QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM TALLINN
Don’t be fooled by The Test’s (Proovilepanek, 2023) opening shot of a serene lake, upon which Raimundas (Kęstutis Cicėnas’) proposes to Milda (Gailé Butvilaité), live on Instagram. Director Ramūnas Cicėnas’ black comedy features an ensemble cast of characters that are batshit crazy. It includes a Bolshevik-hating great-grandfather, a veteran of seven wars, who hunts the corridors of the family mansion for a ghost with his musket. However, the ghost might be less a person, and more Bolshevism.
Cicėnas pulls out the familiar premise of the dramedy of meeting the partner’s family. It’s not only the in-laws Raimundas must meet, but the extended family. Think Ready or Not (Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett, 2019) instead of Meet the Parents (Roach, 2000). Better yet, check your expectations at the door because The Test is like the unruly child.
Raimundas’ proposal is all very romantic, but Milda tells him that she can’t say yes, not because she doesn’t love him, but because of her family.
After scaring off every one of Milda’s boyfriends, leaving her desperate to find the right man, she comes up with a plan to neutralise her overbearing family. She’ll introduce him to Veronika (Kristina Kazlauskaité), her grandmother first. Of course, it goes wrong and Raimundas finds himself all alone, as he’s put through a series of absurd interrogations.
The film begins well with the humorous introductions and running through the previous boyfriends that have fled. Then begin the interrogations, first by Milda’s father, Algirdas (Vytautas Kaniušonis) with his nonsensical “negative” scoring system in his little black book. He comes across as an intimidating figure, but intermittently steps aside to take calls from a loan shark, where he comically shows his cowardly nature. Milda’s mother, Rûta (Rimanté Valiukaité) a former opera singer, gets her claws into Raimundas next. She teaches him breathing exercises and gets him to learn to play the piano. Of course, she’s not expecting him to play an actual piano, but a pretend one across her shoulders and back. It only gets worse when Milda’s uncle, Sigitas (Dainius Kazlauskas), a doctor, gets him to strip off for a medical examination.
As the interrogations unfold, it becomes about where these characters are on the spectrum of absurdity, and why the hell Raimundas is sticking around. He must love Milda, or so we think.
With sharp performances and verbal interplay, it runs along without much of a hitch, until around the hour mark. Then, choices are made that removes any neutrality, forcing the audience to either stand with, or stand against the film.
There are a couple of troubling issues. First, by not playing it straight, the film falls into the same trap that often-ensnared M. Night Syamalan. The fault is not with the twist, but how Cicėnas follows it up. This is where the first problem becomes part of the second, by steering it into a heavy expositional final third. It calls to mind the murder mystery genre, and the clichéd summing up of who, how and why.
An explanation is called for, but such explicit exposition can be a sign that the storyteller has failed to find alternative ways to communicate and structure the story. By carrying the absurd tone on through the end of the film, it works for The Test, in part because there is a dead body, albeit no foul play. Still, some audiences will be put off, as was this critic. Instead of prioritising the twist, Cicėnas could have played it straight. There are pros and cons to taking this approach, but he might have got more out of the story, by creating kinks to what the characters think they know, opposite what the audience knows.
Disappointing, however, is the use of Milda’s younger sister Sofija (Monika Survilaité). Dressed all in black, she is Lithuania’s answer to Wednesday Adams. Quieter than the other characters, her mannerisms and timed words tease us with what she could have been, were she given due attention. Her relegation to a fleeting and supporting role, despite having the final word, is indicative again of the rigid and suffocating three-act structure. Too often, The Test labours under the director’s control, restricted from finding its own voice. It feels there’s a more creative and freer film lost somewhere inside, desperate to escape, but whose voice is lost beneath the dramedy of the larger-than-life characters.
In spite of its flaws, Cicėnas’ black comedy has a way of placating its audience. Behind the doors of the mansion lies an archaic world that seduces us in spite of the film’s imperfections. Sometimes we like or are enchanted by a film for what it could have been, and not what it is. This may be true here.
The Test just premiered in the Baltic Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.