Art film romance takes a rare transcendentalist point of view
The title of What do we see when we look at the sky? asks a question without requiring an answer. The film has a wandering eye, but it doesn’t pay particular attention to the sky. During his unhurried two-and-a-half-hour span, he studies much of the Georgian town of Kutaisi – the sidewalk trades, the Rioni River, the life of stray dogs and most importantly the whereabouts of various children. The point is not to make you look specifically at the sky, but just to see. What will you see around you if you take the time to observe? The focus on children is essential; the director Alexandre Koberidze invites the viewer to adopt a childish point of view. Not childish, as in the immature or underdeveloped, but the childLike, open to the worldly wonder that surrounds us.
The cinematography, all filtered through a languid 16mm that emphasizes sumptuous summer yellows and greens, also encourages this prospect. The camera spends a lot of time studying people’s legs and feet. A recurring motif sees the characters introduced from the knees, before the next shot shows the rest of them. Even the main characters Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) first appear this way as they have a cute encounter, jostling each other and so distracted by their mutual attraction that they both take a wrong turn, moving away from their intended destinations. Their romance forms the backbone of the story – it’s not entirely fair to call it the whole story, as much of the film is devoted to his trips to the city rather than the development of their relationship.
This is because, again worthy of the childish spirit, this is not an ordinary love story, but a realistic and magical fairy tale. (This sensibility is reinforced by the fact that the film has much more voiceover narration, read by the director, than spoken dialogue.) Shortly after making a date, the “evil eye” fixes itself on Lisa. and Giorgi. Lisa is informed by a tree seedling, a surveillance camera and an old gutter that a curse has fallen on her, and she will wake up the next morning with a whole new appearance. The wind also tries to warn him that Giorgi will also change shape, but his voice is drowned out by a passing car. And so when Lisa (now played by Ani Karseladze) and Giorgi (now Giorgi Bochorishvili) tries to make their date, they don’t recognize each other. To make matters worse, they both have completely forgotten everything about their respective professions – Lisa is a pharmacist but doesn’t know anything about medicine, and Giorgi is a footballer but can’t even perform a simple kick anymore. The couple move into new, lower-paying gigs that are incredibly close to each other, and the film’s many day-to-day observations then unfold as we wait for them to reunite.
While various elements of a road junction coming to life to speak a character may seem random, it reinforces the general theme of the film of the relationship between a city and its inhabitants. This scene is also one of many featuring an extremely wide shot – a look not at the sky but from this. This again suggests that it’s not about answering the movie title question, but being in the know. Here the camera is a transparent eyeball, and it is like a rare example of cinema in the tradition of transcendentalism.
On paper this all might sound downright sickening, but What do we see when we look at the sky? sets up this overview of the fantastic in the ordinary without the slightest pretension. It’s one of the few movies that can be accurately described as unlike most, full of little moments that aren’t like anything we’ve been trained to expect. Take, for example, Lisa’s physical transformation. As the camera watches her asleep, the narrator asks the audience to close their eyes when a tone sounds, and to keep them closed until after a second tone. This is how the actors are swapped – no computer effects, but neither is it a simple fade-out transition from late night to early next day. Koberidze is asking for your participation in the idea of the magic of the film. If you’re the type of person to cooperate with such a whimsical proposition, then this movie could be for you.
What do we see when we look at the sky? is now available to stream on MUBI.
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