We open with a startling close-up of cement being made in a truck. The image is intriguing, confounding, but strikingly beautiful in its framing. The eye, at least initially, doesn’t quite know what to do with the information given, for the close-up sends the process of making cement into abstraction, and we’re at a loss to know how to feel about or interpret the given information. You don’t quite know what you’re looking at – but whatever it is, it’s intriguing.
This perfectly sums up the experience of watching documentary filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s first narrative feature My Joy as a whole. It’s a journey that takes us through unexpected, often harrowing twist and turns, unafraid to leave us perplexed, confused, or even frustrated. This lack of predictability is the film’s strength, as it reflects in form and structure the chaotic daily lives of the struggling Russians that it depicts. My Joy is a film without a center, and as such it encounters opportunities and take risks that few films dare to, all of which ultimately provides a unique cinematic experience in the process.
The film’s title card comes up after the cement being made is revealed to be the means by which a corpse is buried and hidden. This moment sets the tone that stretches throughout the film, but certainly not its narrative.
My Joy’s focus switches immediately to a truck driver (Boris Kamorzin) making a frustrating trek across the countryside, encountering no available source of diesel fuel, random infinite bottlenecks, etc. He finally meets an underage prostitute (Olga Shuvalova), and because the driver seems good-natured and lets her into his van, we assume she’s just along for the ride and he won’t be requesting her services. When she enters the van, the first thought that crossed my mind was, in preparation for the film’s narrative to eventually solidify and commence, “Alright, so these are the characters I’ll be spending the next two hours with.” But in the very next scene, upon realizing that the truck driver is not going to employ her, the prostitute leaves in frustration. In a frank and comically unpredictable moment, a cliché is avoided. And a few scenes later, we’re no longer even following the truck driver either. Instead, we’re introduced to a pair of soldiers taking refuge in the house of a quiet pacifist.
At no point does a character arise in My Joy that emerges as a lasting protagonist. Either through a sudden switch in narrative direction or equally sudden acts of incredible violence, My Joy continually and abruptly shifts from one vignette to another in a warped structure that doesn’t even possess the (American) vignette “logic” of characters conveniently intersecting. I mean this statement as a compliment to the film’s attempt to do something unique approach to narrative form. And in portraying layers of corruption, routine and unmotivated abuse of other people, and senseless violence, My Joy’s unusual form matches with its unrelenting content: to establish a protagonist would be to give an audience comfort and logic, undercutting its portrayal of a land inundated by surreal chaos. Somewhere, something terrible is always happening.
My Joy is indeed a challenge. It works against every one of our conditioned instincts as viewers (especially the desire to latch onto certain characters, which becomes desperately apparent when watching this film), and it subverts our need for a “center” in terms of both storytelling and morality. My Joy portrays a world without nice people, a place where people that assume the well-meaning or inherent good of others are the first to be taken advantage of. It’s a world without heroes or justice, especially in the ways we’ve come to understand them through cinema. Thus, not only does My Joy attempt to capture the potential chaos of moment-to-moment reality, but it challenges (most of all) our misguided understanding of an orderly world as conditioned through cultural storytelling modes like cinema. For those of us who have branded within our psyche Hollywood notions of justice, order, and closure, this is a unique cinema-going experience indeed.
Admittedly, however, the film’s lack of convention does become a convention in of itself. The first few moments that one realizes there’s no center are quite shocking and disorienting (especially for this critic who knew nothing about My Joy going into it), but once it’s clear what My Joy is doing, the unexpected becomes expected and one adaptively learns (as do the characters onscreen) to distrust every individual or circumstance that comes around.
Despite (or because of) the horror portrayed in My Joy, the film is remarkably technically efficient. Loznitza’s documentary work up to this point has been in making films solely via archival footage, which is surprising considering his obvious talent here in constructing cinematic imagery. Loznitsa and director of photography Oleg Mutu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) have an uncanny eye for composition and color, thus making the uncertain terrain portrayed in My Joy all the more daunting and compelling.
The Good Side: In the best way, My Joy expands the notion of what narrative cinema can do and can be to harrowing effect. The film is an undeniable artistic achievement that may stick in your mind longer than you’d like it to.
The Bad Side: Once it’s apparent what the film is doing, one can’t help but feel that it’s more of an exercise than anything else. However, part of this is because something is inevitably lost in translation in My Joy: there are clearly references to politics and region that are unfamiliar to the non-Eastern European viewer.
On the Side: According to the production notes, My Joy’s unusual structure is modeled on the labyrinthine design of provincial Russian roads, and the strange, seemingly unmotivated encounters in the film we’re inspired by the director’s own (though, thankfully for him, less eventful) experiences.