Pirjo Honkasalo films Russian and Chechen children being trained as soldiers to fight in a war that is taking their youth away. The melancholia and sadness of the people and places of the war are reflected in the aesthetics of this visually intriguing film.
At first glance, Pirjo Honkasalo’s newest film The 3 Rooms of Melancholia seems connected to some of the great, and often melancholic, globe-trotting European documentaries. Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1993) comes to mind most readily, and there were moments when Honkasalo seemed to be following some of the same paths that Peter Mettler did in Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002). But as this comparison turns over in my mind, it slowly dawns on me that this nomadic film essay is in fact about one country: Russia.
Well, it’s about three countries: Russia, Chechnya, and Ingushetia. These are the three rooms that the film’s title makes reference to, although each section also opens with words that set a dark, brooding mood: the Russia section opens with the word “longing”; the Chechnya section opens with “breathing”; the Ingushetia section opens with “remembering”.
The section in Russia takes place in Kronstadt, which the titles that open the section identify as “a fortress island by the city St Petersburg, Russia” (Kronstadt is on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, about 30 kilometres from St Petersburg itself). The setting is a military academy for boys. The press notes tell us that this school was founded in 1995 and “represents an attempt to revive Czarist military traditions and is under President Putin’s special protection.” Honkasalo lingers on some of the more absurd details of life there, such as the drills where boys practise marching and saluting. But a profound sense of longing hangs over the place. This section is a symphony in snow and slush and visualises Kronstadt as a place that is cold and unwelcoming (and these exterior scenes rhyme with the interiors of the school, which are often white and institutional). Some of this is nicely composed: images where boys wander around ice-bound naval boats look very nice indeed. Even here though, the midday winter light undercuts any sense of optimism that might otherwise be present. Indeed, much more resonant, and much more typical of the film’s overall aesthetic, are shots of the “fortress island” shot from the shore; the image is at dusk or maybe just a bit later and the sea is frozen. These images speak volumes about what it’s like to live on this fortress island, what it’s like to lose one’s youth there.
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