The Cuckoo Review

"No man for four years, then two at once. Have the spirits been reading my thoughts?"

With this typically wry comment, the lonely Lapp widower Anni (Juuso) ponders her strange fate. It's the middle of September 1944 and, on the border between Finland and Russia, World War II is grinding to its terrible conclusion. Into the midst of Anni's isolated dwelling arrive two men: Ivan (Bychkov) is a tough-as-nails Russian lieutenant who Anni rescues from death after the convoy taking him to be tried for treason is bombed. Veikko (Haapasalo) is a young Finnish University student, unwillingly pressed into service by the Germans as a sniper, who escapes from the rock which the departing wehrmacht chained him to and comes across Anni and the recuperating Ivan. All three people are, in their different ways, sick of the war, but unable to escape from it just yet. The odd little community they form during the closing months of the war forms the context for the events of the film.

'The Cuckoo' is an unusual and refreshing work in that its events rest on a peculiar structural conceit: all three characters speak different languages and can't understand what the others are saying. Anni speaks Saami, a Lapp dialect; Veikko, Finnish and Ivan, Russian. All three babble on constantly, trying and usually failing to understand each other, with results both painful and comic. The uncommon approach puts the audience in an oddly privileged position, since the viewer is the only person who can understand what all three characters are saying. Thus we learn that Anni is interested in Viekko, Viekko hates the war and wants to go home and Ivan hates Viekko and is interested in Anni. If this sounds rather soap-operatic, it shouldn't. Writer and director Aleksandr Rogozhkin has ensured that the shifting relationships are depicted with a lot of care and subtlety.

He's also injected a lot of dry humour into 'The Cuckoo', much of it deriving from the trio's communications problems, and also from Anni's straightforward sexuality. This woman has been alone for four years and clearly misses her husband and men in general. In an exquisitely funny scene, Anni corners the two sorry soldiers in a sauna with some of her home-made detergent and urges them to wash; a thin pre-text for checking out their weaponry. Eyeing them slyly, she sings a curious, lilting song about crows and crops - a Lapp version of 'eeny-meeny-miny-moe' - then grabs Viekko and drags him out of the tent, advising him not to worry, "I cry out when I like it." Cry out she does, for most of the day and night, leading poor, jealous Ivan to curl up disconsolately in the hay. The following morning, after Anni has gone looking for herbs, Ivan takes an axe and sneaks into the tent where the exhausted Viekko is sleeping, intending to kill him. He can't do it; whether it's his own stirring humanity, the tone of Viekko's voice when he wakes and tries to reason with Ivan, or the interruption of Anni, he drops the axe and leaves. A relieved Viekko is immediately presented with a bowl of soup by Anni. "Eat," she advises him, "I want to cry out at night again."

Her healthy sexual appetite aside, Anni doesn't really have much use for these two males. She's a completely independent woman, able to look after herself and sensitively and profoundly in harmony with her surroundings. The men are a manifestation of the war, aberrant and violent, given to fighting with each other (Ivan is always trying to kill Viekko, calling him 'fascist scum'), which annoys her, prompting her to snap at one point, "Don't go killing each other. I don't plan on burying you both." Nor are they much use in running her small settlement, carrying wood in the wrong direction and generally only providing the kind of assistance that could be expected from a couple of sporadically enthusiastic six year old boys. Their various ailments need constantly tending - particularly the wounded Ivan - with a string of her natural herbal remedies. Generally, there's not much to be said for them, but Anni is lonely and part of the film's thesis is that the human desire for simple companionship can overcome even the most bitter national and political divisions. Another aspect is the concept of civilisation; Ivan and Viekko come from 'modern' industrialised nations yet are trying to kill each other; Anni is a simple peasant girl but is by far the most rational of the three.

'The Cuckoo' certainly isn't the first film to deal with these issues. Kurosawa was also fascinated by the interaction between soldiers of a modern nation and an indigenous person leading a way of life unchanged for centuries; he made the magical ‘Dersu Uzala’. One year earlier, Philip Kaufman had created the extraordinary ‘The White Dawn’, which charted the experiences of a group of whalers stranded in an Inuit community in the late 19th Century. Yet 'The Cuckoo' has a charm and, in particular, a visual style that raises it above the ordinary. Rogozhkin, DP Andrei Zhegalov and the whole production team have gone to great pains to give the film authenticity. In post-production the film's colour was desaturated and contrast increased to give it a gritty documentary feel. All of the cast members - especially the soldiers - are made up to look appropriately haggard, so much so that it's a shock to see in the DVD documentary how young lead actor Viktor Bychkov actually is. Wardrobe was also kept equally grim to preserve the feeling of grimy reality.

Kudos must go to DP Zhegalov for a beautiful-looking film. In contrast to the painful implacability of the events it's recording, the camera movements in 'The Cuckoo' are breathtakingly graceful (the film utilises over 200 tracking shots, on track, dolly and steadicam). The camera swoops and glides over the three characters and their divine surroundings (Kandalashka in north-west Russia) with an angelic finesse that seems to propel them into an alternate reality. Their otherworldly isolation - caught between dual realities (war and peace, civilisation and nature, past and future) - is captured in a way that, by the end of the film, has one mesmerised. It reminded me of the sense of heady, almost drunken mythic intensity achieved by Andrew Lesnie in the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy.

All three leads are outstanding; Haapasalo and Bychkov are old Rogozhkin hands, having had approximately similar roles in his successful comedy 'Peculiaries of the National Hunt' in 1995. But it's newcomer Anni-Kristiina Juuso who stands out as the wry, unsentimental Saami girl. Her habit of conversing with spirits and reindeer, her curious twisting smile and deep eyes are at the centre of the film's idiosyncratic appeal (at one point she gazes fondly into Haapasalo's eyes and says with great sweetness: "You really are ugly.") It's not the actors' fault that the film loses it's way in the closing scenes. The fine pacing gives way to an abrupt and simplistic ending, which tarnishes the preceding hour and a half with a wholly inappropriate romantic gloss.

'The Cuckoo' is presented in anamorphic widescreen and looks very good. The 'wasted' look of the film is preserved, the lead actors looking convincingly grey while the breathtaking scenery and striking colours of the forests glow magically.

Apart from the conflict at the beginning, this is largely a dialogue-driven film and in this respect the disk sounds fine. The atmospheric sounds of the forest and Anni's settlement also add occasionally to the 5.1 mix.

The 24-minute feature The Making of 'The Cuckoo' that accompanies the DVD is brief but packed. Rogozhkin, producer Sergei Selyanov, DP Andrei Zhegalov, all the cast members and assorted crew recount stories from the film's production and convey something of the atmosphere that was present on set. Many single out the elusive 'Rogozhkin factor', a unique quality that seems to accompany the director on his every project: "When he needs snow, it snows. When he needs it to be dry, it's dry. It sounds crazy but it's true," says Bychkov.

A cuckoo, it transpires, is both Anni’s childhood nickname and the name given to Finnish snipers by Russians during the Finnish-Russian war of 1939-40. Rogozhkin explains that he wanted the title to have a third possible meaning: in nature cuckoos habitually abandon their young. In his story, the 'cuckoo', the widow Anni, looks after two 'chicks' who have been abandoned by the world. It's a sweet sentiment that clearly has struck a chord with audiences everywhere: the film has won a plethora of international film awards including four Nikas (the Russian Oscar). "Everyone did their best," says Bychkov, in summation, "and the best is consistent, kind and reliable." It's an excellent sentiment that reflects the motivation behind this admirable and enjoyable film.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:47:16

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