Biting into the forbidden apple of incest, Andrew Kötting’s Ivul charts the fall of civilisation in a Russian émigré family. Or is he barking up the wrong tree?
Trees Lounge by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Despite relocating to the paysage of the Midi-Pyrénées for his latest fictional foray, Andrew Kötting’s Ivul has all the tropes familar since his first experimental short Klipperty Klop – video texturing, performance art and landscape, all stained with family tragedy. While Gallivant and This Filthy Earth were as British as Martin Parr, Ivul remains curiously European; a bourgeois French family headed by a Russian émigré patriarch. It may all be a question of funding, sending British arthouse directors to Europe in their droves, but there’s also something chillingly fresh about Kötting’s little Britain in the Pyrenees.
Interspersed with radio interference and a monochrome montage of vintage celluloid games where boys walk on buckets and stilts, see how slowly they can cycle without falling, or try to whack each other off beams, Ivul is a textural delight; accelerated, grainy and oversaturated. The collage, along with the happy-go-lucky siblings playing ‘The Floor Is Made Of Lava’ or the father Ivul condemning his wayward son Alex not to step on his land, are rare glimpses into the artistic concept behind the fiction – a piece of performance art in which Alex refuses to tread the earth again.
Like his 2007 video short Offshore, an out-of-the-blue follow-up to Gallivant following four cross-Channel swimmers in a boat, Ivul leaves the grimy morass of This Filthy Earth behind and heads, this time, heavenwards. Trees, according to the paterfamilias, are a sign of civilisation – ancestors planting saplings for future generations to lie in their shade. And certainly trees have a metaphoric power in Ivul, adorning picture frames and wallpaper. And Alex’s highwiring through the trees echoes other French funambulists like Man On Wire‘s Philippe Petit, or even harking back to the great (and locally buried) Charles Blondin. But within the narrative, his tree walking is symbolic of this misfit’s rejection of earthly patriarchy and his creation of a new way of life.
His arboreal parkour is foreshadowed in family games where the kids play at not touching the floor, much to their mother’s chagrin; a childhood innocence tolerated only so far. And when Alex’s sexual experimentation with sister Freya is discovered by mute manservant Lek, he revolts, taking to the roof, free from the thankless drudgery of maintaining the gardens but condemned to a meagre existence on badgers and rats. The incestual urges driving the plot upward may be weak, but his arborescent revolution is stunning. With backwards scenes of Alex traversing rocky caves and scaling awkward branches, he’s literally going against the grain.
While Alex climbs his way up from middle-class expectation and confining social mores to freedom, the family declines. In a scene of mysterious mythological significance, Lek throws a sheep off a cliff, highlighting perhaps the very real Icarian dangers of climbing too high. Or perhaps foreshadowing an Abraham-style sacrifice of the son, penance for the sin that’s entered the family home. As Alex distances himself further and further, Freya leaves for Russia and the family carries on. It’s a strange, aloof reaction that they never try to find him; underestimating their son’s stubbornness perhaps, or how much they’ve hurt him. But after a sudden stroke, the Samson-shaved patriarch’s power weakens and he has to be nursed. Firstly by his wife and then by Freya.
With grainy video of icebergs and birds flying over Russian lakes, Russia is a yearned-for homeland, a pre-revolutionary land of poetry and order. That Freya is forced to return to reality, to replace her now-alcoholic mother, is another piece of weak plotting solely designed to reunite the two siblings. It’s strange, when Kötting dedicates the film to his mother Rita, “who managed to hold the family together” that the mother should prove so ineffectual here. Instead it’s Freya, screaming in the forest, who eventually finds Alex. And as Lek sets light to the ground beneath his caravan in the trees, Alex has to choose between rejoining the family or being burnt alive.
Elevated by a rare musical accompaniment of monks chanting and with incense-like smoke filtering through the trees, Alex chooses to remain above this filthy earth. Whether with his final act of self-effacement his sin is expiated or if it’s a veneration and the hymns are just for him is hard to tell. And with its coda of Alex atop a mythical ruined hilltop, the ambiguity continues – Ivul‘s double-ending as a death-come-quick fantasy or a heavenly afterlife for the young revolutionary, who knows. But Kötting’s Ivul is a fascinatingly textural piece of experimental filmmaking, even when some of the narrative threads are fraying or slight. It’s political, polemical and poetic. Just don’t look down.
Ivul is released in the UK on 23rd July 2010.