Trois Exercises d’Interpretation
Directed by Cristi Puiu
Fans of Cristi Puiu will be disappointed to find that the director’s latest film is not, in fact, the third part of his Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest series. Trois Exercises d’Interpretation is a brief (albeit lengthy) cinematic diversion based on Russian writer Vladimir Soloyvov’s Three Conversations – subtitled ‘About War, Morality and Religion’ – and consists of three acts entitled ‘The Mouse is Under the Table’, ‘ The Cat is on the Chair’ and ‘The Monkey is on the Bench’. Three groups of people from each act are brought together by a fourth and final act whereby everyone convenes around a table to partake in a rather silly séance. There are naturally detectable hints of Rohmer, then, as we sit in on these successive gatherings to observe musings, disagreements and compromises on war, religion and art.
The task befalling each actor is to individualise their respective character’s belief system and idiosyncrasies in time for the grand meeting, thus each segment is given roughly 50 minutes to run at length – the grand sum amounting to one behemoth of a three-hour film comprised of very few static shots and mostly conversations, slight glances and movements. Unsurprisingly, a few people walked out of the screening.
It’s helpful to know the film’s full context before devoting a large chunk of time – and popcorn, as these deserters exhibited – to its ostensibly laborious intellectual treatise. In 2012, Cristi Puiu led an acting workshop for the Chantiers Nomades in Toulouse, ultimately deciding it would be more useful to make a film – based on the book of his choosing – for the actors to perform, watch back and learn from. Here is the resulting exercise, originally unintended for cinematic release and, judging by its limited appeal, unlikely to see the light of day outside special festival screenings such as this. It’s an inessential work, a curio that most will pass up because of its origin.
The first segment is the strongest at holding our interest; a working class solider named Jean-Benoit is dragged by his childhood friend – now grown up and ‘grown out’ of their old interests – to attend a bourgeois lunch complete with earnest philosophising and snobbery. The first wide shot is held for a good 20 minutes without a break, testing the actors’ ability in holding their own through an unbroken passage. When all four players shift toward a far more enclosed table, Puiu sits the camera in the centre and takes turns at capturing the faces of each unprofessional, in demand of a co-operative consistency – off-screen too, as gestures are reflected by the reactions of the visible actors. Jean-Benoit sighs and shakes, his patience wearing thin; he imagines himself elsewhere, delighting in the simpler pleasures of a multiplex Thor screening, and one wonders when he’ll finally put his foot down and leave.
There are further highlights late on, including couch-strewn characters debating the merits of the film they’re watching, which just so happens to be Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady. But these exchanges are typical casual philosophising: you either hook yourself on and follow the dialectics, or else drift away and lose interest – much like dear old Jean-Benoit. This exercise is recommended to anyone with 3 hours to burn and an interest in an acting troupe’s immersion, consistency and engagement with their given themes. It’s technically not an official Cristi Puiu film, though – even lacking an imdb page – and it’s hardly essential.