Siberia (2020)

Abel Ferrara’s latest project with long-term collaborator Willem Dafoe is a very personal deep dive into the subconscious. Boldly experimental and austere, it is also at times profoundly moving. It got very mixed reviews when it premiered in Berlin, and its probably more a film to admire rather than love, but I enjoyed it as a brave failure. And aren’t these often the more interesting films anyway?

Siberia is centred around Willem Dafoe’s performance as Clint, a barman located in a remote snowy wilderness; needless to say there aren’t many customers at Clint’s place. For ninety-two minutes we follow Clint on an excursion into his personal unconscious, his thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and memories as expressed by an odyssey of strange encounters including with subconscious constructs of important people from his past. Less a narrative, this is more a succession of shape-shifting montages, encounters and vignettes. These are the guilts, fears, relationships and insecurities that define him, and that Clint is now forced to confront.

Willem Dafoe in Siberia

Presumably Clint is a very direct alter-ego of Ferrara himself. It seems the script was developed as a sort of automatic writing, the technique of exploring ‘active imagination’ as championed by psychologist Carl Jung as a method of bypassing the ego to confront the subconscious. In an interview with the Sundance Institute, Ferrara has said he was inspired by Jung’s ‘Red Book’, a notebook that was only published in 2009: “Jung would take time to go into his private room at night, alone, and delve into the center of his subconscious—into his dreams, into his mind, and almost write freehand”. As such, the film is both an exploration of Ferrara’s own psyche and a cinematic experiment: “I want to see if we can really film dreams—our fears, our regrets, our nostalgia”.

In this filmic journey, Clint encounters close family members including his ex-wife (Dounia Sichov, who had a small role in Pasolini), his son (played by Ferrara’s own daughter Anna, who was also in Tommaso), and separately his mother and father. However, it would seem wrong to interpret these characters literally; they seem to be more manifestations or expressions of his feelings and latent memories of these relationships. He might briefly engage with them, but he is always alone. As his ex-wife observes, “guilt is not something to be shared.”

Clint (Willem Dafoe) confronts the relationships that formed his psyche; inevitably sex and violence both feature significantly

As might be expected of a narrative inspired by Jung, there’s a lot of visual symbolism, much I found relatively opaque. For instance, more than once fish or eels have significance; I discovered later that Jung considered fish a symbol for “psychic happenings or experiences that suddenly dart out of the unconscious and have a frightening or redeeming effect”. I expect there was a richness in the visual symbolism that was beyond me (unless it was resonating with my collective unconscious!).

Another difficulty is that by being specific to Ferrara’s own psyche, the film risks becoming less universal. Can we really engage meaningfully with another man’s psychotherapy? When someone tells you their dreams, it’s usually fascinating for the teller, but dull for the listener.

Luckily, Siberia mostly manages to remain relevant and intriguing, even at its most opaque. The film generally remains engaging, despite a few longueurs. It’s also interesting visually and Willem Dafoe, excellent as always, is a captivating anchor.

Much of the film is set in an icy mountainous wilderness, and cinematographer Stefano Falivene (Pasolini) captures some beautifully bleak landscapes; strangely these are given a mild teal tint in post-production that adds to its desolate mood, not unlike how silent movies used tints to express tone. Willem Dafoe’s character is dwarfed as he crosses these vast Arctic snowfields on a husky-drawn sled. The interiors, including caves and Clint’s bar, are phenomenally dark and populated by strange, grotesque individuals, like the deep recesses of Clint’s mind perhaps. And there are brief, perplexing visits to a brutal Russian death camp, and earlier to a subterranean lake that seeks like a version of Olafur Eliasson’s glowing ‘Weather Project’ re-sited in a cavern.

A mysterious cavern where Clint (Dafoe) confronts his soul, in Siberia

But it’s not all gloom. The film also takes excursions to golden spring forests and vast sun-bleached sand dunes in a Saharan desert, immediately changing the mood. The editing effortlessly carries ua so fluidly to new, changing locales and situations it feels like a single, continuous dream, which I assume is the point.

Dafoe’s performance is captivating, and I think essential to hold the film together. This is Dafoe’s sixth film with Ferrara, following New Rose Hotel (1998), Go Go Tales (2007), 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011), Pasolini (2014) and Tommaso (2019). Ferrara’s next film, Sportin’ Life, a rambling documentary partly about his working relationship and friendship with Dafoe, premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

Clearly, it must have taken a lot of trust on Ferrara’s part when choosing someone to depict your own inner soul, and I suspect nobody else but Dafoe could have carried the role (although in the past it might have gone to previous collaborators such as Harvey Keitel or Christopher Walken). Although Dafoe exhibits a phenomenal range, there’s nothing outwardly showy and extravagant in his performance. Dafoe remains understated as he embodies Clint’s guilt, regret, anxieties and weaknesses. But he also has moments of joyful abandon. There’s a beautiful moment where he dances to a 45 of Del Shannon’s hit ‘Runaway’, after a mysterious monk implores him to “Be human. Enjoy. Fuck up. Shake your ass. Dance”. Another time, we shift to a sun-drenched childhood maypole dance, Dafoe affectless and blissful like a little girl.

Unfortunately this dream state can become somnambulant and the film sometimes drags; the measured tone can feel like sleepwalking. And while most of the situations are sincere, a few are embarrassing and clichéd, not least a misguided subterranean encounter that Clint has with his father (also played by Dafoe, his faced bizarrely lathered with shaving cream). I suppose this is the risk when a filmmaker is bold enough to lay everything (literally) bare.

Ironically for a film about self-analysis, it’s probably best to avoid over-analysing Siberia. David Lynch devotees often get tied in knots in their attempts to untangle the meanings in his films; a fruitless task as Lynch’s films aren’t puzzles to be solved, but to be experienced. Similarly, Ferrara probably doesn’t fully know the relevance of some of his imagery, and those he does are likely to be so deeply personal that viewers could never truly decipher them.

Instead, it seems best to let the current take us, to allow this film’s dream narrative to lead us where it will. It’s by no means perfect – and it often seems like a film made for an audience of one. But when the journey ends, it left me impressed by the audacity and contemplating where my own personal journey into the unconscious might lead me.

Siberia’s journey is long and varied

Siberia streams as part of the London Film Festival on 10th October 2020 at 8.30pm. Also part of the festival is a Virtual Reality short about Ferrara’s unrealised project Birds of Prey that can be viewed for free.

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