Monday, May 7, 2007

Father and Son

One of the oddest and most beautiful films of recent years, Alexander Sokurov's Father and Son treats the familial relationship of the title as unabashed eroticism, notwithstanding the director's claims to the contrary. What matters most in the film is the visual presentation, the relentless yellows with which Sokurov washes his subjects, relieved only by the occasional blue of the sky or sea; the glistening muscles of the father as he works out in a courtyard; or the homoerotic tangle of bodies as the men wrestle. Shot in Lisbon, though ostensibly taking place in Russia, the winding streets and ancient buildings add to the film's dreamlike atmosphere and count as one more visual pleasure in a film already full of them.

The film's first shots consist of the intertwined limbs of two apparent lovers. Only slowly do faces emerge. Later, we realize the bodies belong to father and son and the embrace, for all its eroticism, is strictly paternal. The sexual identification between the two characters is aided by the youth of the father who, we are told, is nineteen years older than the son but looks much younger. Throughout the film, the son attempts to simultaneously break the hold of the father (represented by the older man's grasp in the opening shots), forging a separate identity for himself, and to jealousy guard the father's love against any potential threats. The son repeatedly compares a father's love to a crucifixion, but admits that it is the son who allows himself to be crucified. Whether or not the film bears out such an extreme association is debatable, but the image points up the intensity of the struggle.

The shifting relationship between the titular characters plays out not realistically, but symbolically, often bringing into play the realm of the unconscious. Two dreams begin and end the film. The opening dream, belonging to the son, finds him alone in a field next to a tree. In listening to the retelling, the father asks whether he is present in his son's dream. "No," the son replies. At the end of the film the situations are reversed. It is the father who stands alone and the son who is not present. Ultimately, the father and son must seperate as the younger man begins his own independent life (even as he follows in his father's footsteps by pursuing a military career). The film's extraordinary visuals, particularly the omnipresent wash of yellow, accentuate the symbolic, dreamlike treatment of the material. Cinematic poetry rather than coherent narrative, Father and Son is a stunning look at the pull and repulsion of filial love, strangely cloaked as it is in erotic trappings.

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