Vodka Lemon (2004)

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece

In an image evoking both Chagall and Kaurismaki, Hamo and Nina find, if not hope exactly, some acceptance and joy.

Vodka Lemon

Director: Hiner Saleem
Cast: Romen Avinian, Lala Sarkissian, Ivan Franek, Ruzan Mesropyan, Zahal Karielchvili
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: New Yorker Films
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2004-10-08 (Limited release)

In Vodka Lemon's bleakest surroundings, there is a poetry so peculiar it's almost perverse. Beauty is here, in the depths of snowy, post-Soviet Armenia, in the rooftops of a desolate, frozen village peeking from snowdrifts, in a wretched room's dirty corners, in the heartfelt warblings of a local bus driver. And humor, likewise, is here, tempered, though, with the overwhelming heartbreak of poverty and loss.

Director Hiner Saleem, an exiled Iraqi Kurd who doubtless knows something about unorthodox ways to deal with tragedy, touches this beauty and humor with pathos. The fact that he does so, rather than focusing completely on his subjects' anguish, contributes substantially to Vodka Lemon's success. It's surprising that a depiction of the failures of capitalism after the failures of communism could be so funny. Yet here it is, something that almost shouldn't be, a warm treasure of a film covered, like its saddened characters, in layers of ice.

Leading the cast of dejected but never humorless villagers is Hamo (Romen Avinian), a 60-something widower who waits daily for his youngest son in Paris to send him money. Hamo survives on a seven-dollars-a-month pension and whatever he can raise by selling his few, prized possessions: a wardrobe he purchased for his wife, an ancient, clunky television, his military uniform. Hamo's small attempts at survival and his re-discovery of love towards the end of his life constitute the crux of the film.

As Hamo, Romen Avinian holds in his wrinkled, weather-beaten face some of Vodka Lemon's unusual poetry. His performance is so focused, so easy and natural, that he seems a part of his environment, his white stubble and mustache crafted from the snow all around him. When Hamo's hinted romance with Nina (Lala Sarkissian), a beautiful younger widow, finally culminates physically, Saleem cuts to a rapturous shot of gently falling snow. As they fully inhabit their bodies, they become fully a part of their surroundings.

In this and other instances, Saleem reveals these characters are tied desperately to an idea of their land. Not to any particular country or any particular way of life (the Soviets and their communism, after all, have come and gone, and capitalism has taken their place with no discernable patriotic effect), but to their environment. During Hamo's granddaughter's wedding ceremony, the villagers slaughter a sheep and march through the hillside, enacting what appears to be some ancient natural ritual. And the town's product, the vodka lemon of the title, tastes strongly of almonds ("That's Armenia," Nina remarks). While the younger residents, like Hamo's son, have departed for other, more forgiving lands, the older generation remains, selling their burdensome possessions one at a time, becoming more and more weightless, drifting towards death. This slow material loss, it seems, is preferable still to losing history and home, what remains of either.

History and home, here, are confused. For most of the villagers, both have primarily consisted of the artifice of occupation -- from 1920 until 1991, Armenia was occupied by the USSR. But even the Soviet withdrawal is a small comfort; once the Soviets have left, an even deeper confusion sets in. What remains to be cherished is the stark setting, articulated by Christophe Pollock's exceptional cinematography.

The bleakness is central to the town's beauty, the inhabitants' despair their source of humor and, despite the seeming contradiction, joy. In this juxtaposition, Saleem recalls Aki Kaurismaki, the great Finnish director who also loves the downtrodden, his characters reaching for -- and usually achieving -- salvation while they live in the gutter. A beguiling scene on the bus particularly evokes Kaurismaki: Nina and Hamo trade tiny glances and smiles, shy and unsure, both hilarious and tender in their insecurity. When a melancholy love song bursts from the bus driver, who sings along with his tape deck, Vodka Lemon briefly becomes a soaring little musical. Once life's hardships set in again, the film remains lifted on that buoyancy, carried along with the possibility of happiness found in fatalism.

Fittingly, it is a depiction of love in the midst of despair that closes Vodka Lemon. During the last third or so, the film veers into melodrama, which threatens the very delicacy that sustains its appeal. Yet, happily, it journeys back into a magical realism so slight as to be absurd, not whimsical, touching yet not soft. At the conclusion, in an image evoking both Chagall and Kaurismaki, Hamo and Nina find, if not hope exactly, some acceptance and joy. They sit at Nina's piano, on a snowy street, choosing each other instead of financial stability. Beauty is to be found not in denial of harshness, but in the very depths of sorrow. Even here, Vodka Lemon finds space for music.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.