Filling the Void
By Lawrence Garcia

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?
Dir. Alexandre Koberidze, Germany/Georgia, MUBI

Despite the persistent tendency to see Bresson’s work in terms of subtraction or removal—in metaphors of “stripping away” or “paring back”—his legacy continues to be one of the richest there is in the cinema, with connections to filmmakers as accomplished and distinctive as Nathaniel Dorsky, Angela Schanelec, and Jean-Claude Rousseau, to name but a few. Particularly generative is his emphasis in Notes on the Cinematograph not (just) on individual frames, but on “what happens in the junctures,” on the joins and ellipses through which poetry “penetrates unaided.” For Bresson, the “negative” elements of an image—an unseen movement, an unheard chord—are as constitutive of a film as anything we see or hear. Thus, in his cinema, images no longer constitute a stable, open whole, but are as if plucked from the void—and our engagement becomes, as he puts it, a matter of “continually believing.”

The past few years have produced few more elegant, inventive expressions of this Bressonian principle than the scene roughly 20 minutes into Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, in which we find a pharmacist, Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze), asleep in bed. By this point into the film’s overflowing 150 minutes, she has by chance met Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze), a handsome footballer, twice: first in a run-in tightly framed from the knees down; then at an intersection later that evening, the scene filmed in an extreme wide shot such that the two are but specks amid the lambent glow of the Kutaisi cityscape. As a narrator (voiced by Koberidze) tells us, the two strangers were clearly charmed by each other, and so make plans to rendezvous at a new café the following night. Alas, we also learn that the Evil Eye (an unexplained, supernatural force) has caught sight of the would-be lovers and contrived to keep them apart by literally changing their faces. Rather than convey this with a simple cut or dissolve, Koberidze playfully ruptures the film with a direct appeal to the audience. Over the sight of Lisa sleeping, we get onscreen text—beginning with “Attention!”—instructing us to first close, and then reopen, our eyes at the indicated sound signal. It is a call to assimilate the unknown into the film itself. More explicitly even than in Bresson, we are asked to believe.

In this scene Koberidze manages to recapture something of the early cinema, with its magic-lantern shows and illusionist attractions, its live narrators and undisguised ruptures of narrative flow, and, perhaps most pertinently, its audience’s participatory suspension of disbelief. What Do We See? operates, in other words, like a kind of benevolent human magic: it splits our attention between two poles, one natural, the other personal—between the coherent order of the natural spectacle and the driving personality behind it. Koberidze’s overall approach to narrative, with its tactics of productive estrangement, may thus be said to move us continually between these two poles, which we see most generally in the way he synthesizes a kind of “documentary” naturalism and mythical archetype.

After coping with the initial shock of the change, Lisa (now played by Ani Karseladze) and Giorgi (now Giorgi Bochorishvili) find that they have lost their respective talents (her medical knowledge and his footballing skills), which throws their lives off course in yet another way. Still, at the appointed time, they both go to their meeting, each hoping to explain to the other what has happened. They are, of course, unable to do so. Nonetheless, the narrator tells us, they “doubted everything but each other.” So, too, we are led to doubt everything but the film.

As its title suggests, there is throughout What Do We See? an element of childlike belief—which is not a statement of merit so much as an acknowledgment of the recognizable storytelling conventions Koberidze is working with. It seems not incidental that the film opens with a scene of school kids being let out from class, nor that it includes myriad passages of children at play. Likewise, it comes as no surprise when both Lisa and Giorgi get jobs near each other, heightening the narrative’s sense of dramatic irony and appealing to the simple (not to say childlike) pleasure of knowing more than the characters. For the film’s action is not realistic but archetypal, recalling durable conventions of comedy and romance that long predate the invention of the cinema. There is of course the question of how these conventions arise in the first place. But as Koberidze’s narrator notes in a delightful digression about two stray dog pals, each with their preference among the two most popular locations to watch football at in Kutaisi, the continuities of tradition persist long after its origins have been forgotten.

This recognition of, and engagement with, convention allows Koberidze to open his film up in ever-surprising ways. The arbitrary separation of Lisa and Giorgi—the period of confused identity so familiar in romantic comedy—makes room for Koberidze’s detailed documentation of Kutaisi and its natural environs: the music school which Lisa goes to after being told that one of the teachers can lift her curse; the house in the countryside where she and Giorgi pick up a birthday cake, and where for a moment the dramatic irony of their situation melts away. The distinctive tone of What Do We See? arises from a combination of its archetypal action with the camera’s (often silent) documentation of naturalistic behavior. Koberidze’s approach to actors is not at all similar to Bresson’s direction of his “models.” Still, there is an analogous principle involved: the conviction that negating a particular filmic element need not be construed in terms of limitation, but can, rather, be taken as yet another pathway to expressive fullness.

Like Koberidze’s previous feature, Let the Summer Never Come Again (2017), What Do We See? engages marvelously with the aesthetics of silent cinema without resorting to overt anachronism. Despite its languorous runtime and central drive toward a romantic union, there is precious little dialogue across What Do We See? Instead, we get a profusion of narration that puts us in mind of a fable or folktale, and also recalls Bresson’s dictum that “a flood of words does a film no harm,” and is “a matter of kind, not quantity.” In What Do We See?, the visual image retains a kind of unity and coherence undisturbed by speech, while the narration and story seem to linger “above” what we see, functioning not unlike silent-era intertitles. As the film unfolds, the dominant impression is of an external, storytelling power informing the visible world.

If there’s a direct comparison to be made to Bresson, though, it would be to his 1971 Dostoevsky adaptation Four Nights of a Dreamer, not just for its sense of the city as dreamscape or its prominent bridge imagery but also for its variegated bursts of music. The score of What Do We See?, composed by Koberidze’s brother Giorgi, fills much of the runtime. But just as the film’s storytelling cadences modulate with each of its ambling digressions, so too does the music. On the night of Lisa and Giorgi’s intended rendezvous at the café, the camera drifts from the lonesome not-yet-lovers to a group of friends singing a cappella through the evening. Even more memorably, What Do We See? features, at around its midpoint, a slow-motion scene of kids playing football, set to the entirety of Gianna Nannini’s 1990 FIFA World Cup anthem “Un’estate italiana.” In such moments, we get the intense feeling that music is the measure of the world.

Accordingly, with its proliferation of stories major and minor, What Do We See? creates the impression less of a linear narrative than of a natural cycle taking its course—the working out of a rhythm. Though we may not be sure of how Lisa and Giorgi will eventually come to recognize each other, that they will is not in question. As with the passage of the seasons, all we can do is wait, until eventually, as the narrator remarks, “Then happened, what had to happen.” After this, the pair moves offscreen, into a world where nobody is watching, and what we are left with is, well, a story—one that, as the narrator freely admits, has a good deal of nonsense in it.

The general tendency is to view such stories as a retreat into wish-fulfillment fantasy. Certainly, Koberidze’s vision obeys no reality principle: his narration tellingly confines its remarks about the sorry state of the world to just a few lines. Still, it would be shortsighted to see only helplessness or naiveté in this midsummer night’s dream, for romance and comedy have a profundity that tragedy, irony, and realism cannot convey. Being essentially allied to the former, Koberidze throws the emphasis not on a rational order of things as they are, but on a human vision of things as they ought to be. This emerges lucidly, irresistibly in Koberidze’s narration, which across the film establishes an identity of sound and image that is not imaginary, but imaginative. And by the end, it affirms the feeling, too easily dismissed, that what we see when we look at the sky is, in fact, what is there.