How I Ended This Summer is a frustrating movie. It is unspeakably gorgeous to behold, endlessly enthralling … and yet, all I can think about is the immense stupidity of its protagonist. Grigoriy Dobrygin stars as Pavel, a young, airheaded meteorologist working an extended shift at an isolated Arctic station with the expert Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis). The duo butt heads, but Sergei eventually trusts Pavel enough to man the station while he goes on an impromptu fishing trip. While Sergei is away, Pavel dare not play, especially after he receives a devastating message from home base: Sergei’s wife and son have died in a car accident. Pavel is ordered to tell Sergei as soon as he returns, and they must wait for a ship to arrive and take them home.
But let’s take a quick break from the plot to describe what is most wonderful about this film, and that is the cinematography by DOP Pavel Kostomarov. He uses his lens to film absurdly long-shots, and takes advantage of the film’s deliberate pace to feature extended single takes. Thanks to Kostomarov and director Alexei Popogrebsky, How I Ended This Summer is a marvel of visual composition.
Less effective is the characterisation, specifically of young Pavel, whose never-ending sequence of outrageously stupid decisions make Greg Focker seem as cool, calm and collected as Don Draper. He begins by refusing to tell Sergei of his family’s passing. Fair enough – it’s a tough sell, and I certainly don’t envy his position. But we know that Sergei will eventually find out, and the later it is revealed, the angrier and more violent he will become. Thus, that disastrous piece of information floats between them for much of this film like a ticking time bomb that we genuinely dread going off. But it feels insincere, especially as it becomes blindingly apparent that Pavel has no real reason for keeping the news hidden, and certainly not to the extent that he continues the charade of hiding it from his co-worker.
When the news is finally imparted, the duo devolves into murderous adversaries with a particularly bad case of Arctic madness. The film’s final third is undeniably thrilling, but by this point the machinations of the plot have well and truly shuddered and clanged into view. Popogrebsky defends his characters decisions, claiming that they are consistent with the actions of people caught in the isolation of the Arctic tundra. Maybe we urban folk will never truly understand the motivation for such madness. If you’re able to suspend your expectations of reasonable characterisation, How I Ended This Summer is a haunting, thrilling experience. If you demand reasonable motivations, you’ll find it exasperating. I guess I’m somewhere in the middle.
How I Ended This Summer plays the Perth International Arts Festival from February 28 to March 6 (click here for more details). It opens across Australia April 7.