Masculinity and Revenge
Latvian director Aik Karapetian gives us a nerve-wracking balance between the intrigue of his strange film and the narcissism and cowardice of his central character, Francis (Kaspars Znotins). We get a portrait of a loveless couple trapped in marriage.
When the film opens, Katrina (Maija Doveika) and Francis are thinking their former relationship. At a house party, Katrina, who is drunk, jokes about adultery as Francis quietly takes it in. On their walk home, the two are accosted by a young, handsome biker who punches Francis, sexually threatens Katrina, then walks away with her purse. They are obviously upset, but even more important is that Francis’ pride is deeply hurt, and he spends the next few days being possessive and paranoid about Katrina’s interactions with other men.
Francis takes matters into his own hands when he realizes his fears that someone else may ultimately be able to help Katrina seek justice. He finds the culprit (Dainis Grube) and, in the middle of the woods, with nobody else around, tries to force him to apologize to his wife by offering him the money in his wallet. When this doesn’t work, the issue escalates. The confrontation changes Francis but and he and Katrina continue to have problems even though they find themselves bound tighter together by a pregnancy. We understand what Francis is upset about but we wonder if he knows. There is an undercurrent of humor running through the film with the filmmakers seemingly entirely aware of Francis’ more snarky qualities and use them to great effect but, by and large, the mood is generally somber, understated, and claustrophobic. Karapetian focuses his attention on the quiet, interstitial moments, and he underplays big plot points to maintain focus on the anxiety and dread that begins to take over the characters.
Visually, the film is gorgeous and refined aesthetically. Location and set dressing are inventive, memorable, and slightly left of realism as we see in the couple’s straight-up haunted nursery decor, or the attacker’s lair of industrial ruin in the forest. Much of the storytelling is visual and it seems that Karapetian wants to drown his characters in atmosphere.
In one scene we see a family (who are friends of the couple) with painted faces and Japanese attire, acting scenes of heroic battle. This is in contrast with Francis’ anti-heroic qualities. As hero, we should want that he succeed or to be redeemed, but Francis’ motivations throughout seem so narrow and selfish that it is very difficult to take his side and root for him. The film’s view of humanity is very nihilistic. In that, we get lost in its desolate atmosphere, and that nihilism goes down kind of easy.
There is a mean, menacing undercurrent in “Firstborn”. We feel it as we follows the travails of Francis (as he deals with the aftermath of a disturbing incident. From outward appearances, Francis is a middle-class intellectual, a calm and deliberate introvert whose actions are always carefully calculated. Katrina is equally accomplished and intelligent, an extrovert whose warm behavioral inclinations nicely complement Francis’ tendencies toward cool isolation.
Because he was unable to defend his wife as he thought possible and stricken by jealousy when he realizes that Katrina has struck up a comfortable acquaintance with the police detective assigned to their case, Francis decides to track down the motorcyclist himself.
Violent trouble soon follows but Francis is strangely emboldened yet discomfited by all that is happening, and his emotional balance is further disrupted when Katrina reveals that she is pregnant. It’s all a bit too much for Francis to take, and he begins to act out his frustrations upon Katrina, who will only stand for so much neglect and verbal abuse. Francis and Katrina are the traditional “opposites attract,” yet it’s also clear that they have a relatively strong relationship that’s already survived a
Francis is very competent, with firm convictions and a definite surety in his manner of dealing with others. He knows what he’s supposed to do, and mostly does that. When deviations on his chosen road appear without warning, his meticulously crafted personality begins to come apart at the seams. He lacks the emotional capacity to reach out to others for help — either because he’s too hard on himself or perhaps because he’s been too crushingly disappointed in the past by others and he makes it harder for himself to deal with the new tensions that arise because of his attempts to resolve the situation with the motorcyclist himself.
Francis is too often a stereotypical man, or at least what he imagines such a character to be. He vainly attempts to imitate the flawed picture in his head of a man, what he himself thinks he should be, and fails utterly to meet his own rigid standards. Katrina starts to shut him out emotionally in response to his continued behavior. And once their romance begins to crack, there’s no telling if or when repair is possible. It is important to understand that nothing I have written has been overtly stated— rather it is based upon suggestions.