Gardens in Autumn Review
When you sit back and look at it, life is pretty absurd, isn’t it? It’s certainly absurd if you look at it through the eyes of veteran Georgian and now French filmmaker Otar Iosseliani. On the surface however almost everything in Gardens in Autumn seems normal or, if somewhat exaggerated, at least recognisable, yet throughout the film there is the disquieting sensation that everyone is a bit mad, or perhaps it’s the case that it’s the world is slightly off-balance, and the lives that the characters lead are a little out of touch with who they really are. That was certainly the case for a regular working man in Iosseliani’s previous film Monday Morning, who would take off on a trip to Venice to put things back into perspective, and it’s even more the case here for a Minister caught up in the murky unstable world of politics.
It’s not much of a stretch to parody the life of a politician, and even playing it fairly straight, Ioselliani manages to show the absurdity of the enclosed world of one government minister, Vincent (Séverin Blanchet). One moment he is shaking hands and exchanging gifts on a trip abroad meeting foreign dignitaries, the next he is handing out prizes at an agricultural fair back home in the provinces. Iosseliani has a way however of making these events seem even more strange with the use of animals, a toucan being exchanged for arms with which the trading African nation can hunt (or put to other uses) and donkeys fighting in the background of the country fair. The contrast of cultures and class is even extended to the Minister’s office with the comings and goings of office personnel, other ministers, distinguished visitors and even a cleaning lady wandering around.
Inevitably, living in this absurd enclosed world, in a magnificent chateau with fine dining and a mistress with a fondness for expensive objects d’art, living an existence that is determined by strict notions of protocol and social order that have no relation to how most people live, Vincent has become out of touch with the people in the world outside, and they are making their displeasure known through violent protests on the streets. Before he knows it, Vincent is out of office, out of a job, out of favour with his mistress and back out on the streets. Returning back to the old life before he became a politician isn’t easy however, and in an almost Kafkaesque way, Vincent finds himself out of place and unsure of how to behave in a world he scarcely recognises any more, his old apartment now occupied by a large family – or perhaps several families – of black people.
That perhaps makes Gardens in Autumn sound a little more serious than it really is. There are certainly real-world implications to this sequence of events, and social and political points being made that could certainly relate to present-day France, while also being broad enough to be interpreted in any number of ways – is the director lamenting the downfall of the ruling order or celebrating the diversity of the modern world or simply documenting what his observations about the world he sees around him, albeit in his own peculiar way? Well, there’s no need to look so deeply for meaning and Iosseliani provides many moments of visual and silent absurd humour to ensure that you don’t take this all too seriously, encouraging the viewer to simply go along with the flow.
And, although it is rather drawn out, the bizarre behaviour and situations often testing the viewer’s patience to keep up with it over the course of two hours, definite patterns emerge in Vincent’s life. Nothing stays the same, and women don’t hang around too long, but they sustain him through those difficult times, as do old friends and alcohol, until eventually, in the autumn of his life, he realises and appreciates the things that are most important. It’s a simple message, and Iosselliani takes a sometimes oblique, absurd, and roundabout way of putting this across that might be too strange for some, but that’s all part of the director’s uniqueness and charm.
Gardens in Autumn is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, progressively encoded with anamorphic enhancement. I had two different experiences of the DVD. Upscaled to 1080p on a Blu-ray player to LCD television, the image here looked rather dull and soft, the colouration slightly flat and out of balance. On a PC monitor however to take screengrabs for the review, and it was clear that the contrasts and tones were handled much better, although the flattened tone of the colouration persisted, but to a lesser degree. Elsewhere, the transfer is stable, showing no real marks or artefacts. I suspect then that the image is perfectly acceptable for normal DVD presentation, though it may not handle upscaling particularly well.
Surprisingly, in addition to a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, there is also a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of the film’s soundtrack, although it has to be said that the surround track is mainly centre-front focussed. The soundtrack is relatively clear with good dynamic range.
English subtitles are included in a clear white font, and are optional.
In addition to the film’s Trailer (1:23) and some trailers for other Artificial Eye releases, there is a fine Interview with Otar Iosseliani (33:54). For anyone unsure what the point of the film is, the director confirms that the message is as simple as it appears. He talks about the initial inspiration for the film based around the idea that democracy is an imperfect system and open to the weaknesses in individual behaviour. He also discusses casting the film and his method of working. Referencing Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift in his conversation, you can see their significance on his work more than the more often cited Tati and Buñuel comparisons.
Gardens in Autumn is indeed a simple and often enjoyable film but it’s certainly not for everyone. The humour is something of an acquired taste, while the lose fluid plotting and pace and length of the film could push some viewers beyond the point of endurance. Anyone who is used to Aki Kaurismäki however will know where Iosseliani is coming from, although the Georgian director very much has a style and themes of his own. That purpose becomes quite clear by the end of Gardens in Autumn, and you may even find much to entertain and amuse in between. Artificial Eye’s release of the film is mainly fine, including a welcome and informative interview with the director.