At the time when the film Favourites of the Moon was released in France in 1985, little was known in western Europe about its Georgian director, Otar Iosseliani, who has died aged 89. He had already made three features and several shorts in the Soviet Union, where he had suffered some censorship, the prime reason for his becoming an exile in France in 1982. For many, Favourites of the Moon, shot in Paris in French, was their first entry into the singular world of Iosseliani.
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His self-described “abstract comedies” are understated and incisive explorations of human absurdity, always faithful to his idiosyncratic vision, and discarding any kind of cohesive narrative. Iosseliani observed his characters through behaviour rather than dialogue. His use of sound and silence, and his complex movements of people, animals and objects made him the true heir to Jean Renoir, Jacques Tati and Luis Buñuel.
Born in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi (then called Tiflis), Iosseliani studied composing, conducting and piano at the Tbilisi Conservatory, and then took a degree in mathematics at Moscow University. However, he became drawn to the cinema, and graduated from the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK, now known as the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) in the city, where he had attended classes given by the film director Alexander Dovzhenko.
As a student, he began working at the Gruzia film studios in Tbilisi, first as an assistant director and then as an editor of documentaries.
When Iosseliani started his career as a director in 1958, there was relative freedom of expression in the Soviet Union because of the Nikita Khrushchev thaw. This continued into the mid-1960s, when repression set in again.
However, Iosseliani’s 46-minute film April (1961) was banned from release because of “excessive formalism”; it was eventually screened at the 2000 Cannes film festival. The lyrical, slightly surreal love story follows a young couple who, imagining themselves in a new flat, transfer their love for one another on to their possessions.
With creative use of sound and little dialogue, the film already carried the original stamp of an auteur. “Everything that happens in my films has to do with people’s weakness for possession,” Iosseliani said. “And this leads to real values such as feelings disappearing.”
After five years, during which time he was a sailor on a fishing boat and worked at a metallurgical factory, Iosseliani made his first full-length feature, Falling Leaves (1966), which showed the characteristic elements of his style in trying “to capture moments of passing life”. The film is set in a wine factory and shows an honest young man living in a bureaucratic universe of Soviet corruption. As a sign of his non-conformity, he does not have a moustache, the Georgian symbol of bourgeois respectability and manhood.
Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird (1970) – mischievously bearing a stock Georgian fairytale title – portrays the life of a happy-go-lucky musician in the Tbilisi orchestra.
Because Pastorale (1975) was not considered “edifying enough” by the Soviet authorities, it was screened in the west only in 1982 (at the Berlin and London film festivals), the year that Iosseliani decided to settle in Paris. It concerned the members of a string quartet, on a summer holiday in the Georgian countryside, who are witness to the squabbles of small-minded peasants. As anti-authoritarian as all Iosseliani’s films, Pastorale paints a wry and poetic portrait of cultural disconnection.
Favourites of the Moon, his first French-language film, followed the separate paths of dozens of Parisian thieves, which constantly criss-cross as money, paintings and objets d’art change hands. For a short while the film seems to be a series of incoherent incidents concerning inexplicable characters (a pattern that was to be set for his subsequent work). But gradually the kaleidoscopic method yields a sharp satire on the greed and emptiness of bourgeois society.
The near wordless Chasing Butterflies (1992) unfolds in a series of elegant long shots with the physical precision and absurdity that recalls the films of Tati. This parable, set in contemporary France, revolves around the aristocratic lives of two elderly women who live in an opulent though dilapidated chateau. Outside their charmingly dusty world of old letters, art and contentment, the jaws of commerce, thieves and covetous heirs await their deaths.
Brigands Chapter VII (1996), which won a special jury prize at the Venice film festival, moves slightly away from the farce of Tati towards the black humour of Buñuel. The film shifts deftly between the middle ages, Soviet Russia and modern-day Paris – the main characters being a despotic tyrant, a Stalinist apparatchik and a homeless man.
Some of the film was shot in Georgia, marking Iosseliani’s return to his homeland after 14 years. “All my films are Georgian films,” he claimed. “Although most of my films are set in provincial France, there is always a Georgian village behind the facades; and this village could also be a village anywhere else in the world.”
Farewell, Home Sweet Home (1999) presents members of a wealthy Parisian family who lead absurd double lives in secret. There are no punchlines, no dramatic outbursts, just a daisy chain of events that poke fun at the fickleness of human nature.
In Monday Morning (2002), which won the Silver Bear in Berlin, Iosseliani narrowed his focus slightly by concentrating on one character, a middle-aged factory worker, who decides to break free from his soulless nine-to-five life by spending a few days in Venice. This comedy revealed the director’s ability to find pleasure in the minutiae of quotidian existence.
In another subtle fable of self-liberation, Gardens in Autumn (2006), the unlikely hero is a sad-eyed, middle-aged cabinet minister. His life changes when he is discharged, and he leaves his vacuous lover and overbearing mother (Michel Piccoli in drag), to lead a carefree bohemian existence.
The subject of Chantrapas (2010) – the title being a variation on the French expression Chantre Pas (Cannot Sing) – was closer to Iosseliani’s own life than his other movies, being about a Georgian film-maker fighting to retain his artistic freedom in both the Soviet Union and France.
However, Iosseliani, who made several droll appearances in his films, denied any autobiographical intent. “I never recount what I have observed in the lives of myself or my comrades, friends and neighbours. I simply invent parables and try to make them as close to real life as I need to, so that people will believe in these parables.”
His last feature film, Winter Song, peopled by the inhabitants of a Parisian apartment building each in their own fashion resisting the way of the world, was released in 2015.
Otar Iosseliani, film director, born 2 February 1934; died 17 December 2023