet Home. To start with, and for some while thereafter, it feels less like René Clair than Resnais obscur. What, one finds oneself asking, has the comically chic grande dame to do with the gang of street hoodlums? What is the connection between the forger of fake Russian icons and the layabout who cruises girls on a borrowed motorcycle? Why has the pampered mamma's boy chosen to work as a dishwasher in a piss-elegant restaurant? Above all, what precisely is the point of the aristocratically spindly - one might almost say Hulotesque - bird, a marabou, stalking the cluttered salons of the château to which the action cyclically returns?

Then, about half-an-hour in, one is rewarded with the delicious certitude that one is at last beginning to understand how the destinies of these disparate characters (not one of whom is played by a professional actor) are interlinked.

It's rather like folding and refolding a sheet of paper until it forms a tight little bundle, clipping out lots of tiny triangles from its outside edges with a pair of scissors, then unfolding it all again to reveal a grand design of unpredictable symmetry. Even the marabou, a magnificent creature, turns out to be more than merely the film's eccentric mascot. There is, in French, an ancient children's game in which the last syllable of one word or phrase is repeated as the first syllable of the next, a game that traditionally begins marabout, bout de ficelle, etc. Which is exactly how Iosseliani articulates his pointillist, encapsulation-defying narrative. Since, as in Tati's films, the dialogue is minimal, one's attention is focused exclusively on the visuals - but what visuals! There's so much to be seen in a single shot, in any single shot - a collection of old framed photographs, an electric train set, a handful of garishly painted boomerangs, a bottle of vintage eau-de-vie, an art nouveau poster - that one itches to freeze-frame the screen in order to pore over each of its images in turn. In "Camera Lucida", his essay on photography, Barthes, to cite him again, made a distinction between the studium, which is what the photographer intends one to look at, and the punctum, the sort of peripheral, unlaboured detail to which the wayward eye is irresistibly drawn. Farewell, Home Sweet Home is all punctum.

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