January: a Beckettian Bulgarian chamber piece

Embellishing its oblique political allegory with a cavalcade of outré imagery, Andrey Paounov’s debut fiction feature is atmospherically captivating – even if it does start feeling repetitive.

27 January 2023

By Jonathan Romney

January (2021)
Sight and Sound

“How to wake up from death?” ponders one of the two principal characters – guardians of a vast, snowbound building – in January. This might suggest that Andrey Paounov’s Bulgarian feature is one of those dreamlike metaphysical dramas in which everyone, literally or metaphorically, is already dead from the start. Everyone certainly behaves like a ghost, repeating the habitual actions they might have performed when alive – endlessly ploughing over crossword clues, or operating a laborious mechanism for cracking nuts.

The setting – a semi-abandoned pile combining elements of factory, school and Soviet-era resort hotel – is amply haunted by spirits. Some appear literally to be revenants – like the two spectral children who are just one of January’s clunky allusions to The Shining (1980). Others are the phantoms of USSR history – portraits of Lenin and Brezhnev, glimpsed in a roomful of debris – that you might expect to cast baleful shadows in a contemporary Bulgarian film.

January is the first fiction feature by Paounov, a documentarist who has previously addressed Bulgaria’s Communist legacy (notably in 2007’s The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories). It would not be unreasonable, then, to read January as an oblique allegory of post-Communist Bulgaria, although with its outré imagery – an ever-expanding row of frozen wolves, tanks of lobsters under flickering lights, a gang of masked mummers who might have dropped in from an Eastern European folk horror convention – the film is hard to pin down to specific meanings.

Inspired by a 1974 play by Yordan Radichov, this chamber nightmare is certainly theatrical in form (the absent Petar Morozov, whom the intruders are searching for, is the film’s Godot figure). The claustrophobic locale, however, seems infinitely extendable, the action mainly restricted to one room but opening out into a labyrinth of passageways, storerooms, cellars, even a ballroom where Vasco Viana’s eerily textured black and white photography erupts into vividly artificial colour.

When one character evokes the mythical tenetz – a ghoul that casts a spell of sleep – it seems that what’s really at stake is cinema’s power to hypnotise. January is not obviously about anything except its own imagistic capacity to induce a bemused trance – and one that pales fast, as the weirdness mounts up repetitively. But the atmospherics captivate, not least the tactile wintry light, rippling in water or shimmering with dust. And while various interlopers snarl and scowl menacingly, the two leads keep things grounded in droll deadpan fashion, notably Samuel Finzi’s Porter, like an underpaid maintenance man trying to keep the demons at bay with a poker face, patience and unamused courtesy.

January is in UK cinemas now.