Let’s Watch “13 Tzameti” (2005, Géla Babluani) or Rubbernecking, Reflexivity & David Fincher

If you thought the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter (1978, M.Cimino) was nerve-wrecking, do check out “13 Tzameti” (2005, Géla Babluani) for a bigger doze of arbitrary death. Naturally, a lot of reviews evoked the Soviet past of Georgia, the director’s hometown, and the nihilism that Europe suffered from at one point to justify the bleakness of the film but, there is more to “13 Tzameti” than that.

Reminiscent of early Polanski (think Knife In The Water (1962) & Repulsion (1965)), “13 Tzameti” (Tzameti meaning 13 in Georgian), tells the story of an immigrant in rural France who, while doing house repairs for a moribund Morphine addict , finds himself faced with a letter destined to the owner and ends up following its instructions. Shot in cinemascope, it captures the tension of the abysmal “ring” where the bets are placed on the lives of Russian roulette players. Sebastian (aka “13”) is played by the director’s brother George Babluani in a very Fight Club-like setting, albeit in an all-men world (except for the small female role at the beginning).

Although shot in black and white, the film evokes a lot of the same gratuitous violence we all know (and love) from Fight Club (1999) and the bloody duels that took place in those underground surroundings. The very title of “13 Tzameti” could indeed be a wink at “7even” (1995). But two more important themes are to be treated.

Not to reveal too much of the very macabre plot and of how the game is devised, it would be very interesting however, to elaborate on two themes which are central to the story: Throughout his journey from one bullet in the gun, to two, three and finally four, the pleasures the sadistic high rollers derive (those placing bets on the death of Sebastien and on the others) as well as ours, the spectators, are superimposed:

Rubbernecking is often described as the act of looking at potential car crash victims while driving thus eying death. In this case, we’re eying it a lot. The crowds are present in many shots, anxious while gazing upon the players and worried about losing their money should the player die. More often than not, the match is seen from their perspective, fragmenting the body of the competitors placed on a podium and reducing them to a torso, a head, a hand.

But none are as horrendous and obscene as the “ringmaster”. Symbolically, the ringmaster occupies a God-like role of managing the circus, (referred to in the film as “the ring”). He’s a monstrous figure reminiscent of the director in A Serbian Film (reviewed here), placed on a high chair shouting at the players, living up to his role as the creator of “hyperboles” and literally cracking the bull-whip to get the beasts going.  Another part of the game is seen through an “over-shoulder” or between his spread legs, perched high above the rest of them. He sees them all die.

Another interesting motif is the light bulb, around which the action is constructed. The moment it is turned on, the players have to shoot and the killing has to get going. This is not peculiar if we inscribe this object it in the cinematic language throughout the movie, putting forth over and over again the idea of reflexivity.

At the very beginning, Sebastien never had anything to do with this shady business but after receiving the letter and arriving at his destination, he goes through a form of “casting”. He is asked who is, frisked, undressed and has to stand in front of a “jury” to get a form of appraisal and find out if he’s right for the “part” or not. After hesitation, he is taken in.
Of course, he is ordered around by everyone on “set”, especially the ringmaster/director who shouts at him to shoot as he hesitated to do so in the first round. The light-bulb reminds us of projectors used while filming and their role in setting up the appropriate atmosphere for the actors.
A peculiar sound is present too, the sound of the money-counting machine which we are able to notice several times throughout the film, especially when the bets are placed, evoking the noise made by film reels.

Therefore, although the violence feels pretty heavy (thanks to Cinemascope), these reflexivity techniques remind us, at least throughout the game, that it is just that, a game, a fiction, but does not take away anything from the gravity of the subject. Is the film just a fiction or are the lives of people a mere game ? This question however, find a Hollywood “equivalent” as the director did an American remake named “13” in 2010. Bravo.

– Written by Haneen H aka Kinofrau. 
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