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Where The Sublime And Ridiculous Meet: Boris Barnet On DVD
John Carvill , November 30th, 2012 02:03

John Carvill is entranced by two innovative yet rarely seen gems of Russian cinema, which Mr Bongo have dusted off for home entertainment release. Stills from Outskirts

Think of Russian cinema, and it's unlikely that the name 'Boris Barnet' will be among the first to spring to mind. Hell, his name doesn't even sound very Soviet, compared with such reassuringly exotic monikers as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov or Yakov Protazanov. And, although there is a short page dedicated to his career on Wikipedia, their entry discussing 'Cinema of Russia' does not mention Barnet once. Long unavailable on DVD (or even VHS), these two films - released in reasonably priced, no-frills editions by Mr Bongo - offer a welcome opportunity for those wishing to either inaugurate or reinforce their acquaintance with the director's work.

Of the two, Outskirts (1933) is in many ways the more substantial work: longer, more complex, more varied, and practically throbbing with 'big' themes. Even so, any solemnity is shot through with a puckishly irreverent sense of humour. Set in a small village at the outset of World War I, the title is sometimes translated as 'Patriots', but this seems both linguistically and ontologically inaccurate. For these characters, world events are peripheral matters which rarely threaten to puncture their nonchalance. They are geographically and philosophically remote. Even when swept up by war or revolution, their default response seems to be a laconic shrug.

This, then, is a highly serious work in which the first line of dialogue (a world-weary exclamation of "Oh, my God!") is given to a horse; grim scenes are frequently followed by, or even - as when a soldier 'plays dead' in the WWI trenches - transformed into almost slapstick sequences. A man turns to the camera and winks elaborately; a would-be suitor pushes a little dog off a bench so he can sidle up to the object of his amorous advances. The narrative often seems at least as interested in tales of boy meets girl, as in scenes of war or political tumult.

If Outskirts is occasionally preoccupied with matters of the human heart, then By the Bluest of Seas (1936) is almost entirely given over to presenting a star-crossed love story. Two sailors survive a shipwreck, clinging to a fragment of wood for two days and nights. Again, the humorous tone is set early on, when one of the men cries out, "Careful, I'm ticklish!" as he is hoisted into the rescue boat that saves their lives. They're soon ensconced at the 'Lights of Communism' island farm collective, enjoying the seaside sunshine and both falling hard for the enticing female farm administrator, Masha.

In as much as there is any further plot development from this point onwards, it chiefly concerns the duo's energetic but uncertain attempts to woo the woman they both - quite suddenly - have decided is the great love of their lives. Masha shows affection (of sorts) to the pair of them, but in many ways the relationship between the sailors is more interesting, and, arguably, more ardent, than either's interaction with the alluring lady herself. Although their status as love rivals does give rise to plenty of mutual antagonism, it's always tempered with a kind of indulgent ruefulness, as if neither man can any more easily renounce his rival than he can control his passion for the object of their competing romantic ambitions. This fraught predicament is handled in a remarkably subtle and, again, comic manner. Just as Barnet brought humour to the WWI trenches, here he finds plenty to laugh about in the arena of romantic love. It's your basic early Soviet sound era romantic comedy buddy movie.

Although these are sound films, there are many holdover features from silent cinema: the use of intertitles; extended scenes that pass without dialogue; the actors occasionally employing the broad expository gestures of the silent era – "Here, I am offering you these flowers", "Hey, look over there", etc. Conversely, music and audio effects often become the key elements in a scene. It's a compelling mixture, one that plays particularly well in By the Bluest of Seas, where it's combined with eerily beautiful cinematography. Indeed, both would be worth watching for the visuals alone: Outskirts exhibits a grainy, pungently contrasty aesthetic, whereas the photography in By the Bluest of Seas is more high key.

These movies proceed at a leisurely pace; the narrative thrust never feels urgent. Yet there are no longueurs, no dull moments, and in fact many inventive and intriguing scenes or shots go by all too quickly. Bravura touches abound: an old man standing still as crowds blur around him; a shot beginning with a protagonist's frowning face in a window, widening out to show the tentative smile of his friend and bouquet-clutching love rival, then expanding to include the intended recipient of the flowers: Masha, the girl who has provoked these two characters' contrasting expressions. Perhaps most striking of all is the sequence in which Masha tears apart the necklace given to her by the suitor everyone assumed she was pairing off with. It's not clear whether she destroys the necklace in response to his failure to speak out in public defence of his love for her, of if she is tearing it apart in order to repudiate him, and thus ensure his silence. Either way, the slow, silent shot of the translucent necklace beads falling and tumbling like shimmering liquid droplets of frustrated love, is spellbinding.

There are many such riches to enjoy. These films appeal on a multiplicity of levels: the ever-present humour; the stunning visuals; the surprising way sound is used to add an unexpected dimension; the languid yet propulsive pacing; and, above all, the lyrical, almost wistful tone with which these rarely seen works are suffused. All the while, an unmistakably humanist sensibility, coupled with a sharply developed sense of the ridiculous, prevails. These are innovative, exuberant, sublimely life-affirming pictures, which anyone with the slightest inclination towards exploring the margins of cinema should seek out and revel in.

Outskirts and By The Bluest Of Seas are out now via Mr Bongo.