I have ventured to the cinema twice to see Godzilla vs Kong; on the second occasion I even attended a venue where the sound is synchronised to the seats, so my butt vibrated in accordance with on-screen action. But it was another production about fantastic creatures that truly reminded me of the magic of the movies; the cinema’s ability to transport us away from the fury and drudgery of human existence – to somewhere different, somewhere special, somewhere else.
I am referring to Russian director Victor Kossakovsky’s frankly amazing new documentary Gunda, the best movie to arrive in cinemas since at least the start of the pandemic. Executive produced by Joaquin Phoenix, this entirely wordless 93-minute film follows the daily existence of a sow and her piglets, with supporting “performances” from cows and a one-legged chicken, all of whom look majestic in crisp and silvery monochrome.
On the only occasion I ever made a film myself – an assignment in high school – I discovered that removing colour and adding operatic music (i.e. Carmina Burana) was a surefire way to make even the most prosaic activity, such as crossing the road, feel startlingly dramatic. There is an element of that in Gunda – sans the Carl Orff – with its almost ethereal black and white adding a rich painterly overlay. But I don’t want to shortchange it: this is a film that finds beauty everywhere even though it ventures virtually nowhere.
The animals are fantastic not because they burp blue flames or descend from a far-flung fantasy world, but because they’re creations from our own – their very appearance, in Kossakovsky’s hands, feels like a miracle.
The opening shot captures a sow lying on hay, resting on her side in a small entrance to a barn, the camera gradually inching forwards. We see a tiny little piglet – so cute, so young – climb and scurry over her; then another and another. We venture inside to meet them properly. The following hour-and-a-half contains a lot – and I mean a lot – of grunting and oinking.
Rejecting the hubristic idea that humans are the centre of the universe, around which all life and purpose orbits, Gunda’s gentleness, boldness, and in cinematic terms its strangeness, reminded me of Belgian artist David Claerbout’s wonderful and unique The Pure Necessity, a film that redrew every frame of Disney’s original The Jungle Book in order to take the humans out of it.
The result – like Gunda – is a work of mind-blowing ordinariness, during which nothing much happens in the traditional sense, but the audience becomes so tuned to its environment that otherwise minor events take on special significance. When it started raining in Gunda, for instance, it felt like a massive occurrence: far bigger than the city-demolishing finale in Godzilla vs Kong. CGI-slathered carnage is nothing compared with the splendour of small, exquisitely sculpted moments.
Kossakovsky presents the film in the kind of transparent style sometimes described as a “window to the world”, favouring a view of film theory that stipulates the screen is something we look through as a way of observing space that opens up beyond it. A long-competing perspective holds that the screen is a frame – something to look at. After many decades of debate another theory emerged: the screen as a mirror, enlightening us by reflecting existence.
Far be it from me to suggest that a lovely little film about pigs could solve decades of academic arguments, but Gunda feels like all three: a window somewhere else; a stylised frame; a reflection of worldly beauty. Arriving at a time when movies are getting faster and faster, and when computer-based mediums accommodate a growing consumer desire to navigate virtual spaces, here is a work of art emboldened rather than limited by the rigidity of the camera. Kossakovsky’s cameras move only cautiously and slowly, every fleck of detail scrutinised for cinematic potential.
There is an element of the appeal of slow TV at play: being put in an atmospherically pleasant space where narrative naturally emerges as a consequence of real-life activity. There’s a sense in fact that we are watching life itself, albeit with a central tension derived from that handsome photography: naturalism of content versus stylisation of form. You could say cinema itself exists in this tension, given even the most unadorned naturalistic production requires artistic decisions that turn it into a mediated experience.
Gunda was shortlisted for the Oscars, but would never have made the cut. An outfit like the Academy Awards cannot recognise the brilliance of this film, because doing so would risk too much, would pull a string that might unravel the skein of cinematic artifice and expose the fraudulence of the movies. It would suggest we never needed all those accoutrements after all: the elaborate sets, the self-aware actors, the fancy wardrobes and digital effects.
Don’t get me wrong: apes the size of skyscrapers and giant lizards with atomic breath have their place, now as natural to the cinematic universe as a blade of grass in a field. Moving seats that vibrate your butt – they have their place too. But compared with Gunda, these things feel artistically pitiful, the equivalent of some tacky butterfly tattoo from a summer way back when.
Coming out of this moving experience, which is comparable to Robert Bresson’s ultimately heartbreaking 1966 masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar – which follows the entire life, from birth to death, of a donkey – I felt enormous gratitude to the even-toed ungulate and her barnyard pals. I felt I must – in the words of the bull terrier from the sequel to Babe – thank the pig.