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The Brazen (Bezkaunīgie)

Aik Karapetian’s latest psychodrama lets a family role-play their problems in an insect-infested old house in the woods, in a movie with flavours of Lars von Trier - from the Baltic Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Despite its title, Aik Karapetian’s The Brazen begins with the opposite of brazenness. For as a woman is gradually singled out by DP Jurgis Kmins’ slow-zooming camera from a group of other, similar women who are all reflected in a giant wall mirror, a male voice discusses shame – the word’s etymology from an Old English term meaning ‘to cover’, its definition as “an individual’s mechanism of self-punishment” and its main purpose as “negative self-evaluation.”

The woman we can see is Helēna (Marta Grase), and the speaker is her husband Rihards (Didzis Jonovs), and even though they occupy different places – she in a zumba class, he in a lecture hall where he is teaching a psychology class – it is almost as though his words (about self-evaluation) and her appearance (an actual mirror image) are reflections of one another, in a conversation that transcends space. Already the dialectic between this divided couple has begun.

As it happens, Rihards is lecturing precisely on couple’s therapy and methods for initiating difficult conversations. He invites a student to join him for what he calls “an experiment” – even though he seems slightly reluctant that the volunteer should be the blue-haired Diāna (Laura Lukaseviča). As Diāna sits opposite him, he emphasises the importance of creating an environment where “you feel safe, and you are allowed to say anything you feel like saying.” He then proposes that they try to “play out a situation”, and as students suggest that the scenario should begin “in a car” with the husband driving, there is indeed a cut to a car, with Rihards behind the wheel, Helena in the passenger seat, and their children – teenaged Ēriks (Gregors Lakis) and six-year-old Maija (Rūta Liepina) – in the back.

The rest of The Brazen will largely follow this family’s stay in the remote woodland home of Helena’s late father, which Helena is hoping to clean up and transform into a dance retreat for women. Yet that prologue carefully frames this location as a safe space where a couple can freely air their hidden, otherwise unuttered feelings without the shame that might accompany them in the real world. As they argue about which paint to use and bicker over what to do with the old furniture, as they attempt to disinfect the house which bugs, grubs and other creepy-crawlies persistently infest (like negative thoughts), as they out their aggressive desires, bitter recriminations and deep-seated jealousies, as they lie and cheat (and are caught lying and cheating), as they say what cannot be unsaid and do what cannot be undone, and as they confront together for the first time their deep guilt and loss over the death of their third child Eliza, there is the sense that this is all rôle play, with the dilapidated, decaying state of the country house a reflection of the rot within this family, in need of repair and remediation.

The controlling, contemptuous Rihards insists on always being ‘practical’ and ‘rational’, even though, in his determined campaign against the insects, he will prove incapable of keeping irrational nature at bay. Helēna by contrast is a dreamer, whose vivid fantasies of violence belie her demure exterior and whose frenzied, writhing solo dances in the house evoke the manic convulsions of Isabelle Adjani’s Anna in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), which similarly uses genre to intensify movements of marital breakdown. In the meantime confused Ēriks is working through his own Oedipus complex, death fixation and sexual identity, while sweet Maija just wants to play. When Maija goes missing, everyone’s unresolved feelings about the lost Eliza painfully resurface, lending this family’s crisis a form that they can address – both apart and together – and maybe avert, even if only in a manner which, were it to be made public, would cause them, as Helēna puts it, to “feel ashamed”.

So The Brazen is a psychodrama, playing out the repressed anxieties and aggressions of this family. This is couple’s therapy writ large on an increasingly surreal sylvan stage of the collective imagination, like a secular Latvian reimagining of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). It is a film where, between prologue and coda, it might be said that nothing really happens, yet where, in an oneiric space of reflection, projection and transference, these characters’ interiors and ids are fully exposed as much to the viewer as to the elements. “We’ll buy some poison and everything will be alright,” says Rihards of this home away from home, plagued by parasites that have insidiously embedded themselves. Sure enough Karapetian’s experiment, co-written with Justīne Klava, reveals domestic life in all its toxicity, holding up an uncanny mirror to every single one of us. The results, unfolding in the consulting room of cinema, are all at once funny, weird, confronting, cathartic and not a little unnerving.

The Brazen just premiered in the Baltic Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Anton Bitel - 12-11-2023

Anton was born in Australia, and has lived in the UK since 1989. Proud father of twins, occasional Classicist and full-time caffeine junkie, he compensates for a general sense of disgruntlement by mop...

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