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January review – frosty thriller bites at the many facets of masculinity

Acclaimed documentarian Andrey Paounov makes his fiction debut with a strange tale set in the midst of a Bulgarian winter storm

As a needlessly complex nutcracker crushes one walnut after the other in a single protracted take, the film’s opening makes it clear that something’s gotta give. There goes the sturdy shell, squashed against the pressure of external forces – an allegory for everything that follows in this surreal slow-burner. With January, award-winning documentarian Andrey Paounov channels his fervent storytelling and knack for mediating the real into something more than. It may seem like a change of tack to see one of Bulgaria’s most famed non-fiction filmmakers working with some of the most popular actors in his neck of the woods, but the film’s premise beckons for a quasi-ritualistic undoing of the male figure.

The film takes after a 1974 theatrical piece by Yordan Radichkov, whose imaginative metaphors described the dwindling condition of Bulgaria’s countryside. Paounov, on the other hand, frames the film amidst a more contemporary, though still timeless, derelict. In the midst of a seemingly never-ending winter, The Porter (Samuel Finzi), The Old Man (Iossif Surchadzhiev), the Twins (Zachary Baharov and Svetoslav Stoyanov), and the Priest (Leonid Yovchev) are mulling over the whereabouts and arrival of Petar – January’s own Godot, it seems – whose horse and sleigh come back out of their own volition. In a chilling accumulation of suspense, the film shrouds its absurdism in mystery as a dead-frozen wolf makes it back on the sleigh. Yet no sign of Petar, other than his coat.

Absence seems to haunt every cluttered interior shot of the film, whenever the men speak or fall silent. Their emotional responses muted, their surroundings little more than remnants of an oppressive past – be it a tower of jars and preserved food, broken memorabilia, portraits of ex-dictators, all these objects offer shelter from the cruel outside, while imprisoning the characters in the greedy grip of the past. Paounov and his crew found a cabin which miraculously fit the script penned alongside British filmmaker Alex Barrett (London Symphony) and not only shot in sequence, but also edited the footage on the spot, making full use of everything “reality” had to offer them.

January paces itself well as every cabin-fever film should (and that nod to The Shining won’t go unnoticed), but more importantly, the crisp, elegant cinematography by Portuguese DoP Vasco Viana makes it all the more unsettling. One might want to fully immerse themselves in a world which constantly rejects such closeness and in a similar way the film’s visuals translate into the inarticulate crises of all these men, who are both trapped and free. As a result, the film reads more as an elaborate allegory than a cautious tale. January uses the arsenal of fiction and all its gorgeous artifice to get to the core of a humanistic truth – there is no bigger mystery than man.

January is released in UK cinemas and digital platforms on 27 January.

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