A Film a Week - Gutland

How often do you have a chance to watch a, I quote, “surrealist rural noir” from Luxembourg in which a popular Slovenian tune is played five minutes in as the vision of the peak of the local beer festival? Not often? Me neither. While being surrealist is sorta prerequisite for a European rural noir, and films are being made in Luxembourg through the different co-production mechanisms, Gutland still seems like an unlikely outcome, which may or may not be a fun thing to watch. On the side note, the tune called Golica is apparently hugely popular all over the German-speaking Europe, beer festivals in Luxembourg included…

Now, seriously. Gutland is a fiction feature debut for a Luxembourgian filmmaker Govinda Van Maele who already has a handful of shorts, a couple of TV-series episodes and a feature-length musical documentary called We Might As Well Fail under his belly. And it kinda is a rural noir about a German robber hiding in a Luxembourgian village, laced with a bit of deadpan, slightly absurdist humour and wrapped in a shroud of mystery.

The German thief is Jens, played by Frederick Lau (of Victoria fame) and he is on the run both from the law and from his former companions, so he comes to a picturesque village over the border in the Grand Duchy on the pretence of looking for work, but actually looking for a place to lay low for a while. His first encounter with the locals is not exactly pleasant, but it all changes when the mayor’s daughter Lucy (Vicky Krieps, best known for her role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread) falls for him. Suddenly, he is not only given work on the farm and a trailer to live, but also invited to every single social event and encouraged to participate in the activities side by side with the locals. As the time passes by, Jens finds out that the locals might not be well-meaning as they seem to be, and his peace comes with a price of playing a certain role, while things get weirder and weirder.

Gutland is handsomely shot by the director’s brother Narayan who opts for using real, existing locations and hand-held camerawork with a thing for rich textures of nature and country life in the background. The casting is also interesting, combining the stars of European cinema, such as Lau, Krieps and Pit Bukowski (seen in genre flicks The Bunker and The Samurai, among others) with a number of local newcomers. The script, reportedly doctored by Razvan Radulescu (known for his scripts for Romanian New Wave films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Child’s Pose) has a nice absurdist qualities in details.

The trouble is, however, with Van Maele’s main story, its three-act structure and his inability to keep the pacing in the middle. After an interesting exposition with a lot of quirky characters, Gutland either goes nowhere, or down a predictable road. The mystery of the village is revealing slowly, but is not that mysterious, and the occasional visits from Jens’ former associates have the predictable purpose to jump-start the film when the pacing goes down and to insert some instant tension. It does not work that well and feels a bit formulaic. Than again, maybe Gutland is a film with a deeper meaning (it could serve as a metaphor for well-off states in Central Europe not trusting the strangers from the East and South, forcing them to fit into certain patterns) and the using of the well-known formula is the only way to go.

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