AKA Samuel’s Travels
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DIRECTED BY: Aik Karapetian
FEATURING: Kevin Janssens, Laura Silina, Aigars Vilims,
PLOT: While searching for his biological father in Eastern Europe, Kevin inadvertently runs over a pig, and suffers the consequences.
COMMENTS: Barry Lyndon is not what I was expecting to keep coming to mind. Squeal is not British, it’s not produced up the wazoo, and it’s not a film that, decades from now, people will be discussing in lengthy essays about this, that, and the other. Squeal is a modern-day fairy tale set in the vestiges of an older-world Europe; it is a fish-out-of-water comedy with violent overtones; and it’s more an exercise in hit-and-run whimsy than a grand epic. However, Aik Karapetian knows his film history, and how to ape the greats. Calm, counterpoint narration intermittently springs upon us. Refined orchestral tinklings permeate the film score. And in Samuel, we have one of the most inactive, cipherous leads since Ryan O’Neal’s turn as the consummately reactive Barry Lyndon.
Samuel is traveling far from home to the rural outskirts of progress-delayed Eastern Europe in search of his biological father. The motive for this expedition is never clarified, and by the time his snazzy VW sedan smacks into a recently-escaped pig, the filmmaker abandons the whys of Samuel’s plot-triggering pursuit. This pig, who is important enough for the narrator to devote some considerable remarks, is owned by not-yet-middle-aged Kirke, single woman and daughter of a local pig farmer. She had been out looking for her pig, finding it right after Samuel nearly kills it (indeed, he is in the middle of burying the presumably passed porcine when Kirke appears, triggering the animal to rise, Lazarus-like, and attempt to flee once more). This warning is lost on the out-of-towner, and so the three of them drive to Kirke’s pig farm. Samuel ends up spending the night, and then many more nights as he becomes… integrated with life in the sty.
There is a mean streak to Squeal that sidles awkwardly along its pretense of whimsy. Indeed, the other film that came to mind was Eli Roth’s Hostel, as Samuel is forced to endure considerable physical abuse at the hands of Kirke’s father and a would-be suitor—a local runt of a man named Jancuks, who we eventually witness enduring a fate similar to Samuel’s empigment. And this choice of pigs here conjures the Greek legend of Circe. Squeal begins as a tale about a pig attempting escape from the bondage at the farm, preferring the risks of starvation and wolves. This pig develops a mental bond with the imprisoned protagonist, who lacks the bravery of his curly-tailed counterpart: Samuel escapes on occasion, but returns nonetheless.
So what do we have here? A classically informed story, told with ironic playfulness, featuring regular scenes of unpleasant violence. The clashing narrative impulses manage to work together somehow, but tilt more toward dark Wes Anderson than anything from Kubrick. The final scene suggests indecision on the part of Samuel, who ends up on the farm (but out of the sty) contemplating his fate. With all this ambiguousness, I’m not sure that Squeal worked entirely—but I was pleased that it at least went whole hog.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Playing out tropes familiar from ‘torture porn’, while inverting the usual gender dynamics of that subgenre, Samuel’s Travels is an absurdist fable of freedom and slavery, with a BDSM kink in its porcine tail.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)