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Minimalist Narrations in Greek Cinema: Rose (Pink)and Valse Sentimental (Sentimental Waltz)
© Maria Paradeisi
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Several Greek films from the 1990s can be described as minimalist.
They were low-budget films, sometimes the first and sometimes the second feature film of a young director.
They belong to the tradition of what David Bordwell defined as the "European  films d’ art”.i Most of them tend to present the sensitive side of young people who are maladjusted or experimenting with drugs. Their "minimalist" narratives lack a substantive plot. Instead, they make extensive use of documentary techniques, and promote the examination of the little seemingly unimportant moments of daily life that are generally excluded from feature films. They also heavily employ "distanciation" devices such as extreme use of jump cuts, cinematic tricks that evoke video clips, and a quaint construction of space. They deliberately blur subjective and objective reality, and they subvert all kinds of stereotypes.
These films explore various kinds of styles and genres. Examples of this approach include Still Looking for Morphine directed by Yannis Fagras, No Budget Story directed by. Renos Charalambidis, Cheap Smokes directed by Renos Charalabides, Tsiou directed by Makis Papadimitratos* (here I would like to add a footnote: Tsiou, in particular, is rather a parody of classic narrative than a ‘film d’art’), Are You Crying? directed by Alexander Voulgaris), Rose directed by. Alexander Voulgaris), Sentimental Waltz directed by Constantina Voulgaris, Two of these minimalist films, Rose and Sentimental Waltz, can be examined fruitfully with a neo-formalist analysis,ii  that focuses on their narratives, especially their most innovative features.

    Rose  is a collage very much in the vein of Greek experimental films. Its narrative is  mostly in first person singular. The main characters are Vasilis Galis, a 20-year-old, his friend Zhnezana, a 12-year-old girl from the Ukraine, and Rose, his dog. That this is an unusual film is clear from the very beginning. The first dim images (reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona) end with a basketball game featuring a real basketball player, Nikos Galis. The film’s first shot is an architectural space made of painted models (maquettes), and introduces the filmmaker’s disregard for verisimilitude in plot construction and character portrayal in favor of fragmentation.  Rose turns psychological realism on its head. The principal characters are "funny." For example, Vasilis’s parents do not age during a twenty-year period, and they live with eccentric partners. His father has a young and pretty second wife, and his mother lives with a young Chinese man. The only characters who are realistically portrayed are some immigrant musicians. Zhnezana, the daughter of one of the musicians, becomes the closest friend of Vasilis despite their great age difference because she is attracted to Vasilis’s child-like innocence. They support each other when things go wrong in their lives and share the same love for dogs.iii

     The start of an autobiographical narration by Vasilis introduces the second major characteristic of the movie. He uses vitriolic humor to describe how his parents had in mind to terminate the pregnancy that resulted in his birth and how they decide after all to keep him. These comical paintbrushes or the self-sarcasm characterize the movie as a whole. The narration in the present tense becomes a synthesis of events out of Vasilis’ and Zhnezana’s daily lives: their meetings, Vasilis’ relationship with his family and scenes from the making of the documentary Vasilis makes about immigrant musicians . The narration in the first person often takes the form of letters to Vasilis’ mother, who abandoned her husband and their two sons when Vasilis was a child after recovering from cancer. From this moment on, she spends her life traveling the world. Mostly we listen to the content of those letters in a voice-over while we watch the events being described played out in the screen. In the first of those letters Vasilis tells the story of how he met with Emily who’s from Ireland, and with whom he has a short but decisive relationship in Berlin in New Year’s Eve, 1999. Indicative is one of his last lines, “When we broke up I was crying a lot and I felt embarrassed….”.  This introduces the third most important characteristic of the film: the openness that characterises Vasilis’ expression of his feelings, the tenderness and sensitivity that define him as a person and are contrary to the stereotypes concerning the male sex. At the same time what becomes clear in this scene is that the more intense the emotional state he is trying to describe is the more low-key and distanced is the tone of the presentation on the screen. The second letter talks of the present, the somehow paradoxical family situation that the writer finds himself in, concluding with a description of his insecurity, a result of his parents’ fighting and of the threat of their separation, from which he has never been relieved.  Finally, briefly and in a low-key tone as always, he describes the deep pain caused to a ten-year-old Vasilis when his mother abandoned him. The third letter, which tallies with the fourth flashback, describes the arrival of little Vasilis, accompanied as always by Rose, at a recording studio to record one of his songs. There, he talks of his dreams where he always sees himself as a little boy getting lost and then meeting someone who looks like his brother Sakis “but it is never him...and he asks me to do things I don’t want to.”

