Films with few characters, at least in mainstream cinema practice, have a tendency toward being inherently uncinematic. The paucity of their cast typically being symptomatic of an insular narrative within a pallid setting- Buried being a rather extreme contemporary example. How I Ended this Summer, is similarly claustrophobic in many respects- its physical, thematic and visual scope, however, is simply vast.
Russian Aleksei Popogrebsky’s intensely psychological drama about two men isolated from all civilisation shocked the attendees of the London film festival when it defeated more celebrated and demonstrative films, like Aronofsky’s decadent baroque, Black Swan. And, tonally, there couldn’t be a greater expanse between two pictures.
Set in a weather research station in the Arctic Circle, How I Ended this Summer features only two men- one, a callow distracted student –Pavel- demonstrably bored and disappointed having applied for a short term appointment at the station in search of adventure, so that he could write a university essay that shares its title with the film. His companion in isolation is Sergei, a much older man, coming to the end of a six year assignment.
The friction between the two is very much a microcosm of generations. Sergei is severe- aggressive and yet peculiarly quiet and sanguine. He is wholly devoted to performing his task at the station working, as he is, exclusively for a family with whom he only has contact through another base via radio link. The tension he portrays with the fidgety, self-interested Pavel is obvious, both in conflict or – as constitutes the bulk of their daily routine- in their casual disregard for each other, throughout their predominantly empty days.
The actors’ respective performances are superbly judged and equally well framed by Popogrebsky as he deftly weaves the exquisite arctic vistas into the narrative and the psyche of his characters, elucidating the immense distance that exists, not only between Russia’s surviving Soviet generations and its new spoiled fidgety middle class young people. Early on this is manifest in occasional violent outbursts of frustration between Sergei and his junior, but when Pavel receives devastating news about Sergei’s family, he conceals it- in part intimidated by the reality of such news in his frivolous existence, but mainly in fear of what it may do to the older man’s psyche as he is left alone with him without help.
What subsequently plays out is a masterpiece in studied tension and intense visceral fear as two people of contrary values and backgrounds are pushed to the very limits of their bodies and minds before, in the most trying of circumstances, finding a kinship- a mutual humanity that had been obfuscated by all the multitudinous distractions of modern life; by age; but most of all by the radically different cultures in which the men grew up.