Saturday, January 07, 2017

PSIFF ’17: The Spy and the Poet

A news report in this drily comedic spy thriller refers to Russia as “revanchist,” which is rather apt, isn’t it? Not so surprisingly, the Estonian counter-intelligence team-leader Gustav Tukk spends most of his time focused on the Russians. It turns out the Russians reciprocate Tukk’s interest. However, Tukk’s boss knows they have baited a honey trap for his socially inept deputy, but the Russians don’t know that they know—at least not yet. If that were not awkward enough, there is also a mad scribbler of verse who periodically crashes the party in Toomas Hussar’s The Spy and the Poet (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The on-the-wagon Tukk makes Frasier Crane look like Hunter S. Thompson. He regularly nurses a ghastly non-alcoholic beer at a local café, but for a spy, such habits are bad for business. One night, Tukk can’t help notice Miku the grubby unkempt poet getting brutally shot down by Nala, a mysterious femme fatale straight out of central casting (or Dzerzhinsky Square). On his way home, he comes across the disheveled Nala, looking the apparent victim of a mugging.

Tukk probably should have been suspicious when she turns up at his flat with a token of her appreciation. At least he is the first one to spot Nala in surveillance photos of the local Russian operatives. Further compounding Tukk’s embarrassment, the director orders him to play along. Now both intelligence services can hear just clumsy he is around women, in painful detail. During the course of the investigation, Tukk sort of befriends the hipster manchild Miku, after clearing of involvement with the Russians. Of course, the seducer and the seducee will start developing feelings for each other, in spite of their better judgement—and just about everything else about Tukk, the poor sad sack.

For its domestic audience, S&P evidently has a lot to say about Estonian identity. Aesthetically, you can definitely see it tilting away from a Slavic orientation and towards Scandinavia. In terms of tone, S&P gives viewers a sense of what to expect if Bent Hamer or Aki Kaurismäki adapted a le Carré novel. Still, the Russians are definitely the bad guys, which is pretty true to reality in the Baltics, but bizarrely means Hussar’s film will not be screened in the White House anytime soon.

As Tukk, Jan Uuspõld raises dead pan to an excruciating high art form. He lets us know there is a spark in there, but holy smokes, it is buried deep. Lana Vatsel is quite the fiery contrast, but she brings unexpected depth and humanity to Nala, the Roma vamp. Rain Tolk looks like Zach Galifianakis after a five-day grain alcohol bender, but he is hampered by Miku’s rather limited role. It just seems like he is there to facilitate a handful of plot points. Regardless, the film is peppered with wonderfully subtle supporting turns, including Mari Abel as a colleague who just might have more affection with Tukk than she realized and Loore Martma as the compassionate waitress at the café where it happens.

Cinematographer Rein Kotov gives it a stylish austere look, well in keeping Scandinavian modernism. It is a cool, frosty film, but Hussar is not afraid to let his characters look silly. It is not out of cruelty, but to humanize them. While S&P might perfectly capture the Estonian national character, we can only hope and pray the incompetence of the Russian agents also reflects reality. Highly recommended for sophisticated audience for its offbeat humor and noir intrigue, The Spy and the Poet screens Tuesday (1/10), Friday (1/13), and next Sunday (1/15), during this year’s PSIFF.