A 22-year-old Georgian laborer working on a roof peers through a large hole into his neighbors' living room. There, Sebastien (Georges Babluani) overhears a plan being hatched by a woman and her sickly, drug-addicted companion to make a large sum of money. But before the addict can carry out his plan and board a train to Paris, he dies.
And Sebastien finds the ticket has essentially landed in his lap.
Sebastien decides to take the man's place and travels to an anonymous hotel, where he receives instructions via telephone to take a long, circuitous route to a remote country home. What he finds there sets the misanthropic, sick-thrill terms of Géla Babluani's atmospheric French thriller, 13 Tzameti.
Shot in delectably rich, high-contrast black and white, 13 Tzameti has the spare, elemental quality of a dream as Sebastien inches toward his fate. There are few specifics of time and place, as if the incidents unfold more in the realm of dream -- or nightmare -- than lived reality.
In that isolated home, Sebastien does indeed enter a nightmare, albeit a human-made one and a brutal economy where the rich profit from the poor.
Like Kyle MacLachlan's dark-haired innocent Jeffrey Beaumont, who plummeted down the rabbit hole in Blue Velvet, Sebastien discovers a subterranean world ruled by greed and cruelty. Lean and intense, with expressive, dark features, Sebastien presents a distinct contrast to the grown men who determine the rules of the game at that remote vice den.
The older, weathered men in 13 Tzameti are hard-boiled and ice-cold like the thugs in a vintage film noir. Emotionally blank, with dead eyes and pitted faces, the men look as if their souls took violent flight from their bodies long ago. The Master of Ceremonies (Pascal Bongard) for the game Sebastien finds himself entering is especially memorable. Sporting dark circles under his eyes and a face perpetually greasy with perspiration, he never addresses the participants in an octave below a vicious bark, commanding Sebastien and his fellow players to assume their places and play the game before their nerve fails them. In between rounds, they quake and shiver or walk with a zombie's gait, alternately juiced and then crashing as their sport takes a deep psychological toll.
With its slow place and surreal story line, 13 Tzameti has a timelessness and visual elegance that can evoke Jean-Luc Godard, the early work of Polish auteurs Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski or French noir director Jean-Pierre Melville. The cumulative effect of so much horror and beauty is disconcerting. On one hand, there is the polished, visually refined, dark allure of Tariel Meliava's Cinemascope cinematography. In distinct opposition is the slaughterhouse mood.
A Grand Jury Prize World Cinema winner at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, 13 Tzameti is a snuff film rooted in the practical realities of our world economy where some human life (that of the poor, the powerless, the immigrant) is cheap. It joins other recent films -- from Eli Roth's gore shocker Hostel to Michael Haneke's Caché to Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone -- which delve into an ugly urban milieu informed by harsh divides of race, class and money.
The film's dire vibe is undoubtedly rooted in director Géla Babluani's own origins in Tblisi, Georgia. With 1989's fall of the Berlin Wall, Babluani watched his country plunge into chaos and daily instances of murder and corruption. And as a twentysomething Georgian immigrant living in France, Babluani certainly has had ample material from which to draw in sketching a world with a large immigrant class ripe for exploitation.
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