Gavagai

Studio: Shadow Distribution
Directed by Rob Tregenza

Aug 01, 2018 Web Exclusive
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In analytic philosopher W.V. Quine’s 1960 book Word and Object, he explores the concept of “indeterminacy of translation.” Rejecting the idea that there can be an absolute standard of right and wrong when it comes to translating languages, Quine points out all the ways that our own biases, experiences, behaviors, and our own relationship with our native tongues can color how we hear and interpret other languages. To highlight how mutable and unreliable translations can be, Quine uses the example of someone pointing to a rabbit and saying “Gavagai!” in a foreign language. How does someone who’s never heard of that word interpret that? Is “Gavagai” a word for rabbit? Or rabbit ears? Or small mammals in general?

Titling your film after an obscure linguistic term could be a huge warning sign that you’ve made something pretentious and intolerable, but Rob Tregenza’s Gavagi is anything but. It’s a profoundly soulful and aesthetically rich film. It’s also a film that’s aptly named, for so much of Gavagai concerns itself with the act of translation.

Set in Norway, Tregenza’s film follows a German man named Carsten (played by Andreas Lust) who takes a train to a remote town in the woods. Hiring a local “elk safari” guide named Nico (Mikkel Gaup) to drive him around, Carsten travels across the Nordic countryside with his wife’s urn. He’s come to say goodbye to his wife by spreading her ashes and finishing her life’s work: translating poems by a Norwegian writer named Tarjei Vesasa into Chinese. Lust’s gravelly, sad voiceover pops up throughout the film as he reads Vesasa’s poems.

Adding a touch of haunting magical realism to Gavagai is the spectral presence of Carsten’s wife. First appearing in a supermarket as a red robed figure wearing traditional Chinese garb, his wife surfaces throughout the film as a luminous visitor. Wearing headdresses and shimmery robes, she manifests in the countryside, drifting through a swaying pool of reeds. She appears to him in a sauna, black hair curled around her cheeks like Louise Brooks with eyes as smoky and black as Cleopatra. Despite his best efforts, he can never touch her: she always manages to step out of the frame into a burst of steam or a shadowy corner.

The question of whether or not the image of his wife is a daydream, a hallucination, or an actual spirit is left unresolved. Whether or not she’s “real” is beside the point; her presence in the film is a poetic evocation of what it’s like to deal with grief. The way the memory of a beloved can step into your room when you least expect it and overwhelm you.

Another running thread in the film concerns the drunken Nico and his fraught relationship with his girlfriend Mari. A lazy, hot dog scarfing, beer-swilling bon vivant, he makes a great Odd Couple contrast with the more fastidious and buttoned-up Carsten.

What makes Gavagai fascinating is watching how these two men, both in relationships and grappling with a feeling of loss, are affected by each other. Seeing how Nico translates Carsten’s approach to grieving for his wife inspires him to make big changes in his life, while Carsten struggles to translate the poems his wife loved while also trying to communicate (or not communicate at all) his grief to people like Nico. The theme of translation also comes up between Carsten and the spirit/vision of his wife, who seems to be trying to tell him something.

While Gavagai is a thematically rich piece of work, what truly makes it an extraordinary movie is Tregenza’s eye for stunning compositions. In addition to helming his own films like Talking to Strangers, Tregenza has worked as a director of photography for filmmakers like Alex Cox and Bela Tarr. He’s a master at crafting arresting long takes. Focusing his camera on the hazy, natural splendor of Norway’s woodland, he lets the frame slowly follow his human characters as they drive, run, or walk out of view. Like Tarkovsky and Tarr, he understands the power that can come from stillness, from letting the audience drink in a scene until it’s almost too much before cutting away.

He also uses sound design in compelling ways. The sizzling crackle of a bonfire, the long clanging noises a boat engine makes as it gently drifts downstream; they add a feeling of momentum and chaos to Tregenza’s stately and composed scenes.

If there’s any criticism to level at the film at all, it’s that there are a few slow scenes that go on for a little too long. But don’t let that put you off; for lovers of arthouse cinema, Gavagai should be considered essential viewing. A technical marvel that packs a profoundly emotional punch, Gavagai is one of the best films you’ll see this year. Don’t miss it.

Author rating: 9/10

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