    In this basic form of narration six more flashbacks are intertwined which show the multitalented Vasilis as a kid and also a childhood fantasy with  “Vasili’s saving a girl” from a terrorist attack. There is however a series of  titles during the movie which are sewn with pink thread on canvas, and present the title of the movie, important dates in Vasili’s life or short blurbs that come to agree or go against the action that follows. The first of these contains the lines from a Bonnie Tyler song “Once upon a time I was falling in love, now I am only falling apart.” The second cites the title of the movie and the name of the director The third and fourth give two decisive dates in the life of the protagonist: February 22,1991, when on his tenth birthday party his parents gave him a bitch called Roz as a present; December 31, 1999 when he meets Emily in Berlin and they spend New Year’s together.

    The flashbacks, with the exception of the first, follow in succession in a reverse chronological order. From the last pivotal event in the life of the ten-year-old protagonist we pass to the start of Vasilis’ eighth year. The flashbacks are important in the development of the narrative since they describe critical events that to a large degree have influenced the formation of Vasilis’ personality as it stands today, at least as far as this can be argued for, in a movie that defies the law of causal relation and which has a disturbing humour running through it all. In the first flashback we watch the little protagonist, in the director’s role, reproaching his mother, who is reading one of  his school essays to the camera,  which she has again failed to do well.  What follows is a scene from when she is hospitalized and finally a scene of her abandoning her family. In the second  (which starts with the title of the first date, 22.2.1991) we watch Vasilis, dressed up in a witch’s costume with huge silver fingers, getting Roz as a present for his birthday, while at the same time we also have the first romantic gestures in his life that are met with no response. In the third flashback we watch him in the writer’s role writing a novel, going with his mother to the bookbinder’s (who he asks to write “first edition” in the first page!). The flashback also presents us with his sad teacher Agni, whose tears touch Vasilis deeply, along with Vasilis’ failure to win over his little “loved” one. The fifth flashback is introduced by Zhnezana telling the story of her own little disappointment in love. The little one is sitting with Vasilis and a friend in the schoolyard, the same school that Vasilis went to when young. During this narration, the now grown-up Vasilis seems to observe in the schoolyard the equivalent to his own small disappointment in “love” (he himself  young with his loved one and his rival playing in the courtyard with the other kids) in one of the most strongly “distanciated” scenes of the movie.

    The seventh flashback describes the announcement muttered by the mother about the bad news regarding her health while the family watches a game with Galis on TV. Whereas Vasilis’ father who, with a confirming nod of his wife, learns the truth and hugs her, little Vasilis, when he hears the sad news, switches off the TV almost immediately, decisively, with an impulsive move, as if to get rid of the sad news.

    The are (?) some shavings of "fiction” that concern the young Vassilis. The most interesting is the one which presents Vassilis’ fantasy of “saving the girl" from a terrorist attack.  The scene is directed with a mixture of realism combined with techniques borrowed from animation comics, video clips and Playstations, which results in some of the most radical forms of distantiation found in the whole movie. It starts with Vasilis’ childhood rival entering the classroom with the girl who is Vasilis’ secret love and then sitting at the same desk while Vasilis observes them bitterly. Strangely, this time the girl is played by Zhnezana (who has a close resemblance with Vasilis’ love from the past). At this point one of the pink titles interjects and reads “You will never have me.”. The scene of attack is introduced by a loud band and painful cries from the “terrorist’s” first victim. The terrorist is dressed in a black tracksuit and a hood. The scene is shot at a rapid pace and with a technique reminiscent of horror films, recalling from American schools as the sounds the piano produces and the song that accompanies them countermands the action.  The interjections of black shots as with the scene of the violent murder of the teacher which concludes with the freezing of the frame, aim to increase the intensity of the emotion and the anxiety that dominates the scene. The only element of distanciation besides that of the music, is the milk-white liquid that runs from the wounds of the bodies instead of blood and also the peculiar disfigurement caused by the terrorists’ shots which we see in the children’s bodies. The murder of Agni is followed by the murder of Vasilis’ rival, who has sought rescue in the toilets, and the wounding of his loved one who is saved by the protagonist at the end. The scene ends with the substitution of the children’s bodies that covered the floor with strange looking mutilated cloth dolls made by Zhnezana With a sudden jump-cut, where we had little Vasilis taking care of Zhnezana now we have grown-up Vasilis, and instead of the wounded “little one,” one of her dolls. This intricate scene which can be seen as a  parody of the analogous action scenes or as a hymn to children’s imagination, Vasilis’ acceptance of reality, a so-long to his own childhood,  a reflexive tendency in cinema) finishes with a close frame of one of the big dolls wearing little Vasilis’ glasses.

