A manor house situated in its own grounds covered in white snow, the church bells ringing in the distance; it is Christmas Eve, and friends are gathered to share company and their thoughts, to discuss the matters of body and state, of history and faith, of war and peace and the fates of soldiers and the immortal soul, as around them the silent household servants glide bearing trays of drinks and morsels.
Acting as provocateur is Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), encouraging Olga (Marina Palii) and luring her into conversational traps which require her to justify the absolutes which she has declared; Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) is devout but her eyes are open to the contradictions of the church and its teachings, Edouard (Ugo Broussot) considers the wider expressions of human achievement, holding up the solidarity of Europe as synonymous with civilisation, while Madeleine (Agathe Bosch) stands back, her knowing smile concealing that she observes everything and accepts nothing.
Inspired by the works of Vladimir Solovyov, in particular his War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ, it would not be entirely accurate to say that director Cristi Puiu has dramatised the Russian philosopher for his sumptuously costumed period drama Malmkrog (Manor House) so much as used his ensemble as vessels to communicate the complex ideas, arguments and postulations of Solovyov, five individuals certain of their moral stances, inflexible as they propose and defend their positions.
An extended and rigorous discussion and dissection of abstract points rarely interrupted by anything more dramatic than the serving of the next course at lunch, brevity is never a concern, every nuance cross-examined when ideas could be whittled down or encapsulated, Puiu too in thrall to his devotion to the teachings of Solovyov to consider that the material might best be served in a manner other than making it unwieldy, three hours and twenty minutes a daunting task even for those willing to engage.
Written before the Russian Revolution – Solvyov died in 1900 – though not published until 1915, the speakers exist in a vacuum, idealists without passion beyond their prolonged debate, the horrors of war recounted and condemned as morally wanting with the same detachment as Biblical parables are questioned, the speakers inhabiting a protected bubble of warmth and plenty oblivious of the inequality which has granted them the ability to devote themselves solely to intellectualism.
Yet for all this, much like Alexander Sokurov’s Русский ковчег (Russian Ark), Malmkrog is absorbing, a window on another world of privilege and impeccable table manners and an often impressive feat of performance with single takes lasting up to thirty minutes of intense dialogue delivered flawlessly and without hesitation or doubt, points of view argued to tenuous conclusions regardless of the falsity of underlying premises always derived from the piety of service and devotion to God, its lack of structure giving the impression it has always existed and always will, the conversation continuing after the screen fades to black.