Writers: Tomas Vengris and Tatia Rosenthal
Director: Tomas Vengris
It seems odd for a film set in Lithuania to be included in an Irish Film Festival, but Five and a Half Love Stories in an Apartment in Vilnius earns this right by being a Lithuanian/Irish/Latvian coproduction.
The film, written by Tomas Vengris and Tatia Rosenthal and directed by the former, comprises a series of vignettes on the theme of love and desire set in an Airbnb in Vilnius. The half a story mentioned in the title may be a punning reference to the way Airbnb advertisements refer to a bathroom as half a room or to the series of bridging scenes which link each tale. As each story ends, Jolanta, a world-weary cleaner, arrives to tidy up and remove evidence of past wrongdoings. Jolanta gradually realises a resident of the building, unaware of her humble status, is taking a possible romantic interest in her.
The opening of each sequence has a deceptive upbeat mood. Each story is preceded by a lively title card bearing a quotation from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but this seems ironic rather than appropriate as it rapidly becomes clear the tone is far from romantic. Disappointment and disillusionment are never far from the surface in the film. The apartment seems to act as a catalyst causing doubts the characters may have been experiencing for some time to rise to the surface.
The film opens in a raucous manner with a hen party from Ireland renting the apartment and has suitably giggly dialogue. As the male stripper is injured there is the query ‘’Oh God, did we just kill a Lithuanian sex worker?’’. The sister of the bride to be, portrayed as the sensible ‘babysitter’ of the group, is constantly worrying at, and removing, her wedding ring in an ominous sign marriage may not always be a happy ending- a daunting prospect just before a wedding.
The second tale features the chilling possibility an apparently happy couple might be mismatched. A couple from Israel have tried to squeeze too much into their visit. The wife is undertaking research into her family tree which reveals her grandfather may have been either a wartime hero or a collaborator. Her husband stays in the apartment to work over the internet but is distracted, and possibly aroused, by the passionate and very loud sexual activities of the neighbours. This is a particular problem as the efforts of the couple to conceive a child are disrupting their sex life. Director Tomas Vengris develops a different tone for each of the stories and there is a farcical aspect to this one as the inconsiderate neighbours physically intrude upon the couple. The main theme is, however, the grim growing realisation the shallow husband lacks the sensitivity to appreciate the depth of his wife’s concerns.
The third story concerns a faded but self-regarding pop star and makes very clear, as he ignores his ailing mother and alienates any visitors, why he is staying in the apartment alone. The story is not told in a straightforward narrative rather the viewer learns about the attitude and behaviour of protagonist from snatches of dialogue or telephone calls. In the excellent conclusion the story moves outside the apartment for the only time in the film for a scene in long shot in which dialogue is not required because we have come to know the character so well, we can understand the outcome without words.
There is a romcom mood to the fourth instalment in which, to impress a potential lover, a character pretends he owns, rather than is renting, the apartment. Naturally it all goes wrong leading at one point to a homophobic outburst, but the outcome is a surprisingly rueful and reflective shift towards finding mutual ground between different people and resigned tolerance. The simple comment ’’Be happy’’ showing tremendous sensitivity from a character able to see beyond his own grief.
A degree of social class consciousness develops as the cleaner Jolanta moves centre stage for the concluding story and must admit to her potential suitor she cleans, rather than lives in, the building. The deus ex machina which closes the film has been hinted at throughout the movie but even so is the least satisfying aspect of an unusual and subtly moving look at modern love and passion.
Five and a Half Love Stories in an Apartment in Vilnius is screening at the Irish Film Festival, London 2023.