The title of Gavagai, an internationally coproduced art film playing this week at Facets Cinémathèque, refers to a word in a made-up language invented by American philosopher W.V. Quine in his thesis on the indeterminacy of translation. I won’t pretend to understand Quine, but thankfully he’s not discussed in the film, which in fact contains little dialogue. Rather, cowriter-director-cinematographer-editor Rob Tregenza employs the term as a clue to the movie’s opaque content.
As you might guess, Gavagai is about the difficulties of translation, in both subject and form. The main character is a German tourist trying to translate the poetry of Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) into Chinese; in a formal analogue to the story, Tregenza spotlights the difficulties of translating into cinematic terms both poetry and the internal experience. The filmmaking is ravishing. Tregenza employs long takes and elaborate yet gracefully executed camera movements—you could say it flows like a poem. Yet Tregenza often reminds us how movies and poems are dissimilar, not to mention how movies can’t convey emotions as precisely as poems do. The most interesting thing about Gavagai may be that it produces something so calming out of such a jarring clash of art forms.
Prior to Gavagai, I’d seen only one other film that Tregenza directed, his debut feature, Talking to Strangers (1988), though I’d seen two on which he’d served as cinematographer, Alex Cox’s Three Businessmen (1998) and Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). These three films are enough to reveal his core fixations—namely the tension that arises from combining extended intricate camera movements and seemingly spontaneous onscreen behavior as well as the attendant thematic question of whether our lives are shaped by destiny or chance. They’re also enough to convince any discerning viewer of Tregenza’s mastery. His first new feature to play Chicago in roughly two decades, Gavagai constitutes something of an experimental “event” movie. That it’s not as great as the films mentioned above doesn’t mean it’s any less impressive on a formal level or that it offers any less to think about. The film runs a little under an hour and a half and comprises just 22 shots, nearly all of them ambitious in some way. Gavagai is a must-see for fans of long-take cinema, but more importantly, it’s the rare movie successfully designed to satisfy poetry lovers.
Tregenza introduces the film’s aesthetic concerns in the first shot. It begins in daytime as a train pulls into a station somewhere in rural Norway. A German man, identified only in the end credits as Carsten Neuer (and played by Andreas Lust), disembarks the train and walks away from the station. The camera briefly follows him on his path, then stops to observe him walking away and ultimately out of the shot, leaving viewers to meditate on the empty landscape. As all this is happening, Lust reads an English translation of Vesaas’s poem “The Journey” over the soundtrack. It begins:
At last we emerged
from the night mist. No one recognized any one now.
The faculty was lost on the journey.
No one asked or demanded:
Who are you?
Tregenza lets Vesaas’s words fill out the personless image until Lust runs back onto the screen and past the camera, which pans right to observe him getting back on the train, then emerging with his jacket. Lust rests on a bench for a moment, then leaves the frame again.
This impressive shot tells us little about Carsten’s character, but it conjures up all sorts of emotions through the combination of the poem, the depopulated location, and the detached, ghostly presence of the camera. Tregenza manages to sustain this complex mood over the next half hour of Gavagai, despite the fact that he reveals almost nothing else about the protagonist during this time. The filmmaker focuses on straightforward actions and interpersonal conflicts: Carsten, who can’t drive, meets a tour guide (Mikkel Gaup) and hires him as a driver. The two men go to some woods a few hundred miles away; when they return, Carsten asks the guide for a ride several hundred miles north to the town of Vinje. Before they depart the next morning, the tour guide learns from his girlfriend (Anni-Kristiina Juuso) that she’s pregnant; he responds to the news with shock, which upsets her, then takes off with Carsten. It’s only at this point in the film that the hero discusses his translation project, explaining that he’s doing it as a testament to his late wife, a Chinese woman who wanted to share Vesaas’s poetry with the Chinese-speaking world. Also around this time, Tregenza reveals that Carsten is traveling with his dead wife’s ashes, leading one to predict (correctly) that he intends to scatter them during his journey.
It would all seem very simple if it weren’t for the frequent overlays of Vesaas’s poetry and Tregenza’s lovely camerawork, which sometimes follows the actors’ movements but more often goes off on its own path or else pauses to reflect calmly on the action. There’s also the matter of Carsten’s wife’s ghost, who appears unexpectedly and walks slowly around the frame. Tregenza likes to use these different effects (poetry, camerawork, supernatural plot elements) to contrapuntal effect, as when he sets an early scene in a grocery store to a poem about ambition and adventure. (“They journeyed for a dream, / were ready to give their all . . . and the bonfire flares up on every horizon / while fresh seekers poke among the ashes.”) But as Gavagai develops, the various components slowly jibe, yielding beautiful, polyphonic results. It doesn’t matter that Tregenza withholds key details about the characters: we never know what Carsten does for living, what his marriage was like, or why his wife loved Vesaas’s poetry so much. Through the manipulation of cinematic form and spoken verse, Tregenza expresses feelings—like grief, gratitude, and longing—that are hard to express through conventional psychological drama.
Gavagai is not just an emotional movie, but a sensual one. Tregenza’s lyrical camera movements and the actors’ recitations of Vesaas’s poetry contribute most plainly to this effect, but what makes the film enthralling is the near erotic sense of possibility that the filmmaker creates at any given time. Because we only know the characters through what Tregenza hints about their emotional states, we can relate to them but never be completely sure of what they’ll do. This push-pull feeling between knowing and not knowing reaches a head in the film’s climax, which unfolds in its longest single shot. Having reached his final destination, Carsten overlooks a valley from a wooded peak in the rain. He crouches by a fire pit, takes from his knapsack the urn containing his wife’s ashes, then scatters them along with several pieces of paper. At some point he mumbles in a language other than English that Tregenza refuses to subtitle. There’s so much the viewer still wants to know about Carsten, yet it’s remarkable how close one feels to him by this point in the film. That indistinct yet strong emotional connection is the stuff of poetry, cinematic and otherwise. v