A story of implacable grief, unlikely companionship and stunning landscapes, “Gavagai” is as beautifully singular a movie as I’ve seen all year. You know you’re in for something different in the opening moments, as a train pulls quietly into a deserted station in Telemark, Norway, and disgorges a German traveler, Carsten (Austrian actor Andreas Lust), who stumbles out with a troubled look on his face and a solemn stream of voiceover in his head.
A small, anguished drama of indecision plays out: The man walks some distance, then turns around and rushes back onto the train, then reluctantly gets off again and heads on his way. The scene, like every one that follows, is patiently observed in a single take, in which the camera moves fluidly and gracefully in concert with the characters.
Remarkably, the actors never feel trapped or overly managed by these carefully choreographed shots, and the director and cinematographer, Rob Tregenza, gives them plenty of room to breathe. At its simplest, his movie is about the importance of exploring and wandering, of fully inhabiting a given space, figuring out the right direction and then mustering the courage to stumble forward.
Carsten soon meets a friendly local tour guide named Niko (Mikkel Gaup), whom he pays to serve as his personal driver for a couple of days. And so they hop into Niko’s minivan, navigating a verdant countryside that, we soon learn, is also being traversed by a silent mystery woman whom only Carsten and the audience can see.
Who is the woman in Carsten’s hallucinations, and why does she always appear before him wearing traditional Chinese garb and elaborate face paint? Could it have something to do with the fact that Carsten, as he eventually explains to Niko, is working on a Chinese translation of the poems of the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas, a favorite of his recently deceased wife? Why do Carsten and the woman slowly circle each other on sight, locking gazes but never arms, like partners in a contact-free dance?
There are moments when you suspect these questions might have dubious, even risible answers. But as these ghostly visitations continue, any early whiff of orientalist fantasy dissipates in favor of a much more complicated reading. We come to understand these visions, many of which are accompanied by excerpts from Vesaas’ poems, as manifestations of a grief that Carsten is clearly still processing. And in the sheer strangeness of those visions, Tregenza seems to play with a troubling, genuinely haunting idea: that death makes permanent, radical strangers of the ones we love. We become estranged and dislocated from those we have lost — physically, culturally, spiritually.
If these scenes are heavy with metaphysical poetry, Nico’s romantic journey is a much more prosaic one. He’s in an on-again-off-again relationship with a local woman named Mari (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), who has lost patience with his non-commitment and moved on. But something in Nico seems to be shaken loose by his time spent with Carsten, and he finds time during their journey to re-establish contact with Mari and persuade her to give him another chance.
You can imagine a blunter, more crowd-pleasing buddy-comedy version of this story, though whether you’d want to see it is another matter. Tregenza doesn’t force his two excellent leads to bond or bicker, to arrive at moments of epiphany and catharsis on cue. He knows that even our meaningful encounters with strangers tend to be fleeting ones; he also knows that people are almost always slower to reveal themselves than the movies allow time for. Nevertheless, there is an unspoken intimacy, a fondness of feeling that passes between Carsten and Nico almost like a shudder — something that, if only for 90 minutes, binds them to each other and to the majestic expanse of lakes, trees and sloping roads behind them.
“Gavagai” is the latest feature directed by Tregenza, whose previous pictures — “Talking to Strangers” (1987), “The Arc” (1990) and “Inside/Out” (1997) — have been little seen beyond international film festivals. Still shooting on 35-millimeter film to gorgeous effect, he would hardly be the first defiantly analog film artist to languish in commercial obscurity, though his own bona fides — including the heavy influence of Jean-Luc Godard — are particularly noteworthy.
In the 1990s, Tregenza worked in film distribution, releasing pictures by major world auteurs such as Jacques Rivette and Michael Haneke. He served as one of several cinematographers on “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2000), a black-and-white masterpiece by the Hungarian director Béla Tarr, which likely informed his own use of long, intricately staged mobile shots. His filmmaking doesn’t have the immense, brooding weight of Tarr’s, but his commitment to an exploratory mobile aesthetic, allowing him to capture human behavior in unbroken passages rather than small fragments, is no less remarkable to behold.
Although never uttered on-screen, the word “gavagai,” as invented and defined by the philosopher W.V.O. Quine, is offered up as proof of his theory of the indeterminacy of translation, the difficulty of understanding and interpreting something spoken in another language. But if language can mislead, Tregenza knows that it is hardly the sole mechanism for human understanding. He has made a film that, in more than one sense, is moving beyond words.
(English, Norwegian with English subtitles, Mandarin)
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills