In modern cinema, long tracking shots frequently connote little other than their own technical virtuosity. In Gavagai, though, the long takes are revelatory for the way they fuse theme, subject, and setting into a harmonic whole. Throughout, one’s allowed to feel the profound constriction of traditional cinematic language: shot/reverse-shot technique, repeated as necessary until the dialogue has been entirely uttered. When Carsten (Andreas Lust) wanders a Norwegian hillside that was once populated by the real-life poet Tarjei Vesaas, the viewer gets to savor the movement of the trees and the play of light across the grass. Even more importantly, we’re permitted to take the time to inhabit this realm, which links us with Carsten’s emotional biorhythms. One ponders the land while pondering him pondering the land.
There’s a little of Terrence Malick in Gavagai’s poetic sensibility, but director and co-writer Rob Tregenza lacks Malick’s precious need to flaunt erudition—to bang us on the head with the existential importance of the proceedings. Tregenza’s characters don’t endlessly and ludicrously twirl into the heavens while muttering sweet nothings; instead, they’re viscerally connected to this Earth and imbued with everyday physicality. (The sound of Carsten’s stride—purposeful yet haunted and desperate—is one of the film’s most subtle and moving formal flourishes.) Gavagai’s closest precedent is the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, who dramatized similar relationships between humans and their settings without slipping into intellectualized self-consciousness.
Gavagai is rooted in the communion as well as the sensorial challenges of savoring art. Carsten is first seen descending a train that’s arrived in the Telemark region of Norway. With his jacket, leather satchel, and knapsack in tow, he walks by the train station as the camera follows him, without cutting, into the countryside beyond. Tregenza, who also shot the film, lingers on the landscape for a moment, until Carsten reappears and retraces his steps to the train station and hops back on the train, before quickly descending again and resting on a bench. Initially, one may assume that Carsten has left something on the train, but he’s holding the same number of bags when he leaves the station for the second time. At this point, the audience doesn’t know why Carsten is in Telemark, but, retrospectively, this sequence becomes an expression of grief, translating a difficult, highly personal emotion into a sonata of quotidian gestures that cumulatively feel as if they’ve never been quite captured by a filmmaker in this fashion. This is the magic of Gavagai.
Remarkably, nearly every sequence in Gavagai is this special. The film is composed of a series of sketches that are both diamond-hard, in their behavioral and textural tactility, and free-associative in their willingness to allow for emotional mystery; we feel as if we’re walking in Carsten’s shoes while sensing that we will never entirely know him. On the soundtrack, Carsten recites Vesaas’s poetry, which dramatizes the bittersweet-ness of fleeting connection, and which Tregenza’s sensual, fluid rhythms visually and aurally complement. Tregenza gradually expands the film’s sense of reality to deepen our understanding of Carsten’s emotional realm: A Chinese woman occasionally appears to Carsten out of nowhere, seemingly attempting to luxuriate in, as well as relieve, his loneliness.
For reasons that are pointedly unrevealed, Carsten doesn’t drive. And so he requires a driver and guide, Niko (Mikkel Gaup), who runs a failing “elk safari.” Tellingly, when Carsten approaches Niko at his office in the morning, the theoretical entrepreneur is asleep on his couch. These early scenes prime us for a buddy comedy, in which the lean, disciplined, and taciturn Carsten is contrasted with the plump, talkative, and heavy-drinking and junk food-scarfing Niko. This contrast is elegantly established in a long take in a grocery store where Carsten buys water and fruit while Niko gets chips and beer.
Tregenza doesn’t make sport of Niko, whose eagerness for connection is heartbreakingly rebuffed by Carsten, who’s eaten up with his own tragedy. Finally, we learn what’s going on: that Carsten is revisiting sites important to his recently deceased Chinese wife, and is seeking to translate Vesaas’s poetry into Chinese. If creation is an act of love-making, Carsten is attempting to make love to his wife one last time, finishing an open collaboration. When Carsten divulges this information to Niko (and, in turn, to the audience), Niko spits his hotdog out in an action that conveys his dawning appreciation of Carsten’s torment. Niko is enacting his own drama of romantic longing, with a local woman, Mari (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), whom he regrets leaving so as to get his failing business up and running. Carsten’s tragedy inspires Niko to take himself more seriously as well as to cherish Mari.
Tregenza, however, doesn’t indulge in self-improvement bromides. The bond between Carsten and Niko is expressed through the filmmaker’s rhapsodic long takes, in which Niko often suggests Sancho Panza, who’s hopelessly trying to keep up with the whims of his angular and dreamy leader. The film’s most astonishing sequence is set on a ferry, in which Niko looks for Carsten as they two men circle the boat’s top floor out of sync. The camera moves clockwise, with the walls of the ferry serving as natural transitions between the men. Niko is caught up in the gravity of his and Carsten’s love quandaries, while Carsten is reveling in a moment of celebration that he shared with his wife. The sequence allows the audience to see three distinct psychological spheres: Carsten’s, Niko’s, and the merging of the two.
In Gavagai’s most romantic flourish, Niko begins to see things too—images of Mari that force him to confront his longing for her. Throughout the film, Niko grows from comic relief to hero, while Carsten vanishes like a ghost into the countryside. Niko is opening himself up, of course, to the pain that afflicts Carsten. This vulnerability is the price that must be paid for love and art.