Talking is one of the few ordinary pastimes we weren’t denied over the past year. At times, it felt like the only remaining vestige of social lives that otherwise went into indefinite hibernation. Yet, as anyone who’s logged hours on a Zoom chat can attest, babbling into a webcam is meager substitution for the irl version—the suddenly estranged pleasure of gathering in a place to shoot the shit with friends over an extended evening. To that end, one could call Malmkrog a drastic antidote. The new drama (a term to be used as loosely as possible here) from Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu is nearly three-and-a-half hours of nothing but talk—a hefty block of philosophical discourse between wealthy intellectuals, restricted only by their own patience, lung capacity, and tolerance for soapboxing. For a certain viewer, this may impart a vicarious thrill: Who among us has had the recent opportunity to chew the fat at length with the like-minded over food and drink? Others may find themselves suddenly cured of any nostalgia whatsoever for rhetorical circle jerk.
Set around the turn of the 20th century, within the parlor and dining hall of a vast Transylvanian estate, Malmkrog pulls up a chair to listen in on a series of unbroken Christmas Eve debates among Franco-Russian aristocrats. The first runs nearly a full hour, and touches upon such familiar conversational fodder as the relative virtue of killing and the presence of evil in a world supposedly governed by an almighty good. From there, the discussion turns to war, peace, life, death, Christ, Satan, “Just following orders,” the so-called white man’s burden, and eventually the moral superiority of God himself. The language is florid and eloquent, which doesn’t quite dispel the sense that we’re running through the syllabus of a philosophy 101 class. No one makes their case quickly. The film, in turn, makes a very slow case that these ideas are not so productively explored by pointing a camera at actors reciting pages upon pages of raw musings, no matter how artfully that camera has been positioned.
Speaking of the actors doing the endless speaking, they give this collegiate dish session the full college try. Puiu has assembled a fine ensemble, laboring admirably to make a masturbatory marathon of verbiage sound genuinely conversational. If the mind wanders, it’s at least sometimes to the herculean effort of memorization that must have gone into these increasingly contentious tête-à-têtes; Puiu’s extremely long takes, amplifying the theatrical nature of the material, allow few breaks for a performer to catch their breath or steal a glimpse at a script dotted with such roll-off-the-tongue bon mots as “It’s a first-category syllogism.” Small gratitude must be paid to Puiu for at least attempting to give his tireless gasbags a few distinguishing characteristics: Host and master of protracted ceremonies Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) is a smug and antagonistic blowhard; his frequent sparring partner Olga (Marina Palii), a naïve and devout countess; and General Edouard (Ugo Broussot), an odious nationalist whose mid-film defense of colonialism could earn him a speaking engagement at CPAC. But the focus is on the words spilling always from their maws; a mouthpiece with a hint of personality is still a mouthpiece.
Puiu, writer and director of capital-A art movies, has orchestrated an epic gabfest before. He’s also swung in the opposite direction; the nearly-as-long Aurora kept dialogue to an extreme minimum. What his films have in common is an amenability, maybe a perverse dedication, to trying an audience’s patience. The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, which essentially launched the Romanian New Wave onto the international stage, irked with purpose—it was a damning critique of the national healthcare system that made us ride shotgun on an ambulance ride through a tangled, infuriating medical bureaucracy. That film now looks like a rollercoaster, in retrospect and by comparison. Puiu adapted Malmkrog from an honest-to-god philosophy text: War, Progress, And The End Of History: Three Conversations, Including A Short Story Of The Anti-Christ, by the Russian writer and Dostoyevsky confidant Vladimir Solovyov. Was it possible, Puiu purportedly asked, to make something dramatically compelling out of a collection of dense, highbrow conversations? Malmkrog suggests the answer may be a resounding “Nyet.”
Around the edges of the verbal showdowns, a more interesting movie occasionally threatens to emerge. Puiu is nothing if not a master of framing, and he keeps the eyes engaged even when the mind begins to devour itself out of boredom. Past the pontificating performers, the house sprawls into room after room, creating boxes within boxes. In what passes for a joke in a movie this bone fucking dry, a maid catches a small child—unnamed and generally unconsidered—as she makes a bolt for the festivities, teasing a blessed disruption that doesn’t arrive. Puiu keeps subtly tugging our attention (and sympathies) away from the chatterboxes at center, the camera drifting to the servants wandering the background of the frame and gently interrupting with a beverage or hors d’oeuvre. At one point, the focus seems to shift more significantly to the staff of the cloistered manor, whose world of rules and duties and hierarchies seems almost comically polarized from the interminable holiday chitchat that occupies their employer’s unlimited free time. The pivot doesn’t take; it’s an oasis in a desert of academic argument. One is left to admire the literal and figurative wallpaper—to be blessedly distracted by the mise en scène and Puiu’s attempts to constantly vary how he’s filming each interaction.
Food for thought is there for the taking, spread like the buffet of delicacies these nobles cram between their jaws when not flapping them. Looking past even the well-trod content of their veritable symposium reveals a laundry list of potential readings. Is this a last gasp of the aristocracy we’re seeing play out over what feels, agonizingly, like Christmas in real time? A revolution—a violent reckoning even—threatens to burst Nikolai and friends’ bubble of privilege. Yet Puiu is much too committed to the challenge and integrity of his experiment to deviate far from it; surrealist flourishes, possible chronological hiccups, and ominous hints of a coming comeuppance never prevent a reversion to stultifying blather. Even those who miss nights like the one depicted here may wonder if quarantine is preferable to the company of these big talkers. “Philosophy bewilders the mind,” one of them remarks early into Malmkrog’s very long sit. In this case, it does a numbing number on the ass, too.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the New York Film Festival.