Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry: life comes into bloom for a middle-aged shop owner in this gentle Georgian drama

A near-death experience sparks an existential and sexual awakening for taciturn shop owner Etero in Elene Naveriani’s enchanting film.

1 November 2023

By Arjun Sajip

Eka Chavleishvili as Etero and Temiko Chichinadze as Murman in Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry (2023)
Sight and Sound

After I Am Truly a Drop of Sun on Earth (2017) and Wet Sand (2021), it’s no surprise that the title of Elene Naveriani’s third feature makes poetry of natural imagery. If Ingmar Bergman hadn’t got there first, it could just as easily have been called ‘Autumn Sonata’, focusing as it does on a solitary woman seemingly in the autumn of her life who, one year, as the leaves begin to fall and the post-summer downpours set in, undergoes an existential awakening.

Out walking one morning picking blackberries in a Georgian village, local woman Etero (Eka Chavleishvili) loses her footing and plunges down the side of a ravine, narrowly saving herself from falling into the churning waters below. It’s an uncharacteristic misstep for this stolid, taciturn shop proprietor, and as she stares down at the spot where she almost ended up, and locks eyes with a vision of her dead self washed up on the shore, something clicks inside her.

Mere hours later, she all but pounces on the delivery guy who’s arrived at her store with a consignment of shelf stock, making passionate love to him on the storeroom floor. It’s her first-ever sexual encounter, and one she is careful to conceal from the inhabitants of the small, gossipy village in which she lives: the man who has taken her virginity, Murman (Temiko Chichinadze), is a married father of two.

The stage seems set for a story of doomed liaisons and small-town melodrama, but what follows is as organic and unpredictable as the film’s opening sequence. For Etero, everything’s changed, yet nothing has: she’s still a marginal figure among her so-called friends; she still conducts herself with proud, laconic confidence; she still loves to pick and eat wild blackberries. But when she sits alone by the dining table one evening, exulting in the feel of her own body, the warmth of the long-suppressed fire inside her suffuses the frame for the very first time.

As the narrative unfolds, pointed ironies make themselves felt. Etero’s shop specialises in beauty and cleaning products, yet she has no interest in pursuing the normative path that the other women in this particular village have ordained for themselves. At one point, tucking into a decadent millefeuille, surrounded by pastel-pink wallpaper, Etero makes clear to one flirty customer: “If marriage and dicks brought happiness, many women would be happy.”

Though there are thorns to be found in this bright bougainvillaea of a film, its easy going story, which sees Etero pursue her affair with Murman on her own terms, blossoms with a similar enchantment to Naveriani’s compatriot Alexander Koberidze’s 2021 film What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?. Much of the charm springs from the attention to detail: when Murman ‘forgets’ his glasses as a pretext to head back into the store to see Etero, he’s so smitten that when he departs a minute later he forgets his specs for real. The two films are alike, too, in the stillness of their camera and their beautifully framed and lit interior shots.

Naveriani’s use of bold colours and deep shadow also recalls late-period Aki Kaurismäki, whose autumnally titled Fallen Leaves (2023), like Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry, premiered at Cannes this year. Both films are about a solitary shop worker who embarks on a relationship in middle age; both films share a certain sense of timelessness, with few signifiers of modernity; both situate their romances in a gentle but unmistakable social critique. In Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry, it’s not so much capitalism under the microscope as gender conventions. All Etero’s friends have settled down and procreated with their husbands; Etero’s apartness is conveyed as much by Naveriani’s careful blocking as by Chavleishvili’s subtly modulated performance. In one early scene, Etero is visited by domineering visions of her father and brother, who ensured, as long as they were alive, that she duly fulfilled her role as matriarch, her mother having died of ovarian cancer shortly after giving birth to Etero.

The death has cast a long shadow over Etero’s life, leaving her riddled with misplaced guilt. When she notices some dark discharge – the colour of blackberries – in her underwear, she immediately fears the worst. But it’s characteristic of the film that this ominous turn of events sets up a delightful climactic twist. As a twittering blackbird appears on the soundtrack before the final cut to black, a line from McCartney-Lennon’s ‘Blackbird’ seems to fit Etero perfectly: “All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

 ► Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry played in the Love strand of the 2023 London Film Festival. Its UK release date is tbc. 

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