A bitter wine turns out flat, emotionless

Still from Rūgtais vīns

Among characters in Rūgtais vīns are Ralfs (played by Normunds Laizāns), Agnese (played by Agnese Zeltiņa) and Donats (played by Kaspars Znotiņš).

Many “character-driven” Latvian films wind up being rather ponderous. The films feature many tortured souls (Nerunā par to, Augstuma robeža and Amatieris come to mind), but they don’t make the stories compelling. In fact, the characters wind up being more irritating than tortured, and one loses interest in whatever happens to them. Something similar happens in the 2007 film Rūgtais vīns (The Bitter Wine), directed by Rolands Kalniņš, written by Jānis Jurkāns, and available on DVD.

The story is about a guy named Donats (played by Kaspars Znotiņš), described in the film’s summary as a “modern day Don Juan,” which I suppose is true as the film gets divided into multiple episodes, each dealing with Donats and one of five girlfriends.

The film is described as a melodrama, which by definition should be a film with amplified, even exaggerated, emotions. However, since many of the characters in the movie (and in many other Latvian films) talk like robots, with little or no emotion, I’m not so sure I would call it a melodrama. The main question I had at the end of the film is how Donats, who exhibits minimal personal charm, and whose emotions seem to limited to the tiny space between not smiling and faintly smiling, is able to have so many women fall for him. Must be some really powerful pheromones, I guess.

Donats apparently drives all women who come into contact with him mad, including Baņuta, played by Rēzija Kalniņa; the artist Anna, played by Aurēlija Anužīte-Lauciņa; the older Regīna, played by Regīna Razuma; and even Ieva, played by young singer and saxophonist Liene Šomase. However, he seems to have been stymied by Agnese (played by Agnese Zeltiņa), his boss at the graphic design studio where he works. Agnese appears to be an unrealized conquest, but that is likely due to her overprotective and jealous husband Ralfs (played by Normunds Laizāns), a very successful, if slightly menacing, architect who sports curious fashions combos, like a grey suit, purple shirt, and black and white tie.

The film’s climax comes as Ralfs gets progressively more and more jealous of Donats (with one scene of Ralfs angrily playing pool to drive the point home) and then makes a few ominous but vague threats of poisoning. Donats backs off, but I am not really sure, because the ending is ambiguous.

The only character who exhibits something close to a personality is Donats’ older and wiser colleague Varis (played by Pēteris Liepiņš), who halfheartedly suggests to Donats to change his ways, but looks on in amusement as the situation between Donats and Agnese develops. There is also what I assume to be an homage to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, with a similar fountain bathing scene involving saxophonist Ieva.

The film is short, but those 80 minutes go by pretty slowly. I hesitate to call the film tedious, as it does try to analyze all of its characters and tries to show that Donats is doomed to unhappiness as he juggles these five relationships. But, by the end, it remains unclear if he repents or suffers for his “sins.” Even W. A. Mozart threw his Don Giovanni into the depths of hell at the end of the opera, but nothing so dramatic or interesting happens in Rūgtais vīns. Donats seems to just glide between all of his relationships, with none of them appearing to be at all fulfilling or satisfying. Perhaps that is the point. He is supposedly a passionate lover for Baņuta, who complains about the inept flirting of the men at her workplace, but their conversations wind up being rather banal, with them halfheartedly discussing a ski trip to Norway. Baņuta offers vague compliments. “Dažreiz tu esi jauks” (Sometimes you are nice) is about the most passionate and emotional thing she says—not that Donats says anything more romantic. Baņuta then disappears from the screen, never to return or even be mentioned again, begging the question of why was she there in the first place?

What is the point of this film? I am not really sure. Znotiņš surely is an excellent actor, but this dreary dialogue and the minimal emotion he is allowed to express do him no favors. Why does he have all these girlfriends? Is he happy or unhappy? Will he ever change, or will he continue to bounce around among many women? Who really is Donats? Where did Ralfs get that fabulous purple shirt? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. For all of his supposed charm, Donats seems like a rather empty guy, which makes for a rather empty movie.


Rūgtais vīns

Rolands Kalniņš, director

Platforma,  2007

Notes: In Latvian. Drama, color. 80 minutes. Screenplay by Jānis Jurkāns; camera: Gvido Skulte; art director: Kristaps Skulte; costumes: Ieva Kundziņa; makeup: Sarmīte Balode; music: Valts Pūce; sound: Anrijs Krenbergs; editor: Sandra Alksne; producer: Guna Stahovska; principal cast: Kaspars Znotiņš, Agnese Zeltiņa, Normunds Laizāns, Rēzija Kalniņa, Liene Šomase, Aurēlija Anužīte-Lauciņa, Regīna Razuma and Pēteris Liepiņš.

DVD is in PAL format with Region 2 and Region 5 encoding.

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

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