It’s Christmas Eve in the late nineteenth century, and snow coats the grounds of the eponymous Transylvanian manor at the center of Christi Puiu’s three-and-a-half-hour Malmkrog. With its grand architecture and ornate interiors, covered in portraits and chandeliers and fine china, it proves a fitting space for five Russian aristocrats to spend an afternoon delving into the important questions of the day: the morality of war, the presence of God in a world beset by evil, and Europe is the cradle of Western civilization. It’s also, despite its gorgeous presentation and brilliant command of structure, a hard film to sit through.
It’s a film that hits a lot of Romanian director Puiu’s pet concerns: family gatherings, philosophical discussions, the looming presence of an ailing patriarch (in this case, a sic colonel who rests in another room far from our main group). But unlike previous films The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu or Sieranevada, Puiu abandons his trademark naturalism for something stuffier and more formal, which makes his characteristically-mighty run times (Malmkrog clocks in at 200 minutes) more of a challenge here.
Heavily inspired by the discussions of Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, Malmkrog is split into six chapters, each named after one of the small group of elite at its center. There’s Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), a cynical agnostic and host of the party; the hawkish Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité), who believes war is often good and necessary; Olga (Marina Palii), a Christian who nonetheless doesn’t believe Christ was resurrected; the cynical Madeleine (Agathe Bosch); and the unabashedly Eurocentric Edouard (Ugo Broussot). The remaining chapter follows István (István Téglás), their butler, who floats in the periphery making sure their masters’ discussions are well-furnished.
At first blush, Malmkrog seems to want to critique the characters at its center, turning the camera unblinkingly on their cruel, casual discussions of the supremacy of European cultures and the unfailing certitude of Christianity. Through each of the discussions Puiu captures, we see each of them needle and prod at each other’s stated values, while Puiu’s camera imperceptibly oscillates around them or captures them arranged in artful tableaux vivant. Often, entire scenes pass without a single cut or camera movement, like you’re watching a neoclassical painting come to life.
It’s a film about people, societies and mindsets encased in amber, and the cruel tragedy that such repugnant, privileged views about the primacy of white Christianity and European culture can be lightly debated over a dinner table, as if they don’t lead to lives lost and nations colonized. Conceptually, it’s intellectually stimulating stuff, especially given its setting against the looming presence of World War I, where total violence will make all of this philosophizing feel moot in a few years’ time.
And yet, Malmkrog moves slow as molasses, thanks to its literary pretensions and achingly slow pace, making its virtues hard to appreciate after a while. Even the most patient of audiences would have trouble sitting through the layers of opaque, circular discussions about the same well-worn topics for forty minutes at a time. There are brief moments of excitement — Edouard’s full-throated defense of colonialism is delivered with a perverse passion, and his segment ends with a deliberately confounding moment of panic, as shouting and missing servants give way to an explosive moment of violence. Then, the next segment plays, and everyone’s back at it, as poised as ever, with nary a mention of the interruption. But these moments are too few and far between to make Malmkrog any easier to sit through. Puiu’s film is academic and ponderous to a fault; one wonders if you wouldn’t get more out of these discussions by just reading Puiu’s script, or the Solovyov writings that presaged it.
The slow, intellectual rhythms of European cinema are no new challenge to more impatient Western audiences, but Malmkrog takes that as a dare, plumbing new depths of tedium even as Puiu dresses it up in the most meticulously-crafted frippery. It’s heady, intelligent work, but accessible it ain’t. One wonders if Puiu looks down on his audience for not getting it the same way his protagonists sneer at the hoi polloi for lacking their supreme command of thought.
This review is from the 58th New York Film Festival.