Russian-Amercian director Eugene Kotlyarenko echoes his previous shameless LA-hipster-portrait and his tech-savy feature film debut in Wobble Palace, a battle of the sexes-comedy from LA that uniquely captures our collective obsession with our smartphones.
The opening shot of Wobble Palace can hardly be called a shot. It’s a screen grab of an iMessage-chat between Eugene (played by Kotlyarenko himself) and his girlfriend Jane (co-writer and co-star Dasha Nekrasova). Scrolling through it, we read about the history of their entire romance, from the first tentative messages after exchanging numbers to a doomed final proposal. Because when Eugene and Jane feel that their relationship has perhaps run its course, they take a drastic decision. One fatefull weekend – somewhere in 2016, right before how-who-shan’t-be-named wins the elections – they decide to timeshare their house (the titular ‘Wobble Palace’): he gets it one day, she the other. After that, they’ll see where they stand. What follows is a confrontational comedy about sex, insecurity and authenticity, mixing the oints-of-view of the man and the woman.
Smartphones play a big part in Wobble Palace. They slide in and out of the frame and through their aps and DM’s they open up new windows into the lives of these characters. In that sense, the film brings to mind Kotlyarenko’s first feature 0s and 1s, which unfolds entirely on a computer screen. “I’ve been sort of synthesizing these ideas”, Kotlyarenko tells us via Skype. “I think at this point our romantic relationships, or all of our relationships with other people, are highly mediated by smartphones. It’s the way we meet people now, the way we gather ideas and impressions from other people. Most importantly it’s the way that we project ourselves out into the world and the way we understand ourselves. In general, I’d say to make a movie with contemporary characters and not acknowledge the function and centrality of the smartphone, you’d need a wilful plot reason to ignore that. So for me it’s very central in my work. I just want to figure out a way to graphically and compositionally include it.”
Wobble Palace has a completely different approach to the screen than 0s and 1s.
“Yeah those computer-based images in 0s and 1s seem archaic by now. But at the same time the audience has become – and I’m talking about general baseline audience, old people, normies and cool people – acclimated to observing the phone, understanding the language, the subtlety and humor. For example: writing something and then not sending it. Those things are very understood now, in a way they weren’t eight years ago. So my challenge was: can people look at someone’s face at 2/3ds of the screen and can they also read what happens on a phone? And you know what?”
“Yes, they can!”
Lets talk about those people filling the screen and using those phones. There’s a symbolic divide in your film: halfway through, the focus shifts from male to female.
“One of the main catalysts for the film is that I did sense, and it’s grown over the last years, a lot of hatred and a lot of negative energy just on the surface between gender. There’s this gender war going on that’s not really a war, but just women trying to call out shitty guys. Like the #MeToo movement. That’s all good, I think that’s correct, but in all sorts of identity-based political movements there is a contempt for any identity that is not your own, and specifically there’s a universal contempt for white, cis, hetero men. I wanted the film to be extremely devisive, structurally devisive, where you would force the audience for the first half of the movie to be stuck with a literal interpretation of the worst type of white guy. ”
That guy actually becomes Nosferatu during a Halloween party, the epitome of the toxic white male.
“That’s by the end, when you even have a little sympathy for him, hopefully. So you might go into the film thinking it’s about a relationship, but it’s actually about the end of a relationship that’s just extremely divided. If you’re a guy – this is my theory, my intention – you might not like Eugene but you can probably relate to his goals and his behavior and his desperation. I think there’s a sexual desperation that unites all men in a way, or the majority of men. Probably as a female viewer you really hate him. You might still like this as a movie, but as a person you wouldn’t want to hang out with him. Then I wanted to switch it and present this female character, who probably a lot of women would relate to with her kind of struggle and inability to take charge of this aggressive situation. A lot of guys are probably thinking: who is this annoying chick? Why am I listening to her complaining all the time? That’s my intention, whether or not it’s successful. In some ways I hope that I’m not successful, because the success of that means that by the end I’ve alienated my entire audience some way or another.”
Do you think it’s possible not to hate anyone in the film?
“That’s why I split the movie up. I actually wanted to see if I could challenge people to have sympathy for the Eugene character. Would female viewers have sympathy for him by the end? Would male viewers have sympathy for the Jane character by the end? That’s what I wanted to do, because film has the ability – more than any other medium – to create sympathy that isn’t propaganda. Any propaganda machine can create any sort of inflamed emotion, but a film I think can really generate sympathy.”