QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
A pearl of wisdom I’ve often heard is that a story requires a sympathetic character, because without one, who does the audience sympathise with? This is, in my opinion, theoretical poppycock. What motivates the audience is not only sympathy, but interest in both the themes and ideas of the story, as well as the characters. Latvian director Staņislavs Tokalovs, and his co-writer Waldemar Kalinowski’s Lovable (Milulis), which competed in the Baltic Film competition at this year’s PÖFF, toys with both its audience’s interest and sympathy.
The story revolves around Matiss (Kārlis Arnold Avota), a young debt collector who is involved with Agate, an older, single mother. The businesswoman takes him under her wing, helping to steer his professional ambitions amongst a world of cutthroat business types. In the opening scenes, the filmmakers activate our voyeuristic natures – we’re intrigued by the power dynamic between the pair. They play the part of a married couple, but when they interact with her nine-year-old daughter, Paula, there’s something askew about the image. Even in their sexual relations, there’s something off.
We’re ultimately led to conclude the power in their relationship lies with Agate, when she tells an associate at a party that young men like Matiss, are, a better fuck than men his age. Her lover, meanwhile, is crudely advised by another colleague of hers, who she connects him with to discuss potential opportunities, that he’ll be okay so long as he performs well in bed. The feeling that something is off is attributable to the fact that the young man is a predator, or deep down a dominant personality type. One version of the film would have been to see how their relationship unfolds, but Agate’s premature death redirects the narrative.
After her mother’s death, the young girl temporarily remains in Matiss’ care. Tokalovs and Kalinowski begin to orchestrate the conflict that will drive the film. Lovable is a story of a man morally fractured, and Agate’s final words, that Paula adores him, and he should make this his home, reverberate throughout the film. They place an onus on him to do right by Paula, which the audience hold him to. Agate’s words haunt the film, keeping her alive in spirit.
In a move that isn’t surprising, Matiss allows one of the cutthroat business associates to talk him into an illegal scam to deny Paula her inheritance. Later we learn that other shady characters are involved, the type you don’t want to owe money to. The conflict that unfolds is one of competing interests, and the attempt to back out of the proverbial hole he has dug himself.
While Lovable is a simple enough film to describe, it doesn’t do this intriguing work justice. Most films are driven by a dramatic necessity, but here the filmmakers are free of such shackles. Lovable looks like a streamlined mainstream feature, but the creative choices defy this categorisation.
Tokalovs makes the bold choice to predominantly omit a soundtrack. Music is traditionally relied upon to communicate the emotional intent of a scene, and guide the audience’s emotional or intellectual response. Here, there’s little to no accompanying score, but it’s a fitting choice when we consider that Matiss is largely an unsympathetic character. Just as he’s driven by greed, a cold, cruel and indifference towards others, especially his younger lover, who he treats appallingly. She’s an object for his sexual pleasure, and if she should deny or challenge him, she’s reduced to something he can discard and pick up again when it suits him.
The absence of a soundtrack is noticeable, and we quietly yearn for that silent void to be filled – much in the same way as Paula grieves the loss of her mother, and the worry that she’ll be removed from her home by social services. There’s an unspoken sense that both she and Matiss want him to be her guardian, that teases our optimism that this will be a redemptive story. Tokalovs and Kalinowski, however, are not interested in such neat and tidy narrative arcs. Instead, there is a sense that Paula has provoked a change in Matiss, awakening his gentler spirit, but he’s a ways off from undergoing the significant transformation necessary. Paula commands our sympathy, but by the end of the film, we’re left none the wiser about how we feel about Matiss. There’s a semblance of something that we can sympathise with, because he does make difficult moral choices and sacrifices his self-interest, but he’s mostly a character we have to settle finding interesting instead of likeable.
To say Lovable boasts bold filmmaking choices is an indictment against the unoriginality of mainstream cinema, which prioritises a willingness to conform over free expression. Tokalovs and Kalinowski’s film requires patience to fully appreciate it. Remaining true to its willingness to be bold, the story is left incomplete.
It takes courage to make this type of filmmaking, when other films, like Sebastián Lelio’s Wonder (2022), overcooked its ending, and their efforts and commitment deserve our appreciation.
Lovable has just premiered in the Baltic Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.