LFF 2020: Siberia

Willem Dafoe, for me, can pretty much do no wrong. He brings a unique energy to every project he engages with, regardless of whether it’s a supporting role in a Hollywood movie like The Fault In Our Stars or a leading role in something as chaotic as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. So when I read that he would be at the centre of Abel Ferrara’s auteurist project Siberia, I was rather excited, and once again, Dafoe didn’t disappoint. However, he wasn’t just the best part of the film – he was arguably the only good part of the film. Though, it has some standout moments as a mood piece, it’s ultimately a confused mess that I imagine only Ferrera is remotely close to understanding.

Siberia doesn’t really have a plot in the traditional sense. Instead, it is made up of a series of visions and hallucinations experienced by Willem Dafoe’s lead character Clint, who I’m reluctant to call a protagonist. Also played by Dafoe are visions of Clint’s brother and father, and he does an excellent job of making these three characters feel entirely distinct, despite the brief appearances them both. This biological tie to his relatives helps reinforce the theme of the inescapability of family – as far as I could tell, Clint spends most of the film being chastised by those he has let down and abandoned, with not even a move away to the most remote part of the planet allowing him respite from his guilt.

But don’t get me wrong – this reading was only teased out of Siberia fairly tenuously, as Ferrara really doesn’t give you much to work with in terms of understanding this surreal mess. While it’s around 90 minutes long, some sequences feel far longer as you attempt to understand what you’re seeing, and it has possibly the most abrupt ending of any film I’ve ever watched. I’m not averse to surrealism or long stretches with little plot relevance – David Lynch and Luis Bunuel are two directors that spring to mind – but without any semblance of structure, it can be hard to engage with the emotional highs and lows of the narrative, even if the motivation of these moments are intentionally masked.

However, there are some breath-taking visuals, and you can enjoy the film for this alone for the most part, even if you’re totally lost. The scenes in Siberia itself make the frozen wastelands feel like the loneliest place imaginable, even when the admittedly adorable dogs are on screen. More beautiful still are scenes situated in lush forests and nightmarish halls, that I imagine have the potential to create a crushing atmosphere in a cinema setting. The occasional scares thrown at you also hit surprisingly hard, especially when the brutal violence abruptly cuts through a moment of quiet, creating a tone of instability that’s only matched by Dafoe’s manic energy.

Self-indulgence isn’t always a bad trait necessarily, but in Siberia‘s case it sometimes make you feel as though a greater level of plot accessibility would give the film more impact. It may also have been self-indulgence that led to the unfortunate trope of making every female character an empty vessel for the lead to have sex with, a solipsistic concept that may have been intentional, but mostly felt off-putting. It might be more interesting or revealing upon a rewatch, but I imagine Siberia will be something of a ‘love it or hate it’ film for most people, even for those who enjoy surrealism and personal projects.

Sibera plays at the London Film Festival.

You can read more of our LFF coverage here.


Updated: Oct 08, 2020

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