Elliptical storytelling – wherein a filmmaker constructs their narrative through concise, specific, and not necessarily linear moments – is a cinematic style often used to heighten an audience’s emotional response to a film. By distancing viewers with uncertain or ambiguous ways of presenting a story, the filmmaker makes it harder to sit back and have a passive experience, hoping that as a result, the audience will push through this extra barrier and find themselves even more invested in the experience. To the elliptical filmmaker’s credit, this decision is always a leap of faith. They are taking a substantial risk, after all, of potentially alienating or downright boring half their audience right out the gate.
I enjoy elliptical storytelling when executed well. The work of French director Claire Denis is often incredibly elliptical, and each of her films is difficult if not outright impossible to fully appreciate with just one viewing. Joanna Hogg‘s most recent film The Souvenir, a highly personal, semi-autobiographical coming of age tale released just last year, is another example of such oblique storytelling accomplished exceptionally well. Unfortunately, Slovenian director Gregor Bózic‘s Stories from the Chestnut Woods demonstrates what happens when this style fails.
Stories from the Chestnut Woods has quite a bit going for it – it’s beautifully shot in luscious 35 mm, supplemented by a hauntingly melancholic score, and boasts a solid performance at its heart as well. Bózic’s film follows the intersecting lives of Mario (Massimo De Francovich), an irritable aging carpenter with a dying wife, and Marta (Ivana Roscic), a chestnut farmer whose husband has apparently abandoned her. Transpiring on the border of Italy and Yugoslavia in the years immediately following WWII, the film is told in nonlinear vignettes, blending past memories with the present and occasional bursts of hypnotic fantasy.
It’s this overly elliptical style that is ultimately the film’s crippling downfall. One senses that the director has a deep attachment to the tragic narrative unfolding, but the distance placed between the characters and audience through its confusing structure is far more distracting than intriguing. Indeed, while one understands the general arc of the story by its conclusion, on a strictly scene-to-scene basis the film is immensely disorienting to follow. Entire subsections of the story feel left out or forgotten, and the pieces that are left don’t provide nearly enough emotional subtext with which to properly engage. The decision to separate the film into three “chapters” based on one character (Mario, Marta, and finally Germano, Mario’s son) is further befuddling, as these chapters don’t seem to even focus on the character after which they’re named.
The overarching effect of this confusingly constructed story is, regrettably, an atmosphere of tedium. Even with a runtime well under 90 minutes, Stories from the Chestnut Woods feels like a much longer film. Luckily, there’s enough to like within the film to keep it from being an overly grating viewing experience. Massimo De Francovich’s performance is relatively compelling, despite his role feeling sorely underwritten. The 35 mm cinematography is rich and beautiful, creative in its lighting decisions and nostalgic in its glow. The music underscoring the film is eerie and longing, evoking the mood of a melancholic fairy tale (although the pop selections used in a handful of scenes feel just slightly out of place).
I would be wrong to dismiss Stories from the Chestnut Woods as a failure. Director Gregor Bózic does too much right, and glancing at others’ online reactions to the film suggests that my opinion is in the minority. Regardless, I can’t help but feel Bózic’s film would have succeeded with far more emotional investment if it had dialed back its opaque stylistic choices for a more grounded, naturalistic approach to storytelling.