    An important source of humour but also of tenderness are the comments made by a shy and insecure Vasilis regarding his appearance. In the first letter addressed to his mother, when he presents himself, he scarcely has any complimentary things to say, “I admit that with the exception of my legs which I have always found long, longer than Julia Robert’s, there is nothing else on me really interesting... no one has set eyes on me..., my weapon is my personality and that gets tired easily, so I go around with a stick.” In the second encounter with Zhnezana inside her room, in their  discussion which, despite some moments of embarrassment, is totally spontaneous he will confide to her. “There are moments where I feel very ugly....”  and at another chance he will say that his body is similar to a spider’s and his hands look more like a forest. Only once, after the first two-thirds of the film and in a letter addressed to his little friend, will he refer to how nowadays he looks at himself in the mirror as you do normally and surprising himself,  he will be smiling. This development seems to be due to the emotional security and acceptance that he receives from Zhnezana.

    Vasilis’ insecurity and his reserved character is in contradistinction to his actor brother’s narcissism and laid back attitude. In one of the most comical moments in the film,  the two brothers are taking photographs together and the more Vasilis lowers his gaze or instinctively tries to avoid the camera lens the more his brother poses with  obvious self-regard. Sakis, who plays in Rose the role of an actor well known by a TV serial,  is shown putting up a “game” trying to trap  young teenage girls and make them wait, enjoying his revenge to an almost pathological degree, while it is made obvious that he has never managed to reconcile with his mother abandoning them. Rose comes full circle after Rose’s death, which brings a lot of sorrow for Vasilis and becomes very difficult for him to accept,  leaving the possibility of any development of a romantic relation between the two main characters hanging in the air.  The final scene puts together most of the characteristics of cinematic narration: experimental techniques: the deep pink wall which lies behind the two main characters is bombarded  in an extremely long shot with more and more colour, emotions are presented in a low-key tone, and humour is used to balance the whole thing.

    Sentimental Waltz by Constantina Voulgaris opens questions rather than providing answers as it describes an extraordinary love story between two young people living in the central Athenian district of Exarhia. Both have great difficulties in coming to terms with their feelings and the cinematic narration suggests that their relationship is stuck in a rut and neither one is able to make any decision.

    Electra and Stamatis, have a similar way of life. They live alone in old apartments, have the same preference for gothic culture. They, in fact, meet, in a video club where they rent Rosemary’s Baby and Carrie. They, love the same kind of "depressing" music, wear similar, usually black clothes, and often walk alone at night in the most deserted corners of the city. From the very beginning of the film, in the presentation of these characters the viewer connects  to the loneliness, hopelessness and violence seen in the expressions of their faces, in their movements and in their unsocial actions. Specifically, the expression of desperation has a more auto catastrophic dimension in the case of Stamatis, who seems to suffer from depression. . He often cuts himself and he’s an insomniac who very often spends his nights wandering. In contrast, Electra sometimes expresses her wrath, hopelessness and disappointment directly.

    The narration has the form of a big parallel montage juxtaposing their lives. Seldom do we see them in the company of other people. The dominant element of the narration are the "dead times" (the little seemingly unimportant moments of daily life that are generally excluded from feature films, the moments with no important action) which suggest the existential vacuum of the two characters and, most interestingly, their  uneasiness (embarrassment)  when they met each other. The difficulty of communication and especially of erotic rapprochement is expressed less with words and more with facial expressions, glances, small movements.

    Τhe cinematic narration develops like a sheet of music, following the staccato rhythm of the piece of music which accompanies its title.  The minimalist action is characterized by parallel shapes that include  the couples’ shared nights  shot with hand held tracking and include encounters in bars in Exarhia, Elektra’s visits to Stamatis’ place, and the two singing duets with Elektra and her best friend accompanying her on the piano. The extreme minimalism of the recording is embellished  in a few instances with eccentric techniques. Particularly interesting are the use of radical jump cuts and also the confusion of subjective and objective reality that seems to take place in their sixth encounter. 

