Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, on MUBI, studies a suffering woman with a static camera
When the camera remains stationary, it’s objective. It’s omniscient – like a cold, distant, Bergmanesque God who stays silent and remains, well, un-moved by suffering.
Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning is hardly controversial in the sense discussed above. But had the Cannes Film Festival taken place as planned (Beginning was an official selection), I suspect it would have become notorious for the fact that nothing “happens” for long stretches of time. This is not exactly a new phenomenon, of course, especially if you’ve made your way around what’s come to be known as Slow Cinema. (Mexican auteur and Slow Cinema exponent Carlos Reygadas is on board as an executive producer.) Still, I suspect “what did you think of the scene where she lies down in a forest and closes her eyes and stays still for some seven minutes?” would have become a buzzy talking point.
The woman in question is Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), and she does exactly that. She heads to the forest. She closes her eyes. The camera stays on her, unblinkingly. And seven-odd minutes pass, s-l-o-w-l-y. The question instantly becomes that of time. What do you gain by having this scene go on for so long? Or, put differently, what would you lose if the scene ran five minutes, say, or three? That’s still 180 seconds of “nothing happens”. Isn’t the point still conveyed?
But then, the director might argue that something is always happening. The nature around Yana is alive with sounds and vivid light and colour. Her son is around, asking her to wake up. (Later, she teases him, wondering if he thought she was dead. Some relationship, this!) And inside Yana, there are thoughts churning, thoughts she wants to blank out for at least a while – and what is seven minutes in the larger scheme of one’s lifespan? Nothing!
And Yana, it must be said, has a lot going on in her head. She belongs to the Jehovah’s Witness faith, and her husband, David (Rati Onel), is a preacher. She has aligned herself to his work, though at some point in the past, she wanted to be an actress. And then, it’s been one thing after another. Their prayer house was firebombed. Then, a man who says he’s a detective from Tbilisi comes by her home and assaults her verbally (mostly), asking her intimate details of what she does with her husband, what her husband does with her. And then, it gets physical. He forces her hand inside his pants.
Much later in the movie, Yana is raped. It’s one of the strangest instances of sexual violence put on cinema. If you’d seen Beginning on a big screen, you might have been… enraptured, if that’s the word for it. Most of the visual is an exquisite night-time landscape, with pretty flower-bearing bushes and a brook gurgling past and the light from an unseen moon playing up the rugged rock formations. But in a small circle near the upper right-hand corner, there’s this man forcing himself on Yana.
The brutality of the act is relieved by the beauty of the scenery. (I was taken back to Greek mythology, with, say, a Satyr preying on a Nymph.) Are we to assume that this is something out of Yana’s fantasies? The man who’s ravishing her – is he a creature from her id, someone she’s unleashed because her husband seems more interested in renovating his prayer house than in the thoughts that are churning inside her head, the thoughts that made her want to lie down (before the rape) in that forest for seven minutes? One of those thoughts: “I look into a mirror and a stranger stares back.”
Beginning is a psychological study. And I mean it when I say “study”, for the director trains an almost clinical eye on her protagonist.
The camera becomes a microscope. Yana says something is wrong with her, as though she is waiting for something to start or something to end – and the film effectively captures this stasis. “Effectively” is perhaps the most useful word to use in these circumstances, because the film does end up doing what it sets out to do. Whether that’s interesting is another question altogether. (I’d say, yes, but only conceptually.)
But purely as cinema, there’s something almost contra-instinctual at work here. When we talk of single-take shots, we instantly think back to “how did they do that?” marvels like Martin Scorsese’s nightclub-entry shot in Goodfellas. The “how did they do that?” question in Beginning is answered very simply: they simply kept the camera stationary and switched it on and let it record really long scenes from a static position. (Some viewers may recall one of the most famous films to use a locked-down camera, Michael Haneke’s Caché.)
In an interview with moveablefest.com, Kulumbegashvili said the single-position point of view came about because she wanted to capture domestic life, “like how do people live in their house? It’s a familiar point of view, to always look at one room from one point of view, because I was thinking all of my childhood memories are memories about the spaces and they’re always from one specific point of view.”
And that, I suspect is not just the director’s point of view of view but also – given the couple’s work – God’s point of view. When the camera moves, like in that Goodfellas sequence, it becomes subjective. It follows a person or his/her thoughts. When a camera remains stationary, it’s objective. It’s omniscient – like a cold, distant, Bergmanesque God who stays silent and remains, well, un-moved by suffering. It may be no accident that Beginning begins at the prayer house and closes with a chilling effects shot that shows man’s impermanence in the face of Nature. Whatever we experience in our lifetimes, whatever we think and do, at the end, it’s… ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Beginning is streaming on MUBI.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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