What is January? I’ve watched the film through, I’ve read other people’s views on it, and I’ve waited twenty four hours before writing this because that simple question seems to be eluding me. How can I begin to explain just what this film is in order to write about it? I don’t think that this is down to me being unable to grasp what January is, but down to the film itself being almost unknowable.
January, which is based upon the play by Yordan Radichkov, begins by introducing audiences to The Porter (Samuel Finzi), a man living in a small shack beside an old, abandoned soviet era school in the middle of nowhere. He, and his companion The Old Man (Iossif Surchadzhiev), fill their time cracking walnuts, doing the crossword, and giving alcohol to a caged raven they have. Their friend, Petar Motorov, is left in the horse sleigh in the early hours, and the heavy snow has covered his tracks, leading to them to suspect he may have headed into the forest (something they say is best avoided in January).
As the film slowly (and I do mean slowly) unfolds, the two of them are visited by various people. First there’s a pair of twins whose plough has broken down. When the sleigh comes back, pulled by the horse, but missing its driver, the group discovers a frozen wolf tied to the back. One of the visitors heads out into the forest, heading towards the city, and the sleigh returns again, with another frozen wolf on the back. Later a priest arrives, looking for Motorov, then a group of costumed men who chase off bad spirits. As each one leaves on the sleigh, it eventually returns without a driver, and with a frozen wolf on the back.
The characters in the film raise questions about what might be going on, with some implication that there might be otherworldly forces at work. The name ‘tenetz’ is given, with the talk about how this force infects people, puts them into a strange dream-like state that will slowly move on to others, bringing more and more people into a dream too until the whole world is dreaming. Other characters talk about believing that they’re already dead, or that they’re stuck in some kind of nether existence. But these are only theories, brought up briefly, and soon forgotten by the narrative as it moves on to the next bizarre event.
The sad truth of January is that if you like being able to figure things out, if you want to go away with answers and know what happened, then this is not the film for you, because it doesn’t seem to really care about those things itself. The film doesn’t focus on trying to figure things out, and instead enters this strange space where it does almost feel like you’re in a dream. Strange characters come and go, they talk about odd things that barely make sense, and there’s no reason for any of it. Whilst this will work for some, it will leave others frustrated.
It’s a disappointment that the film goes this way, as the acting feels much better than the story (or lack thereof) deserves. Each of the characters, all unnamed, feels wholly unique, each one bringing something new and interesting to things. The Porter feels like a tired and weary man who just wants to get through his day the best he can. The Old Man seems to have a hidden weight to him, he’s haunted by his years, and the times when he speaks about things deeper than the crossword feel like the few moments of the movie that begin to shed light on what’s happening. Of The Twins, only one ever reveals his face and speaks, and he brings a level of threat to the film that tempers over time as the mystery deepens. He delivers one of the better monologues of the film, in a shot that goes on and on, forcing the actor to do it in a single take. The actors manage to do something impressive with a script that barely feels there, and I feel that some great performances will end up overlooked because of the overall quality of the story.
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The film is shot in black and white, and this does add to its visual flair. The dull and drab environments of the run down soviet school and the old shack end up having a stark beauty to them, and the exterior locations of the snow-covered landscape are so white that they’re almost oppressive, driving the characters back inside whenever they dare to venture out. The camera likes to make the most of the scenes too, and there are more lingering shots and slow movement in January than in most other movies. This, along with the slower pace of the story and the almost tired quality of the acting leads to a movie that feels incredibly slow. Things take their time, shots linger, scenes drag on past where you’d expect them to end. The result are moments that begin as strangely beautiful, but end up going on so long that they begin to have a very different quality to them.
January is a film that will divide audiences. It’s taking a medium that works very differently to film and translating it as best it can, focusing on a small group of people in one location. And whilst that has worked in other stories, the lack of any real explanations, of a coherent plot or characters that make sense leads to January feeling like a disjointed, almost pointless mess of a movie. It’s visually impressive, and it does have a sense of unease to it that saves it from being a complete write off, but I suspect that only a small selection of those into odd arthouse films will come away satisfied.
January is out in cinemas and on digital on 27th January.