Director: Abel Ferrara
Screenwriters: Abel Ferrara, Christ Zois
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Dounia Sichov, Simon McBurney, Laurent Arnatsiaq
There is something experiential about the work of Abel Ferrara, the New York born filmmaker’s portraits of the individual human experience are presented on screen as if insights into the way each of us think, as if previews for what we may experience upon our dying day as our lives flash before our eyes. BFI London Film Festival 2020 release Siberia starring Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse) is, in this regard, no different, though its somewhat hard-nosed approach to intimacy, to empathy, to love and all of the truly cinematic forms of human endeavour, may leave this latest release feeling a little cold.
Siberia is primarily told through two means, a storybook voiceover from Dafoe himself and challenging screen language that combines elements of cinematography and editing to offer a degree of insight that is by no means absolute and may leave some frustrated by its lack of clarity on specific subjects and the reason for its interconnected moments. Yet it is clear that this is a self-examination, at least from the perspective of Dafoe’s Clint; a self-examination that takes him down a rabbit hole of memories, of fantasies, of trauma and regret. Though much of the dialogue is uninterpretable – that is that it’s spoken in a number of languages that we are unlikely to understand yet are reassured Clint absolutely does – the purpose of the piece is clear… this is a man looking back on his life.
Why Siberia’s protagonist is doing this remains mostly blurred, yet Ferrara’s attempt to present such an idea through scenes connected somewhat precariously by moments of association offers a valuable insight into the way memory functions within us, jolting from one scene to the next as we would instantaneously jolt from one memory to the next based on a thought triggered by a particular moment, the film very much attempting to go down the same rabbit hole as one may head down in reflection upon one’s own life.
It’s an admirable intention, and one that is photographed and pieced together particularly impressively, with long and atmospheric shots punctuated by momentary expressions of violence, of love, of sorrow or shock. The transitions between scenes, often juxtaposed to maintain intrigue and express the core intention of the filmmaker, throw up some noteworthy moments; at one stage a barren cave being overrun by naked hospital patients as memories and ideas blur. Yet it is here where Ferrara’s work seems most contradictory, the expressionist techniques in its core filmic language acting in opposition to the crutch of narration that is interspersed, albeit infrequently, throughout its 92 minute runtime.
This narration, when paired with the film’s continuous one-man focus, makes Siberia feel every bit of a one-man theatre production put to screen, and while Willem Dafoe is as watchable as ever in the lead role, the true authorial voice very clearly remains the screenwriter-director. Ferrara has long been a noteworthy filmmaker of less-typical fare, his work pushing boundaries and creating a genuine sense of authorship across his filmography, yet his work here is as much self-indulgent as it is representative of his style, as it is self-reflective, Siberia’s flirtation with prolonged narration offering the illusion of being poetic or intellectual, but ultimately servicing the film in opposition to those intentions. It is unlikely you’ll see another film this year that seems on the surface to be so determined to provide such a valuable insight into the human experience yet unravels to such an extent as to feel disingenuous like Siberia does.
The warning signs for this self-indulgence are perhaps immediately apparent, Siberia opening with close to four and a half minutes of bland white text credits on a plane black background, as if building anticipation for the most important release of the year. Even in the confines of a self-reflective piece, one that can be read as life flashing before the eyes of a man on the brink of death, such an outrageous insistence upon self-reward and the filmmaker’s insistence upon realising his own hype seems expectant of your attention and completely at odds with the narrative of the piece, as if Ferrara was simply unwilling to enhance any aspect of his presentation at the expense of his own ego, as if he was unwilling to make a film for anyone other than himself.
Siberia is no doubt a beautiful film to look at – its mountainous, snow-filled home transitioning into sand dunes and later the green hills of what we expect is a British countryside before inevitably returning to the snow – and its intention of offering something close to a purgatorial reflection makes for an intriguing sell, yet it always feels as if the emotional crux of the film is missing, as if it is impenetrable, as if the film wasn’t made to be seen, only made to be made. In this respect Siberia is a disappointing Abel Ferrara entry, a piece more intriguing in concept than in actuality, a film that always feels just a little out of reach.