Minute for minute, this week’s Shooting Gallery program may be the most inspired filmmaking on view at a commercial theater in New York—the double bill matches Pawel Pawlikowski’s admirably terse Last Resort with Guy Maddin’s short, no-holds-barred extravaganza The Heart of the World.
Different as they are, each of these films could be titled From Russia With Love. In Last Resort, a seemingly sensible but in fact wildly romantic young woman, Tanya (Russian actress Dina Korzun), and her skeptical 12-year-old son, Artiom (Artiom Strelnikov), fly from Moscow to London. Tanya expects to be greeted by her English fiancé, but once it becomes clear that she’s been stood up, she requests political asylum. Mother and son are packed off to a “designated holding area” and parked in a cruddy council flat overlooking a decrepit seaside resort, complete with the garish sign “Dreamland Welcomes You.”
This mocking billboard suggests that, despite his low-key observational style, the Polish-born writer-director is not simply a naturalist. Last Resort is nearly as sardonic as its punning title. Indeed, as befits a refugee from the East, Tanya seems to bring a seedy, bureaucratic nightmare with her, almost like a contagion. Immigration officers immediately target and detain her. “Have we been arrested?” Artiom wails. The holding area, where Tanya must remain at least a year before she is processed, is a little taste of Orwell’s Airstrip One. She is not permitted to leave the area (and, in any case, there are no trains back to London).
Pawlikowski calls this dump Stonehaven. (The movie was actually filmed in Margate, Kent.) There are surveillance cameras everywhere; the place is penned with barbed wire and patrolled by guard dogs. The stateless, polyglot population lives on meal vouchers and spends its time queued up to use the facility’s only phone. Tanya is solicited to appear in online porn and compelled to sell her blood for pocket money. Given these local industries, as well as the town’s central amusement arcade and prominent fast food joints, the place is also a tawdry metaphor for the West—or at least, westernization. (The porno pimp who enjoins her is played by actual pornographer Lindsay Honey.)
In its laconic way, Last Resort sometimes suggests a more political version of Stranger Than Paradise. “This city—it’s like a punishment for me,” the heavily accented Tanya tells Alfie (Paddy Considine), a friendly ex-boxer who runs the local arcade by day and calls numbers at the bingo hall by night. Alfie takes an interest in the pretty alien, as well as her son, and she’s happy to let him talk, explaining, “I understand almost nothing of your English.” Meanwhile, Artiom (who always knows more than his mother) hangs out with the local urchins and drifts into petty crime.
Pawlikowski, whose background is in documentary film, has an eye for the menacingly forlorn and elegantly bleak. Last Resort, which was shot without a script and developed largely in collaboration with the actors, is a kind of verité fantasy, using a distinctive blend of hand-held close-ups and studied, off-center compositions. The narrative, too, is carefully set up—framed as just a surreal interlude in the life of someone from somewhere beyond the European Union.
The Heart of the World, recently cited by the National Society of Film Critics as the best avant-garde movie of 2000, is the celluloid equivalent of concentrated juice. Guy Maddin packs nearly every human emotion (and then some) into five supercharged minutes. Commissioned by the Toronto Film Festival as one of 10 short “preludes” to be screened before the main features, The Heart of the World was designed to withstand repeated viewings—and it does.
Maddin has called the movie the “world’s first subliminal melodrama.” What it suggests is the trailer for an imaginary, Soviet silent film, rereleased with a dubbed soundtrack—a mad flicker of densely edited, artfully distressed-looking footage accompanied by crazed piano music and occasional sound effects. Suitably overwrought subtitles explain that two brothers—one a mortician, the other an actor playing a Rasputin-like Jesus Christ in some sort of pageant—both love Anna, a comely “state scientist”-cum-flapper who has studied the earth’s core and just discovered that the planet is “dying of heart failure.” Orgy! Apocalypse! Rapid-fire shots of constructivist sets and huge crowds! Has Anna been duped into marrying some lecherously slobbering capitalist swine?
If you’ve seen his features Archangel or Careful, you know Maddin is a kind of movie antiquarian who delights in invented traditions and genres. He’s also a master of low-budget pastiche and outrageous sight gags—here, these include a cannon in the shape of a dildo and the world’s heart, which, in its ominously intermittent throbbing, suggests nothing so much as the rubber octopus in an Ed Wood movie.