In a snowbound and dilapidated rural outpost, two middle-aged men are cracking walnuts, doing a crossword and plying a captive crow with spirits. They are waiting for their colleague, Petar Motorov, to return from the local woods. Time goes slow.
Then two men arrive. They are pretty threatening types – and they are looking for Petar Motorov. One of the new arrivals leaves in a sleigh to look for Petar. The sleigh returns, without the man but with a frozen wolf strapped to the back.
A priest arrives – looking for Petar Motorov, no less – and then some weirdly dressed folk dancers. Each arrival leads to a dispatch of the sleigh, which subsequently returns, without its human driver but with a frozen wolf in tow.
What is going on?
Despite its horror film trappings, for example the sense of foreboding, the ‘destroyed laboratory’ look of the outpost, the uncanny goings-on and the eleventh hour references to The Shining, what is most notable about January is its glacial pace, which arguably runs against the horror vibe. Perhaps the best – or only way – to enjoy the film is to let that lugubrious sense of time invade you; which means that January will probably work best on those who like their cinema very slow and very moody.
Visually, January’s monochrome imagery pays deep homage to classic eastern European arthouse films and the “slow cinema” ethos – especially Bela Tarr’s films from the 90s and noughties. January is packed with incrementally slow tracking shots and characters giving each other intense if depressed looks. You’ll either get these references or wonder what the hell is going on. Although, you’ll ask yourself that whatever.
What the film introduces – quite literally, with the frozen wolves but also in a sly ironic take on what is happening in-frame – is a much-needed dose of absurdist humour. This sends January in a unique direction and lightens proceedings up immensely.
Imagine if Bela Tarr remade The Thing and you’ll have some idea of what to expect here. Which is to say: I’d bet that you’ll see nothing remotely like January the rest of the year.
January is the first fiction movie from Bulgarian writer-director Andrey Paounov, who has won awards for his documentary work. It’s impossible to guess what he’ll do next.