Abel Ferrara’s 2019 film Siberia wasn’t shot in Siberia, unlike the 2018 film of the same name starring Keanu Reeves, which was. Ferrara now lives in Rome and so, needing snowy wastes to tell a story about a remote bar-owner’s journey into his own psyche, he starts and ends his film in the Italian Tyrol, where the white drifts of winter snow pass muster.
The film is based on Carl Jung’s Red Book, which was a full-blown surrender to his own unconscious mind in the wake of his split with fellow psychoanlyst Sigmund Freud. Though he worked by day, gave lectures and saw patients, by night Jung just let it all go, letting dreams and his imagination build themselves into powerful hallucinations. And then he wrote it all down, first in his Black Books, which were later distilled into his Red Book.
Willem Dafoe is the Jung avatar, now impishly renamed Clint by Ferrara and co-writer (and former therapist) Christ Zois, who start off the film in Clint’s remote bar/grocery/trading post, where a passing Inuit trapper is the likely only customer. Until one day an old baboushka and a pretty young woman (Ferrara’s wife, Cristina Chiriac) arrive and are greeted with the customary hot cup of instant coffee… and a vodka.
The young woman parts her coat to reveal she is naked beneath, is heavily pregnant with breasts swollen with milk. What do you do when someone does that in your bar? You fall to your knees, of course, as Clint does, rubbing his stubbly face over her tight stomach, his hands wandering up towards her nipples, while the baboushka burbles and quaffs another vodka.
WTF, obviously. This is just a taste of things to come. Before long Clint has harnessed the dog team, jumped on the sled and is haring off over white, white expanses, fabulously filmed by a drone in the sort of shot that inspires awe, at the landscape and the technology (again).
Whether the baboushka and pregnant woman are real or not is the sort of question quickly abandoned. Within minutes, in a dark cave where he has paused for the night, Clint has been assailed by images of men being executed by Nazis, a naked midget in a wheelchair and visions of his father (also played by Dafoe), before really taking off for other realms.
Suddenly he’s in a Berber desert encampment (still with the dogs in tow, amusingly). He’s in an operating theatre. He’s talking to a “practitioner of the black arts” (Simon McBurney) who tells him he is still relying far too much on reason. Another barrier is breached and suddenly Clint is meeting his estranged wife and son (played by Ferrara’s daughter, Anna), he’s having sex with one woman, then another, then another, and then he’s miming along and dancing (badly) to Del Shannon’s hit Runaway, which, obviously, is exactly what his mind has gone and done.
Lovers of plot, forget it, this is your one-damn-thing-after-another film par excellence. As well as Jung, totem of a billion boomer acid trips, it’s a homage to the trashy, nudity-filled Euro arthouse offerings of the late 1960s when, not to read too much into this psychologically, Ferrara came of age.
It’s probably best enjoyed under the influence of psychedelic drugs, though there’s a light touch to it as well, and an eye for mid-century modern furnishings. As for Clint being out in subzero conditions on a dog sled without any gloves, that could just be an oversight by someone in the wardrobe department or continuity or another example of Ferrara’s cock-eyed humour at work.
Connoisseurs of the many joint ventures of Dafoe and Ferrara going all the way back to 1998’s New Rose Hotel would do best to bracket this with Tommasso, a nightmarish relationship-breakdown drama possibly modelled on Ferrara’s own life as an American director in Italy, and Pasolini, in which Dafoe played the murdered Italian director. The artist as “the antenna of the race” is the common theme, to borrow Ezra Pound’s phrase.
It is all sumptuously realised. Experimental it may well be in terms of its storytelling (there is none), but it’s a beautifully made film full of lush visuals and vistas on which to feast the eye, hallucinating or otherwise. Referring to his Red Book towards the end of his life, Jung observed that ”to the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.” Or, as I put it at the end of my notes having watched (and enjoyed) Siberia – “Aye Aye Aye. No fucking idea.”
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© Steve Morrissey 2021