A sort of reductio ad absurdum of the long-take approach to filmmaking, How I Ended This Summer is tedium incarnate—which may be precisely director Alexei Popogrebsky’s point. The Russian filmmaker’s two-character anti-drama channels the banality of daily routine at a Russian meteorological station located on a remote Arctic island. Slowing its rhythms to the sluggish pace of a life that revolves around little more than taking periodic readings on seemingly antiquated equipment, the film’s odd turn into psychological thriller only leads to the introduction of even longer stretches of unproductive dead time. Bringing a contemplative approach to a genre piece—or what here amounts to a little sketch of a genre piece—is a potentially fruitful idea, but Popogrebsky’s conception is so slack and uncertain that it yields frustratingly little.
Early on, as the film establishes its two-character dynamic, the director occasionally interrupts his quiet, fixed takes with loud bursts of sound, mostly tied to the figure of Pavel Danilov (Grigory Dobrygin), the younger of the two technicians. A fan of heavy metal music and first-person shooters, Pavel’s pastimes take over the audio channels for brief moments of time, suggesting a pent-up tension in the seemingly uneventful station house. These tensions mount when Pavel receives a message for his partner, the older and sternly menacing Sergei Gulybin (Sergei Puskepalis), while the latter is away fishing, informing him of the death of his wife and son. Intimidated by the older man, Pavel stumbles in his attempt to deliver the message and failing at first to relay the information, the moment passes, and he keeps mum for what probably amounts to weeks. As radio transmissions threaten to inform Sergei of the deaths, the film builds a measure of tension out of the potential for discovery. As he attempts to avoid detection and possible harm at the hands of his wrathful partner, the increasingly unstable Pavel turns to increasingly desperate gestures, secretly working to disable the radio.
But after the younger man finally reveals the information to Sergei, the film falls into a disastrous third act from which it never recovers. Nearly the entire balance of the film is taken up by a half-hour-plus chase sequence that’s perverse in its deliberate refusal of suspense; this excruciating movement is among the least pleasurable sequences in the cinema. In place of any narrative tension, all we’re left with is the vague expressions of madness on Grigory Dobrygin’s face and shots of the Arctic landscape which, given the majestic setting, result in some pretty pedestrian imagery.
As the chase comes to a predictable non-conclusion, it becomes clear that Popogrebsky is quite calculated in his withholding of the expected gratifications of the chase narrative, but until then his command over his material has seemed so tentative, it’s been difficult to be sure. In the end, the film is so committed to frustrating every pleasurable quality that we may expect to look for in its construction—narrative tension, visual uplift, even the intellectual pleasures of a rigorous conception—that it finally amounts to exactly nothing.