French filmmaker Eugène Green, like many directors, has a distinct style. His characters speak directly to the camera. They stand in the center of the screen, often emotionless, in a manner similar to the earlier films of Yorgos Lanthimos. He attempts to modernize myths, with an edge of satire and oddball comedy that seeps through in his oft-one-lined dialogue. Sometimes, all of this works, bringing his films to great heights. Other times, as in the case of Atarrabi and Mikelats, his style becomes a chore, creating an exhaustive watching experience with his most recent film.
Green made waves at the film’s premiere in San Sebastian in September for refusing to wear his mask properly, after five requests from festival officials to right his mistakes. Like that, he was no longer a guest at the festival, yet his film pushed on to play both there and the New York Film Festival. Atarrabi and Mikelats is a film sliced without stakes, and without a cause to continue watching, especially if you’re already irked by his festival appearance, or lack thereof.
Creating a modern take on a Basque myth, Green’s film contains moments of genuine laughter, insight, and interest, especially when the U.S. born director playfully uses music to accentuate opposing feelings within these opposing brothers. Focused on two brothers, sons of the goddess Mari, the film starts with the mother forcibly having sex with a mortal man, and then promptly dropping her sons off at the lair of the Devil himself (Thierry Biscary). He becomes their teacher on all things, including rap music and general hipness. After a jump forward in time, the brothers have changed, with Atarrabi (Saia Hiriart) dressed in all grey and Mikelats (Lukas Hiriart) dressed in all red, presumably real-life brothers both in full track suits. Green’s film favors comedy over subtlety in these matters.
Atarrabi and Mikelats covers the debates of good vs. evil, life vs. death, and light vs. darkness. The boys’ mother sits in the middle, because, as the Devil says, “She doesn’t care about good or evil.” And so, her sons are split, with Atarrabi wanting to leave the cave he grew up in, and Mikelats seeking to become his master’s star pupil. Both achieve those minor goals, with Atarrabi gaining inspiration from a talking rock, owl, and pig. You understand that all bets are off once you see humble Atarrabi taking advice from a mossy stone. The deadpan comedy doesn’t always hit, but when it does, Green’s film can make you chuckle with delight, as in a moment with laminak spirits (siren-like creatures) transforming into three men, likely with dwarfism, talking about their lecture tours of gender theory at American universities. To Green, even mythical nymphs need a break.
As the film wears on, the brothers grow farther apart, with Mikelats becoming immortal, and Atarrabi falling in love after failing at monkhood, for his brother stole his shadow. This brings one of the more fascinating points of the film, for without a shadow, Atarrabi cannot receive light, through God or through love. During this section of the film, Green dissects this contrast, and near-contradiction. We need darkness in order to be inhabited by the light around us. Salvation cannot exist without sin. It’s religious, sure, but it’s more human than anything.
The combination of comedic enlightenment and inventive use of dance sequences represents the strongest portions of Atarrabi and Mikelats. The dances highlight the brothers’ changing scenes, as Atarrabi experiences the pangs of love and Mikelats jaunts around a man in a horned goat suit in an underground bar, which is where all of the devils hang out, of course. The red track suits remain one of the best touches.
Before finding a way to regain his shadow, and to receive the light, Atarrabi tells his brother, “I live and die at every instant, for I am alone.” It’s a poignant moment of almost-emotion from a character, the first in the film and a welcome sign for the tears to come. It’s one of the only moments of clarity, though, as the second and third acts wear you down, grinding the story to a halt with repetitive style and visuals that lose their luster after the first half hour. Atarrabi finds his purpose, and in a way, so does Mikelats, but the journey to this fitting and touching conclusion lacks connection and reason to see what will happen. In a film about legends, myth-making, and the sanctity of life, Atarrabi and Mikelats can’t find the mystery, the thrill, and the unknown that should come with the word itself.
This review is from the 58th New York Film Festival.