The Santa Barbara Film Festival has a strong tradition of promoting Eastern European cinema, with movies from the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland and elsewhere; this year, from Slovenian writer/director Damjan Kozole (best known for 2003′s Spare Parts) comes Slovenka. Shuttling between the capital Ljubljana and a nearby small town, the Slovenian girl of the title is an ad codename used by 23-year old student/prostitute Sasha (Nina Ivanisin), who starts the film by seeing her grotesquely fat hotel john keel over from a Viagra-induced heart attack.
When he turns out to be a German MEP the police take an interest in speaking to her, but she’s found first by a pair of (unexpectedly handsome) prospective pimps and has to abandon her newly-purchased flat, go into hiding with her genial dad Edo (Peter Musevski), maintain the lie in face of questions from her cute red-head friend and slightly obsessed but married ex, and watch her life rapidly unravel.
The film begins in Dardennes style with a close handheld camera (more successful than most imitators) tracking Sasha through dour municipal spaces and bland hotel corridors. Kozole shares with them also an interest in everyday economics but proves to be less single-minded than the Belgian brothers (and less concerned with moral choices and guilt) allowing himself some pleasantly off-track interludes such as brief cuts to scenes of Edo and his ex-rocker pal fixing an amp or discussing their involuntary suicide impulses over a beer, or a lyrical interlude of dappled sunlight on Sasha’s feet and clenched hands in her morning bed. And the tiny details that are more narratively relevant ring beautifully true: Sasha’s spotting a trick in a cafe, tears creeping onto her eyes in the arms of another john, or Edo’s oblivious lighting of a wrong-way-round cigarette on learning of his daughter’s profession.
Alongside the superbly controlled direction there’s also Ivanisin’s splendid central performance, gripping without grabbing for attention. She has the plain, intelligent looks of Meg White (with a hint of Ellen Page) that become more beautiful the more one watches them (and a particularly good ass in jeans) and this is in part because the self-possession and determination never quite leave her almost blank eyes, even as she encounters an unexpected client or is dangled from a hotel balcony.
But we never learn how or why she started on the game or how she feels about it (disgust is only implied) beyond her declaration near the end that she just wants to live “a normal life”. That she can also declare that “life is just one disappointment after another” suggests a depressed resignation but the real answer doubtless lies in the beautiful final shot: Sasha stands outside a bar, smoking and half singing along whilst inside her dad’s band lumbers through Zappa’s anti-American, misogynistic, hom0-, trannie- and SM-phobic (or is it?) “Bobby Brown”, tentative jubilation snatched from the jaws of self-hatred. A rare film where back story and explanation are unnecessary in the perfect representation of coping with the here and now.