Festivals: Berlin | A Little Love Package (Gastón Solnicki, Austria/Argentina)

By Celluloid Liberation Front

An antidote as much as a film, Gastón Solnicki’s A Little Love Package is a time(less) capsule that offers refuge from the onslaught of a reality that is becoming increasingly catastrophic, at least for those who have been lucky enough to reside far from the violent vortex of history. What was until very recently relegated to the safe and spectacular distance of the big screen is now getting uncomfortably closer to the comfortable lives of those who would have never thought to endure, in their lifetimes at least, pandemics, war, and misery. Solnicki’s film is not so much an antidote to this new, creeping reality, but to the loss of sensitivity upon which it is premised. This sensitivity is aesthetically rescued at the very beginning of the film, when a neon-lit shop window steals the scene with its rapturous beauty—an image that survived the puritanical hygiene of a new morality that believes in sustainability, but is instead eroding life and its once public domains. On display in this Viennese shop window is the lonesome elegance of two fur coats, standing brazenly against the blackmail of time. Our time. A time that A Little Love Package does not recognize as its own and dissipates in 80 precious, expansive minutes. 

The film takes place at an historical moment: in 2019 the smoking ban dealt a lethal blow to Vienna’s Kaffeehaus culture, depriving the city of one of its sacred social rituals. It is in the aftermath of this event that Angeliki (Angeliki Papoulia) starts looking for an apartment to buy in the Austrian capital. As communal life is increasingly repudiated, the retreat into the intimate seclusion of our homes seems almost inevitable, a process the ongoing pandemic has only exacerbated. By Angeliki’s side is Carmen (Carmen Chaplin), an interior designer and friend who is helping her choose the right place. But every apartment they see feels unhabitable to Angeliki—too noisy, too close to a restaurant, the parquet floor too old and creaky, or the tiles not good enough. 

“You need to spend your money, it’s stupid,” Carmen disgruntledly tells Angeliki. “You wanna die with money under your bed?” she rhetorically asks. “People who don’t wanna spend their money have serious issues,” she continues, “it’s a lack of generosity.” Evoking what Georges Bataille called la notion de dépense, Carmen questions the utilitarian reason at the heart of our financial calculations to suggest the possibility of unproductive squandering and a profitless indolence, a life dedicated to the daily pleasures it has to offer—a life of joyful underachievement and, at utmost, existential fulfilment. Candidly, A Little Love Package preserves those very healthy habits such as the creative waste of time and the tasting of nature’s finest vegetable: tobacco. These habits have been outlawed by a new puritanism that demonizes vice and the countless delights that come with it. 

This militarization of public space has pushed us all further into individualized pathologies of solitude. Even when Angeliki finally finds an apartment, we hardly see it and certainly don’t get to enjoy it with her: life and its stories remain outside of it. The camera is determined to register those residual moments of jovial togetherness that the city treasures like a box of candies. The cozy warmth that is forcibly associated with the private dwelling is, in the film, found in cafés and the life that animates them, historic vestiges of a less miserable and lonely time. 

The director’s eye immortalizes the interior décor of these majestic places, the sensorial delight of their design and the objects that gracefully inhabit them: an egg holder, a silver tray, the impeccable lines that profile chairs, mirrors, and tables are sculpted in light but can almost be touched, even smelled. The framing subtracts the mundanity of these objects to expose their artistry and finesse: the artistic sublime belonging as much to John Cage’s Dream as it does to a cheesemaker; beauty is in the anachronistic sophistication of an old sport car as it is in the artisanal rigour of handmade shoes. The film’s debonair infatuation with the material realities that have not yet surrendered to the homologating fury of our corporatized present is not merely melancholic, as melancholia implies the inability to let go of the past and idealizes it as a result. A Little Love Package simply takes note of what still is. It is a practical gesture of cinematographic hospitality that provides the spectator a communal dimension that the endemic privatization of happiness is doing away with. 

At the same time, the film also tactfully stages the unsolvable contradictions that connect private and public space. While Carmen’s job is to make interiors more pleasant, her relation with her own family nest is hardly comfortable. When the film metaphysically transports from Vienna to Malaga, where Carmen’s parents live, we get to see a gloomier, more troubled side of Carmen; the confidence of the interior designer is eclipsed by the conflict of a (single?) mother with her family members, notably with one of her two sisters. Their aging father (Michael Chaplin) might be needing his children closer, but Carmen prefers committing financially rather than personally, hence the acrimony with her sister. At some point, during a walk, they even lose sight of their own kids. This is a family calmly coming apart at the seams, and there is something simultaneously unimposing and perceptive in the way this is captured. Without resorting to melodramatic paroxysms, the director brings to the perceptible surface the sentimental tensions traversing Carmen’s family, bucolic setting notwithstanding. Though the nuclear family may be coping with adversity, the film opens the possibility of another bio-illogical family, the one that gathers in Vienna’s cafés to celebrate conviviality amidst the beneficial clouds of tobacco. 

As the 20th century recedes into the rearview mirror of film history, A Little Love Package does not nostalgically dwell on its myths, but rather salvages its brightest moments and intuitions. Not by derivatively quoting them, but by incorporating their modernistic radiance into the very fabric of a film that is at once minimal and inlaid with ingenious visual ruses. For instance, when meandering through the display cases of Vienna’s Natural History Museum, the camera stops in front of some mineral stones and then chromatically morphs them into hallucinogenic colours. The metaphysical moment is not forced upon the film, but is discovered within. Solnicki also documents the remains of the first radioactive explosion which did not take place in a laboratory, but in nature, two billion years ago in Gabon. 

It should be noted that these are not hip expedients to make the film quirkier, but organic consequences of the director’s modus operandi. Solnicki works without a script and with a small crew, and his films are the unpredictable effect of interpersonal exchanges that, though determined by a professional project, inevitably reflect more complex and nuanced dynamics. This is something that can be sensed in the relation between the narrative and the city where it takes place. It’s a process of mutual cognizance, of two entities getting to know each other and developing together as a result of this encounter. 

Absent a script, the film’s “meaning” can only be found in its own making. There is no thesis to be demonstrated, no predetermined artistic goal to be achieved. Which is not to say that the film isn’t ultimately realized in the editing, but that the unforeseeable element that went into its making can still be felt and admired. It’s an aristocratic mode of production, one that bypasses the transactional blackmail of profitable narratives and can defiantly afford to discover its own worth as it is being created. This is possibly what makes Solnicki’s cinema stand out—its ability to operate on its own terms, relationally and autonomously, visibly outside the degrading logics that govern every industry and emancipated from the mediocrity of appraisals.