When Lisa and Giorgi first meet, we don’t see their faces—only the awkward tangle of their legs and feet as they fumble to return to the paths they were on before their idiosyncratic meet-cute. When they encounter one another a second time, their bodies are framed at such a great distance, so off-centered, that they are rendered to us as unnoticeable ants. Before we can become more acquainted with their faces, they have become different faces entirely. In the young lovers’ world—and, perhaps, in ours—magic exists all around them, acting in untraceable harmony with the natural environment, as ordinary and as powerful as love. The supernaturally tinted story of Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) is the main one of Alexandre Koberidze’s sophomore feature, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, but it is not the only story in the Georgian director’s 150-minute film.
Following their second meeting, the film’s narrator plainly informs us of what’s about to happen: Lisa and Giorgi are to be cursed. Their coming-together occurred under an evil eye, a particularly malevolent one which has decided to thwart the young peoples’ plans to follow through on their attraction to one another and meet up at a café the next night. Imparted upon her by a kind seedling, a CCTV camera and a rusty rain gutter on her walk home, Lisa learns of the evil eye’s plans to render her face unrecognizable when she awakens the following day so that Giorgi will never find her. Little does she know, the evil eye has the same plans for Giorgi as well. Sure enough, when the two of them arise the next morning, they have become entirely different people. For Lisa, the transformation is articulated on film in a cheeky way: Sans CGI, prosthetics or other film trickery are simple narrated instructions and a countdown for the audience to close their eyes on the sound of a first jingle, and open them on the second. When we open our eyes, Lisa has, indeed, become someone new (and now played by Ani Karseladze).
As the curse has also robbed them of their respective talents and areas of knowledge, new Lisa and new Giorgi (now Giorgi Bochorishvili) seek occupations elsewhere. They both end up taking jobs at the nearby café where they’d originally set their first date, working in different parts of the shop but seeing each other every day. While from an impartial distance we observe the two lovers navigate their new lives and slowly find one another, we never linger on them for too long. Meandering, mythic and inventive whenever possible, Koberidze composes a sprawling, yet intimate, fairytale collage of the Georgian town of Kutaisi and the people and creatures who call it home. For us, Lisa and Giorgi only occupy one small window through which we are invited to look, oscillating in and out of focus as we are guided through Kutaisi by an informative and all-seeing narrator: The director himself. Shots that ruminate on the landscape are overlaid with Koberidze’s own preoccupations with the horrors of real life, as he wrestles with the existential meaningless of his artistic endeavors. Meanwhile, soccer-obsessed children play outside, stray dogs wander the streets, civilians gather at nearby watering holes to watch the World Cup and local filmmakers attempt to shoot a project about couples, who find their ways to Lisa and Giorgi by sheer happenstance. Or is it fate?
Of course, in the universe of What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? it very well could be; that’s the point, and the language of the filmmaking borders on the uncanny. Shot in part on saturated 16mm, director of photography Faraz Fesharaki captures Kutaisi in a hazy, warm color palette, where the radiance of otherworldly oranges and yellows manage to cut through even all-encompassing darkness. Characters occasionally, but not always, communicate in stilted dialogue. Lisa and Giorgi’s opening meet-cute is spoken as if it were lifted from a script written by Yorgos Lanthimos or Wes Anderson. At one point, a man approaches Lisa for some thread or fishing line and promises her that she’ll get it back (which got a chuckle out of this critic). “Spells are outdated” Lisa’s friend tells her bluntly, after Lisa worriedly reveals the curse that’s been placed upon her as told by the helpful seedling, camera and rain gutter. In the film, the everyday and the strange coexist—and sometimes they are one and the same. Magic spells and talking trees are as mundane as the luckless owner of Lisa and Giorgi’s café, who can’t seem to set up a projector to properly display the soccer game for patrons.
This is all carried effervescently by a wide-ranging score from Koberidze’s brother, Giorgi. His alternatingly symphonic and whimsical melodies shift between classical stretches of artists like Debussy, acting as much a lyrical collage as the story and visuals. The film is artistic but playful, though undoubtedly inaccessible for some due to its overlong runtime and aimless narrative approach. It’s a film that requires patience, but if you are willing to meet it on its terms, it sustains an eagerness throughout to surprise and engage. In this way, Koberidze’s method mirrors the very world around us. His unfocused take on a fantasy rom-com anchors us with a story of a missed connection and summons us to look for the magic that exists in the most unexpected of places, while his storybook narration still gently urges not to overlook the tragedies which hover on the periphery. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is an apt, simple fable that feels somewhat hopeful for our modern world—one where evil wins, but love overcomes.
Director: Alexandre Koberidze
Writer: Alexandre Koberidze
Starring: Giorgi Ambroladze, Oliko Barbakadze, Giorgi Bochorishvili, Ani Karseladze
Release Date: November 12, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.