In Bloom was not the movie I intended to see: That would have been Happy Families, the second film by the team of “Nina and Simon,” or Georgian writer/director Nana Ekvtimishvili and her German partner, Simon Gross. Happy Families is playing in Paris, in Georgian, with French subtitles. And so, it seemed, that In Bloom might be the better place to begin.
It is, in fact, quite a beginning, to Ekvtimishvili’s career as a chronicler of life in Georgia, a country many of us know best as the one with the same name as the American state. In Bloom is set in 1992, when the country was only newly released from its time under Soviet rule; judging from the state of things in Tbilisi, it does not seem to have been a propitious relationship — even two decades later, when this film was shot. Broken, brutal Tbilisi is the home for the film’s two central character: beautiful Natia and her serious best friend, Eka. (Natia looks like the most beautiful possible Kardashian sister; Eka, like the smartest.) War rages in the north. There is violence at home and in the street. A gun is passed between the girls, though as a token of what — resistance, aggression, love, terror — it is difficult to say (and in fact, it shifts, beguilingly, from one to the other.) One of the girls is kidnapped and connived into marriage; another performs a dance at the wedding, in a long, single take, that is captivating for the audience, and for the character, a hesitant — though somehow also insistent — declaration at having entered into womanhood.
Two girls struggling beneath the weight of a repressive, regressive, male-dominated society is not a new story; as it follows the girls’ descent into an ever-more-uneasy adulthood, In Bloom reminded me both of Elena Ferrante’s book, My Brilliant Friend, and the similarly themed Mustang, about a quintet of sister’s in Turkey. Like in My Brilliant Friend, one of the friends enters into a marriage she might do better to avoid; as in Mustang, girls-becoming-women must reckon with a narrowing set of options and violence at every turn. It is perhaps a benefit of time — Mustang is set in contemporary, if not explicitly present-day Turkey — and Turkey’s proximity to Europe that Mustang ends with a run for freedom. In Bloom is not quite so hopeful. It is, though, resolute, with a flinty heart, one perhaps sharpened by the knowledge that Ekvtimishvili has said that the film’s story is in part autobiographical: It is easy to imagine determined Eka as the sort of girl who would simply find a way to outrun her limitations, whatever the cost.
I found this film incredibly beautiful, despite the disrepair of its environments, and the performances of the two lead actresses — Mariam Bokeria as Natia and Lika Babluani as Eka — are utterly convincing. Some of the credit for the former belongs to the brilliant Moldovan cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, who shot two of my favorite films: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. (Truth: I barely remember the second, but I know that when I saw it, I loved it. And 4 Weeks is a masterpiece, one I do remember quite clearly, indeed.) It also ably straddles the line between impressionistic character study and melodrama — as well as document. (In its review of In Bloom, NPR’s critic referenced a documentary about young Georgians, which I’m trying to track down.) Highly recommended.