The word bleak gets a further layer of meaning in 13 (Tzameti), the debut film by France-based Georgian director Gela Babluani, winner of the best first feature in Venice in 2005 (it's showing at the Sundance festival which opens today). Shot in stark black and white, the film has a timeless, vintage arthouse look to it which is only betrayed by contemporary car models and modern trains.
It starts off in an off-beat, but not completely outlandish manner. Sébastien (George Babluani) is working on the roof of a seaside house somewhere in France when the owner of the house, Jean François Godon (Philippe Passon) comes staggering outside until he collpses on the beach sand. A woman comes out running and asks for Sébastien's help. We are informed that the man is addicted to morphine and a few scenes later he dies in the bath.
We notice there's something suspicious about his life and Sébastien gets hold of a letter to Gaston which lands on his bag outside the house after being wind-blown through the window. The letter contains 'instructions', a ticket to Paris and a hotel reservation. Since the laconic Sébastien is left unpaid for his work on the roof, he decides to step into the deceased man's shoes and see what happens in Paris. We get a glimpse of his miserable immigrant household as an implicit explanation as to why he decides to immerse himself into such an obscure journey.
This is how the film is set-up and the noir atmosphere thickens very quickly from this point onwards. Like Sébastien, the audience is still in the dark when he receives a call already in the hotel room, instructing him to pick up another train ticket from a locker in Gare du Nord station. We start to sense that something criminal is what the pretty 20-year-old Sébastien is getting entangled with.
To Sébastien's horror, he discovers upon arriving at a house in the middle of the forest that he is to take part in a deadly game of group Russian roulette where psychotic men bet on human lives. This nerve-wrecking game takes up the biggest chunk of the film. It has to be one of the most brutal, unbearable film experiences I've ever submitted myself to, a cinematic journey to hell, but without pinheads and Freddie Kruger. There's no gory on display - this is a minimalist, visually clean film - but the tension every time the players are to pull the trigger behind each other's head is very disturbing, quite an achievement in this day and age when we are supposed to be immune to shock.
Babluani's film is a taut, compressed piece that feels like a smothering nightmare. As such, it lends itself to Freudian analysis and a possible reading of the lethal game shown in the film is that it is a representation of the male primitive fear of anal penetration. It is an assured debut and an artistic accomplishment of sorts. It has to be recommended with a warning, though, since this is heavy, chilling stuff, like a winter picnic with the Russian mafia.
13 (Tzameti) is out now.