    The couple will have twelve encounters, each subverting the atmosphere of the previous one.  The final episodes begin when Elektra  leaves a little note with a picture of her as a kid in Stamatis’ doorstep. Before the encounter we are presented with a series of night scenes which show Stamatis spending his nights walking aimlessly on the edge of motorways, suspended from horizontal bars in empty open-air gyms, and sitting in empty bus terminals, curled up in a foetal position, reading aloud the tender letters by Pessoa to Ofelia, where Pessoa vividly describes the endless torturous insomnia which Stamatis knows himself firsthand.  The fourth encounter presents the couple sitting at a bar in Exarhia.  The frame shows just the top part of them, with Stamatis drawing non-stop (he is involved with painting or rather with drawing mostly) and Elektra next to him observing him intensely. The latent tension and nervousness that dominates the scene surfaces when Stamatis tells her that “he freaked out” with the photograph that she sent to him. Elektra, shocked by this, will answer ironically, “I gave you a photograph and you freaked out?” adding unabashed that she likes him and she doesn’t mind if he doesn’t want them to have a relationship. Stamatis is startled by this bold way of expressing her feelings and declares calmly by using a story comprising drivers and non-drivers stating that he doesn’t drive because he might get  absentminded and cause an accident. The disappointment and anger that his emotional stiffness produced causes  Elektra  to back off. Later, in a night scene, Elektra sings with her musician friend enraged vocals that resemble inarticulate screams. This marks one of the most radical and impressive scenes of the movie concerning its emotional density.  A parallel montage begins with music, the camera moving quickly to Stamatis’ house where we find him painting her picture while talking to himself saying, “looks likes she was right,”.

    The couple’s fifth encounter, is one of the few happy moments in the whole movie. It starts with a direct reference to an almost classic romantic encounter. For the first time, a smiling Stamatis will notice and comment on the appearance of an equally smiling Elektra, complimenting her and  giving her the book by Pessoa. What follows is their little stroll, during which they will pose by making funny grimaces in front of  multiplying crystal glass windows that dissolve their reflections in multiple funny shapes. It is one of the most impressive scenes of the movie and the first that interrupts its otherwise austere minimalism.

    The sixth encounter is one of the very few where Stamatis hesitantly makes the first move. In his phone call to her when he suggests they go for “ a walk or something,”, Elektra responds that she could come over to his place later to watch a movie together. The parallel montage shows both of them getting ready and brings to mind equivalent scenes from more mainstream movies. Stamatis prepares his room feverishly by hanging his paintings on the walls while Elektra, who’s wearing her more stylish and “feminine”’ clothes,  looks at herself in the mirror. Suddenly, she starts smudging away her make-up and the camera passes on to Stamatis who is in the bath when his answering machine plays a message. Elektra’s voice announces that she doesn’t want to go by his place anymore and that she will go for a beer at his local bar.  As in their previous encounters it is clear that Elektra acts impulsively without undermining her real desires and moods. After her phone call, Stamatis takes some of his antidepressant pills and then destroys the decor of his room. In the next scene the camera shows the two of them sitting by the wall at the back of the bar where both their bodies and gazes are turned away from each other. Elektra faces left in relation to the frame shot, Stamatis faces right.  In front of them, in double print and at a very fast pace, come and go the coloured silhouettes of the rest of the bar locals in an experimental technique resembling video-clips.  Afterwards we see the couple on the street. Elektra is following Stamatis who’s a step a head of her.  Suddenly Stamatis  turns on his heel and stares at her, speechless (in this encounter they haven’t yet exchanged any words). He then literally disappears on the right side of the frame. Following that we see Stamatis vomiting in the toilet of his house while Elektra with tears in her eyes sits under his window puffing at a cigarette.

    The seventh encounter is provoked by a text message sent to Stamatis by Elektra. Subverting as usual the atmosphere of the previous encounter, it starts on a happy note with the couple strolling at night and finishing with an interesting use of intensive jump cuts that articulate Stamatis’ stammering. The continuously failed attempts to invite Elektra to his place (and make love) are presented by showing us the couple moving but staying virtually at the same place, or moving just a tiny bit with the jumps of the image itself making their movements spasmodic. Stamatis’ strenuous effort comes to a halt with a simple and clear “let’s go’”(to his place) by Elektra who happily surprises him. But the couple will just kiss since Elektra, with her characteristic directness, will make it clear that “Ι just can’t make love with you today…for a totally ridiculous reason that I’ m embarrassed to tell you”.

    The couple make love on their eighth encounter under Elektra’s initiative. Going out of the cinema Elektra will tell him how much she enjoyed their kiss last time and how much she would like to repeat it. The bold erotic scene that follows shows Stamatis, just after he has “come,” withdrawing to his own world and, when Elektra touches him hesitantly, he tells her dryly, “Would you mind leaving? I can’t sleep in the same bed as someone else.”  Elektra gets dressed and leaves, refusing his offer to accompany her.  The next scenes show her going down the steps heavily and, after she lights a cigarette, starting to literally bang her head on the wall.

