During the final exchange in Veiko Õunpuu’s Sügisball, a distraught, goateed man named Mati peers out from the midriff window of a high-rise concrete behemoth to a score of blurry, gently coruscating lights in adjacent towers. “In every fucking little box out there,” he says gravely, “there is a human being trying to be happy.” The fact that a diegetic reference to John Cassavetes by way of a Love Streams poster looms conspicuously on a nearby wall is a fair indicator of the film’s subtlety with adult relationships. It’s not uncommon to see themes so didactically proffered in Eastern European art, but unlike the lion’s share of the post-Soviet socio-cinema cavalcade, the film’s flurry of blistering, populist observations lack a clear, cohesive target; only insurmountable ennui and self-loathing block the path to satisfaction—to say nothing of happiness—for Estonians like Mati, who feverishly eavesdrops on his ex-wife’s meager romantic exploits and drunkenly threatens her with murder for claiming full custody of their daughter. If the film is an intended polemic (and one could easily read it thus, given the intransigence and misplaced passion of its characters), it’s angularly and quizzically apolitical, all but dismissing the acute economic hierarchy that would undoubtedly fuel drama in any other ensemble piece about the inhabitants of a bleak, semi-urban apartment building.
The movie possesses flickers of brilliance (surprisingly comic ones, given the subject matter), but these seem sharply unrelated to what we feel Ounpuu is attempting, and ever-so-curiously failing, to explain to us about the singular dourness of proletariat existence in his homeland. In one Altmanesque subplot, an elderly man attempts to coax a girl from a nearby elementary school out of her painful shell with edible gifts; his advances are predictably misconstrued, but after a half-jokey confrontation with the girl’s mother, who simply accuses him of perversion, the story stagnates without a payoff. Theo, a lowly coat attendant at a deserted nightclub that pulses with plutonian red carpets and curtains, is one of the few sympathetic peons in sight; he beds droves of women, recording the names and astrological signs of each in a black pocketbook, but treats them respectfully—casual seduction his only ambition in life. When he eventually vents his frustrations—which are of a highly nebulous nature, since he’s the only character in the film who gets laid regularly—by mauling a writer-director of schlocky romantic comedies who enters the club inebriated, we hear bewildering shrieks of ironic significance echoing from the subtext. And the camera, which peacefully roves in search of intense color swatches throughout, naturally ensures that we note the crimson patterns developing on Theo’s nondescript attire as a result of the fist transaction.
Despite the meandering script, however, Sügisball is a mildly piquant experience, primarily because Americans with limited knowledge of Baltic culture will spend the duration puzzling over what additional dimension their ignorance might be shrouding. We observe this as we might Andrzej Wajda’s early career allegories: perpetually scanning for visual flair, attentively following the non-plot to root out recognizable universal morals, and admiring what few crumbs of aesthetic fulfillment we manage with the knowledge that we are not the core audience for the screen’s traffic. We are, rather, tourists who can only stand in vacant-eyed wonder before the semiotics of a foreign civilization with incommunicable hang-ups.