Tomas Vengris • Director of Five and a Half Love Stories in an Apartment in Vilnius, Lithuania
“We deny it, we want to think we are more complex, but everyone wants to love and be loved”
by Marta Bałaga
- Already behind Motherland, the Lithuanian-American filmmaker turns to his own flat for inspiration
Lithuanian-American filmmaker Tomas Vengris introduces his own take on If These Walls Could Talk with Five and a Half Love Stories in an Apartment in Vilnius, Lithuania [+see also:
interview: Tomas Vengris
film profile], screening in the Rebels with a Cause section at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. This time, it’s an old flat in Vilnius that shares stories about international couples in love and at war – because countries may change, but emotions remain exactly the same.
Cineuropa: People tend to be afraid of love stories: they either go broad or completely tragic. But you mention them in the title as well, so I guess you were ready?
Tomas Vengris: For me, this title is a bit ironic, precisely because there is this idea of romantic love stories, but mine are a bit messy. When I lived in the US for a while, my friends stayed in my flat in Vilnius. They went through this big breakup, then it was rented out, then I was the one going through all these romantic issues. I thought: “Man, these walls have seen so many tragedies, which must have seemed so funny to them.”
We like to think we are these rational creatures, but we are all going through such similar things. We deny it, we want to think we are more complex, but everyone wants to love and be loved. Even Leonardo da Vinci, one of the biggest geniuses of all time, was complaining about his young lover in his sketchbooks!
When we started shooting, the war in Ukraine started. Now, we have another one and our two Israeli actors couldn’t come to Tallinn. Some could say we don’t need stories about small tragedies when we have all these huge tragedies happening, but I wanted to make a film about the things we all have in common and show that we are more alike than we are different.
But isn’t it always the case? That there are always small tragedies hidden within bigger ones.
This film is about the embarrassing absurdity of being human. But we keep on trying and there is a certain sweetness to that. Alain de Botton, who is behind Essays on Love, used to talk about the beauty of love as we are forced to live it and that’s what I was trying to express. There is no avoiding heartbreak in life, but there is something beautiful about it.
You show very different kinds of love here, from sexual attraction to planning a family. How diverse did you want these stories to be?
Love stories can be so wide-ranging. I was still limited, but I had to at least hint at their infinity. It was a difficult script for me to write, so I reached out to some film friends. One of them put me in touch with Tatia Rosenthal, who ended up as my co-writer. She is older than me and comes from a completely different background, which made it very exciting. Together, we started to connect all the pieces. It’s a huge challenge, making sure that when you watch an anthology film like that, it doesn’t feel like you saw five separate shorts.
There was a time when anthology films were quite fashionable, but I guess you are right – the challenge is to make sure it all goes together. At what point did you decide on this flat as a common point?
I wrote it thinking about my own flat, because I needed to visualise it and I needed it to be a real place. I was assuming we would eventually find something else, but then the pandemic hit. I said: “Ok, let’s just do it here.” I moved out, we painted it, added new furniture and turned it into a film set. Which, I have to admit, was extremely strange. After my student days, I would never expect to let a film crew back into my personal space.
There is something melancholic about the way your film looks. Its muted colours reflect these people’s sadness, which means that even a scene that could be quite broad doesn’t feel this way.
When writing the script, it became obvious there were some scenes that could spell “broad comedy,” but we didn’t want that. We wanted it to feel real, to give an impression that this old apartment is watching it all. We always talked about the apartment’s perspective, about it witnessing these flashes of human beings coming by and living out their little tragedies.
At times, it feels like God’s perspective.
In all my shorts and my previous feature, the point of view is such an important element. I don’t like “objective” scenes. I want to see the world through somebody else’s eyes, because that’s the power of good films.
This flat is an all-knowing but completely emotionless entity. You feel it’s on its last legs. Thinking about sound design was so much fun, because we were pulling some horror/thriller tricks and coming up with all these mysterious creaks: you can hear this building’s old bones and its heartbeat. As a viewer you don’t pick up on it in a rational way, but you still feel it. A lot of work and thought went into creating this character.
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