There are two Willem Dafoes. One is the serious, gruff midwesterner, whose instinctive sexuality and sharp thoughtfulness has been used by filmmakers like Lars von Trier and Julian Schnabel. Then there is Willem as meme, the pointy-faced, vocal-fried character actor who lights up the decoupage of Wild at Heart and Mr. Bean’s Holiday. The Willem visage is so instantly recognisable that it is malleable to any scenario, an actor who is never anything less than fully committed. Dafoe’s intensity allows him to get away with ludicrous scenarios, be it his reaction to a dead fox screaming “Chaos Reigns!” in Antichrist or his bean-swilling wickee in last year’s The Lighthouse. Longtime collaborator Abel Ferrara knows this. The New York director is a man of vibes, who shifts genres and tones while always retaining the same dark energy across his 40-year career. Siberia stares straight into this void, and it finds Dafoe there, cackling as he dances around a maypole.
Siberia inverts Dafoe and Ferrara’s previous collaboration for Tommaso. Where that film uses the Rome setting to show a man dealing with his past demons through violent passion, the Siberian setting invites a slow introspection, a play of remembered images like Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. It opens with a long title sequence. Dafoe appears first on the credits, before the title card, before Ferrara. When the actor’s name pops up, his storybook voiceover begins. A tale of fishing with his father, which could be from Dafoe’s own memoir. Then the images begin, and viewers are airdropped into Siberia. Smooth drone shots capture an isolated shack in between mountains, like Stanley Kubrick’s aerial approach to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Dafoe plays Clint, in self-imposed exile bartending to natives. They seem to like him. He caresses a pregnant woman’s belly, shocked at the cycle of life while a soon-to-be great grandmother chuckles on. He hangs out with a drunk who tries to make him gamble, but Clint says, “I don’t want to win, and I don’t want to lose.” Clint sees himself as nothing, a vessel for other people to bounce off of.
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A green tinge to the snowy exteriors makes it seem like a different planet. Soon, it is. Clint sets out into the snow with some beautiful huskies, ending up in a cave where he witnesses an orange ball like the sun itself rising from a pool of water. What follows is a sequences of encounters both real and imagined. Siberia is a film of doubles, of shadow selves and mirrored, oedipal fixations. In the cave, Clint meets his father, also played by Dafoe, in a white tank with a face full of shaving foam. He howls like a wolf and says, “That’s the noise a woman makes when she’s being strangled.” It’s funny/chilling, signifying to a type of working class American male that raised guys like Dafoe and Ferrara. Another moment has Clint come up against an evil version of himself in a pond reflection, with Dafoe employing his exact Green Goblin voice to mock and deride the main character.
Dragging his feet around a cave, Clint finds a vinyl copy of Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” and he sings and dances along like he’s auditioning for American Idol. The song was chosen because it was Dafoe’s first record in real life, which gives the scene another playful edge as Willem, as much as Clint, travels into the recesses of his mind. And that’s when Ferrara suddenly transports the audience to a summer field, where Clint skips around a maypole accompanied by children, his return to innocence completed.
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Other sidebars in Siberia have a bad-taste grotesquery to them (a haunting by radiation-poisoned figures), while an African desert sequence has an uncomfortable exoticism to its images of Muslim men praying in a tent. But that’s what Siberia does: it reduces scenes and images to an essential emotive power rather than narrative or moral coherence. It is freely associative and broadly, boldly cinematic.
When Clint bumps into his ex-wife, Siberia is most overpowering. They have a cliche-on-purpose marriage argument, where every line like “The only thing I’m guilty of is loving you too much” comes straight from a Lifetime movie. As Clint’s wife, Dounia Sichov has a flat delivery, like her character’s husband isn’t remembering the specifics as much as the very fact that he managed to fall into the divorce percentage. That section climaxes like it must, with a montage of love scenes featuring Clint flicking through his past intimacies. Ferrara’s depiction of sex is still far more liberated than most American directors. Here, he shows a woman on top, choking Clint while touching herself. American cinema has gotten so sexless (even Ferrara disciples like the Safdie Brothers have no handle on the erotic in their manic film Uncut Gems) that it feels genuinely outre to centre female pleasure in this way.
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Ferrara pushes formalism to its limits, and it would be foolhardy and reductive to attempt an interpretation of Siberia’s dream scenes. They are just minor non-sequiturs to be experienced as a manifestation of Clint’s solitary existence and connection to the earth. Ferrara throws everything at Siberia, turning it into a playground for emotive relation. But it is Dafoe, his muse, who so thoroughly brings the audience along with the randomness, by treating it as Shakespeare but never forgetting to wink at the viewer, just a little bit.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.