Bulgarian documentarian Andrey Paounov turns his hand to fiction in this adaptation of Yordan Radichkov’s 1974 play. January is an intriguing, eerie, ponderous narrative set entirely within the confines of a forest cabin. Religious allegories, monochrome photography and folk horror trappings will draw in viewers as much as its meandering contemplations and languorous pacing may test their patience.
Two men, known only as the Porter (Samuel Finzi) and the Old Man (Iossif Surchadzhiev) wait in a drafty cabin on the edge of a midwinter cabin, cracking walnuts on an elaborate mechanical contraption. The old man tends to a captive rook in a tiny cage, offering it shots of white spirits. They are waiting for the return of a man called Petar Motorov. They might as well be waiting for Godot.
Beckett looms large in this stage adaptation, as does Tarkovsky – Mirror and Stalker are felt in the mood, magical realism as well as Paounov’s compositions – while a late stage sequence riffs on The Shining. For a film that at times feels rather ponderous, January is often a very playful film. Indeed, its stacking up of frozen wolves, which inexplicably keep arriving at the cabin via a horse-led sleigh, and which the characters dutifully line up inside, is nothing short of funny.
It isn’t just the Porter or the Old Man who would like to know what has happened to Petar. Two scary individuals, calling themselves ‘The Twins’ (Zachary Baharov and Svetoslav Stoyanov), arrive early on demanding to know Petar’s whereabouts, before a deranged, tattooed Priest does the same. While the increasingly motley crew await Petar’s return (has he gone the city? the woods?) the characters threaten each other, pontificate on God, and the degeneracy of the modern city. On debating whether the Old Man’s pet rook is really capable of stealing his drink from its cage, he suggests that in fact the being drinking the stuff is a ‘tenetz’, a forest spirit that sends its victims into a deep slumber from which it is impossible to wake.
As an exercise in allegory, January is an admirable piece of work, and will doubtless reward multiple viewings. But its coolness has a tendency to slip into sterility; its intellectual obfuscation into inertia. It is a cerebral film but it is rarely vital, and though it is peppered with literary and film allusions, they do not seem to coalesce into a cohesive whole. Perhaps that is the point, but where Beckett used the surreal and absurd to reflect the madness of modernity, January seems to revel in its non-commitment for its own sake.