Film Review: Life’s Astringent Taste Can Go Down Smooth

New York Times
April 1 2004

Life’s Astringent Taste Can Go Down Smooth

“Vodka Lemon” just might be the world’s iciest postcard film: you
will never be so happy to sit inside a cozy, theater as when you
watch the actors exhaling clouds of warm breath over the blindingly
white expanse.

But the thicket of relationships that the director, Hiner Saleem, has
created and weaves his cast and camera through is so invitingly
hotblooded and crowded with hilariously melodramatic incident that
the snowbanks are not nearly as forbidding as they initially seem.
Eventually the chilly air becomes a character; it has the astringent
sharpness of the title drink that everyone in the movie downs, and
complains about.

The picture, which will be shown tonight, tomorrow and Saturday as
part of the New Directors/New Films series, starts with an old man
being pulled across the snowy wastes on his bed, an image right out
of a dream. But Mr. Saleem’s gifts come from giving these outlandish
visual statements a grounding in the everyday reality that the
characters experience. He is headed to a funeral, and “Vodka Lemon”
charts the intermingling – marriages, death and sexual complications
– in an Armenian village. Like most of the other New Directors/New
Films offerings “Vodka Lemon” is set in a place that almost makes us
want to applaud for the sheer industry required to get a camera crew

Chief among the citizens is the wily Hamo, played by Romik Avinian.
With a grizzled jaw line one could scratch to start a fire, Mr.
Avinian dominates the picture as if he has finally grown into his
surly, direct charisma. This fine guarded actor anchors the
goings-on. After attending so many funerals, Hamo has begun a
flirtation with a much younger woman, the 50-ish widow Nina (Lala
Sarkissian). She feels a void in her life, and he simply recognizes
now as the time for both of them to move into a new adventure.

The ravaged and impoverished village also must cope with its own
deficits. The support system in place during Soviet rule is long
gone, with several residents fondly griping about the comforts, such
as they were, that the Soviets provided. There hasn’t been much
change; life in this flash-frozen community has gone from minimal to
Spartan, but nostalgie de la boue is still nostalgia.

“We have nothing left but our freedom,” one villager grouses. Mr.
Saleem understands that need is the central motivating force in the
villagers’ lives: for heat, food, emotional humidity and clarity.

Mr. Saleem’s layering does compensate for the lack of formal
structure, though the picture is provisionally set around the shock
waves caused by the imminent wedding of Nina’s granddaughter. But the
picture does not need an elaborately contrived plot. What it has
instead is a neighborly, fresh-air quality; all the doors in the
miniature snow-globe of a town are open, as is the chatter and
curiosity about everyone’s familial intrigues.

The movement from one conversation to another gives a likable freedom
to “Vodka Lemon,” and allows Mr. Saleem to set up a few running jokes
that combine quotidian absurdity with thoughtful melodrama, like the
opening shot of the old man, and a few other freakish outbursts that
have to be witnessed to be believed, and savored. It is an
intelligent gamble on Mr. Saleem’s part; he knows that if he’s not
going to satisfy audiences with convention, he should at least supply
a few entrances as detonation devices.

“Vodka Lemon” could be an Ice Capades version of a Beckett play, with
a group of seasoned though modest hammy actors in complete control.
Their affectlessness gives the movie an atmosphere of
hypothermia-laced surrealism, with shots of drama serving the same
purpose as the vodka; both keep the blood flowing. This movie has an
antic, mordant visual poetry that matches up with the rancor and
feeling in its population’s souls.


Directed by Hiner Saleem; written (in Armenian, Kurdish and Russian,
with English subtitles) by Beatrice Pollet; director of photography,
Christophe Pollock; edited by Theodora Mantzouru; music by Michel
Korb; production designer, Albert Hamarash; produced by Fabrice Guez.
Running time: 88 minutes. This film is not rated. Shown with a
six-minute short, David Licata’s “Tango Octagenario” tonight at 6 and
tomorrow night at 8:30 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center,
165 West 65th Street, and Saturday at 9 p.m. at the MoMA Gramercy
Theater, 127 East 23rd Street, Manhattan, as part of the 33rd New
Directors/New Films series of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and
the department of film and media of the Museum of Modern Art.

WITH: Romik Avinian (Hamo), Ivan Franek (Dilovan), Zaal Karielachvili
(Giano), Lala Sarkissian (Nina), Armen Maroutyan (Romik), Astrik
Avaguian (Avin), Rouzana-Vite Mesropian (Zine), Témou (Azad) and
Armen Sarkissyan (Bus Driver).