What Is Astrakan About?
Samuel (Mirko Giannini) doesn’t have the most charmed life one could have. An orphan who is forced to live with a set of foster parents Marie (Jehnny Beth) and Clement (Bastien Bouillon) who clearly only want to keep Samuel around because being a foster parent pays them. In this depressing environment, Samuel must still go through the routine ups and downs that come with coming of age, such as first crushes, first kisses and trying to enjoy the last remnants of childhood. However, the more time goes on, the more that Samuel deals with his family’s darker side, slowly pushing him further and further into a feeling of depression brought on by the harsh cruelty of living.
What’s Good About Astrakan?
Astrakan is one of those films that likes to play everything as close to the chest as humanly possible, taking everything slow and just letting the emotions slowly seep underneath your skin the more it goes on. For the majority of it, Astrakan is just a slice-of-life style drama with very little heightened emotions from anyone, including the filmmakers. With no score and a subdued but gorgeous visual style, the first eighty-something minutes of Astrakan are almost too quiet considering that the more the film goes on the more we see just how cruel the world is to Samuel and how he slowly detaches from it all.
That slow progression for the main character really works mostly because Mirko Giannini is a fantastic young actor who sells this idea of a kid just barely trying to get through the day. It’s a deeply realistic performance that manages to be absolutely engrossing for the entire time, even when Astrakan is at its slowest (and it can get a little slow at times) there’s just something about this kid that you end up being completely enthralled, wondering if the pain that’s hidden just behind those wide expressive eyes will end up leading to something… and then the final ten minutes of Astrakan happen.
The final ten minutes of Astrakan, without spoiling what happens, is where the film takes possibly the biggest risk it could take by doing a complete tonal left turn and changing absolutely everything we thought we knew. Your mileage may vary on how well this works, it might even feel somewhat pretentious in how sharply things change in terms of story, visual language and even audio language (notably the final ten minutes is the only part of the film to have music background) but once you see what those final ten minutes are showing you regarding the story you’ve just been told, it works better than it probably should.
The final ten minutes retroactively fills in several major blind spots regarding the story of our main character, almost like we’ve been seeing the version of Samuel’s life that he allows the world to see and the final ten minutes are what he’s been keeping bottled up the whole time. It’s a wildly fascinating choice, one that requires some amount of confidence from the director who basically needs to be sure that they can maintain the audience’s attention for most of the film in order to gut-punch them in the final moments. In this case, it feels successful, the ending is certainly a surprising twist on all levels but still feels like it belongs with the rest of the film.
The rest of Astrakan is admittedly slow enough that it might be harder for some people to get through it, though even in those slower moments the absolutely gorgeous visuals (thanks to the power of good 16mm film) make for something beautiful to look at. The rich vibrant colours of the little town Astrakan takes place in are truly gorgeous and keep you pulled in even when it might feel like nothing’s happening (again, the majority of the film is very much a simple slice-of-life story) and that visual beauty ramps up into high gear with the final few minutes.
Final Thoughts On Astrakan
Astrakan is one of those films that rewards you for sticking around with a banger of an ending and a simple story of a young person trying to get by. If you’re not the kind of person who is into the more quiet ponderous films then this might be a little too slow for you but if you enjoy films that take chances and take their time then you’ll get a fair bit out of this. It’s a different way to tell this kind of story and for taking a risk like that it deserves a lot of praise.
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