    Preceding the ninth encounter is an interesting game with dolls where Stamatis is imitating his and Elektra’s’ voice in what seems to be a metaphor for the psychoanalytic transference in action. The “Barbie type” dolls present a young man and woman with clothes and haircuts similar to those of our protagonists. Then the man asks the woman if she would like to sleep over and following her affirmative response he hugs her and they walk away together. What follows are numerous missed calls and text messages as Stamatis attempts to get in touch with Electra. In the last of those he tells her that he loves her and that he doesn’t want to lose her. At this point the action is interjected (a possible reference to Godard, the progenitor of the style) with a series of drawings, clearly his own, in black and red tones that intensify the violence of their content and seem to match with the action in the movie.  More efforts to reach her by telephone follow before Elektra herself calls him to announce that she will be going away for a short time, without revealing to him the destination.

    The ninth encounter takes place after Stamatis invites her before she takes off in an atmosphere of an easy-going awkwardness. Elektra will take a bottle of wine and he will offer her a bowl of the soup he’s made. Between the different phases of that meal, are interpolated three scenes of tender moments between the couple sitting on the couch and two scenes that show Stamatis washing Elektra’s hair. These interpolations create confusion over what is subjective and what is objective reality as at times they seem to be just Stamatis’ or Elektra’s fantasy. Elektra’s departure is followed by Stamatis playing with the dolls once more, with the man doll tenderly kissing the woman goodnight.

    The tenth encounter between the two will radically alter the atmosphere of the preceding one.  On her way back from camping alone on an empty beach, Elektra calls Stamatis from the boat and insists on meeting up with him despite the effort on his part to avoid it. In that meeting, they are totally ‘distanced’, irony and an edgy mood on Stamatis’ side set up a wall against the feelings of longing and tenderness on Elektras’s side. The end of the sequence shows Elektra leaving his house in the middle of the night after a futile effort to share the same bed. A little while later we’ll see her throwing herself on a passing car, having been totally lost in her thoughts and then getting up without a scratch. This accident is shot as a meaningless detail in a very impressive non-dramatic tone.

    The eleventh encounter takes place in a bar, as always in Exarhia, in a very heavy atmosphere where Elektra is crying over Stamatis who has disappeared for some time and Stamatis calmly refusing to respond to her feelings by presenting his depression as an excuse. The next day we see Elektra amidst a sea of papers once more preparing a small parcel for Stamatis.  Meanwhile, after cutting himself again, he destroys his big dolls with a hammer and throws the pieces, along with his paintings, in the bin. The movie will close with the couple’s twelfth encounter in a scene that lasts almost four minutes and which is dominated by an emphatic silence.  Stamatis will interrupt Elektra, who is clearly in a very bad state, pulling her close to him on the couch, then asking her, “What are we going to do?”  With tears in her eyes, Elektra submits to his embrace, seemingly the only sign of optimism for a future relationship between the two.

    These movies have brought a breath of fresh air to Greek cinema: Personal to the point of being idiosyncratic Rose and Sentimental Waltz present two interesting propositions for the expression of the sensibility and the communication problems of young people and at the same time they deconstruct mainstream narration. These films are representatives of a group of low budget films made by a young generation of filmmakers as their first or second movie.  They reject the psychological realism dominant in  many Greek films and  present characters that  subvert all stereotypes and are attractive with their innocence, directness, humor and refusal of the ‘petit bourgeois way of life’. They deal with the existential vacuum many ‘marginalized’ young people nowadays feel and their desperate search for meaningful relationships in a society characterized by individualism, apathy and consumerism. These themes are  dealt by cinematic narratives with minimal plot, (very few things happen  during those fictions); extensive use of documentary techniques; ‘eccentric’ devices reminiscent of the French nouvelle vague (camera in the hand, extreme jump cuts, obvious  improvisation in the ‘script’ and the acting, authentic ‘decors’, promotion of the little, seemingly unimportant, moments of daily life that are generally excluded from feature films). The narratives “flatten” all events  to the same level, playing down climaxes; the objective and subjective reality is sometimes confused; last, but not least, the open endings most of them have, suggests that human behavior is often unforeseen and more complex than represented in the majority of Greek films.  
  Valse Sentimentale
  Are you Crying?
  No Budget Story
  Cheap Smokes
  Makis Papadimitratos
  Constantina Voulgari
  Yannis Fagras
  Alexander Voulgaris (The Boy)
  Renos Haralambidis
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