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Review: Actor Vilar comic master of cinematic blank gaze

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A Russian film theorist named Lev Kuleshov once designed something called The Kuleshov Experiment to demonstrate how audiences can assign subjective meaning to a neutral image. Kuleshov shot an actor’s impassive face, and then edited other images, such as a coffin or a bowl of soup. He discovered the audience could and did assign meaning to that impassive face — fear, angst, hunger, etc. — not because of the expression, but because the intercut images alone.

Director Ryan McKenna’s first feature invokes that bit of film theory, thanks to the oft-impenetrable mug of his star, Rob Vilar. A fixture in many a Winnipeg short film, Vilar is kind of a comic master of the blank gaze.

That talent serves him well here in the role of a Portuguese DJ named ... Rob Vilar.

At home in sunny, warm Portugal, Rob gets a call from Sophie (Eve Majzels, the glamorously doleful star of Matthew Rankin’s short Où Est Maurice?), a woman with whom he had a brief fling while she was on vacation. She has called to bitterly tell him she is pregnant.

Rob gazes blankly. We’re going to assume that’s resolve, because he has soon accumulated enough money to fly to Winnipeg to be with Sophie in her time of need.

But once he arrives, Sophie is barely communicative. She is contemplating abortion. Rob has brought as a gift a sad little baby-sized denim jacket.

After a few days, Sophie suggests it’s time to leave. Rob gazes blankly. Let’s go with a combination of heartbreak and hope. He rents a horrible little workshop property, but stays in town, socking away petty cash for the baby, despite the fact the wintry weather is, as much as we can tell, taxing his resolve.

McKenna himself photographs Winnipeg’s urban landscapes with almost sadistic cunning, shooting in a series of desolate or blighted locations with everything framed by ice and hard-packed snow. There are images here that make the hostile planetoid of Alien look like a Currier & Ives Christmas card. (Even the Winnipeg postcard Sophie sends Rob is comically hideous.)

With tongue in cheek, McKenna has dubbed the film’s style as Winnipeg Brutalism, necessitating, among other things, that all exteriors be shot at night.

Fortunately, the effect is not brutalizing, but funny and a little sad.

As for that enigmatic character Rob Vilar, with his determination in the face of a hostile Winnipeg universe, I’m going to read into that passivity a poignant heroism.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

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