Saturday, June 10, 2006

Guardian of the Frontier (2002)

Sisters are doin' it for themselves, Slovak style: This, the first feature film from Slovenia directed by a woman, has a big ol' Feminist Slugger to swing around. So you know what that means -- the women are independent, the men are perverts and there's more phallic symbols than you can shake a stick at. Director Maja Weiss isn't subtle about her intent, either, as she fills the screen with fishing poles and large oblong shadows and knives and there's a song proclaiming "This is a man's world" on the soundtrack. What's interesting about this film isn't its ideological or political slant (the villain is, among other things, a fundamentalist conservative politician) but its mythic examination of the relative permeability of borders. The intrepid threesome which the film follows are on a canoing excursion (the word "frontier" has both figurative and literal interpretations), and the river upon which they float is divided in the middle by the border between Slovenia and Croatia. The division is there in the political life and mind of both countries even as it isn't there in reality, and people attempting to cross from Croatia to Slovenia are punished by the title character; it then follows that many of the film's metaphorical borders are similarly both broachable and unassailable. There's the division of real and unreal that Weiss rides out for a while, giving the film the quality of a Grimm Brothers tale. This is especially prevalent in the superior first half; as the nubile trio floats deeper into the woods, one gets the sensation of drawing ever closer to monstrous things. This culminates in a strange interlude where the three girls cross into Croatia and meet with an old man who values all things earthy and artistic. At this point, the film switches gears and pushes another border to the forefront -- the border between normal and perverse sexuality and what indeed constitutes normality. (Yes, lesbianism is involved.) There's a sarcastic dimension to the notions of normal and abnormal as Weiss sees them, and she demonstrates this by having the title character pontificate about "the border between right and wrong," thus ironically framing a biological and emotional issue as a moral one. It's in this second half, though, that the film stumbles over itself; once the more lyrical aspects dissipate in favor of feminist nightmares incarnated as second-rate horror-movie menace, the paucity of the film's narrative becomes difficult to ignore, as does the unevenness of the performances. (The latter point is especially true of the actress playing Simona, who flattens everything out to a slight whine.) In other words: The journey's got nice scenery (and I mean that in every way -- voyeurs like myself will be pleased), but the destination leaves much to be desired. The last scenes at least maintain a striking air of ambiguity, and the last scene has stuck with me even though it's mostly indulgent, meaningless narcissism. (I say "mostly" because the epilogue does tie into the idea of relative permeability; the "dedicated to myself" title card before the credits, though, is just plum silly.)

Grade: B-


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