Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass): study of a dreary, run-down, post-industrial society

Priit Pärn and Hille Kuusk, “Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass)” (1987)

Inspired by the Edouard Manet painting “Luncheon on the Grass”, this 25-minute short follows the lives of two women and two men in an Estonian city and the alienation and deindividuation they experience in four installments. An anonymous woman braves surly behaviour and sexual harassment from various strangers as she tries to do her daily shopping and eventually has to grant a sexual favour to a fruit-seller for a measly apple. In the second installment, a man called Georg undergoes identity loss while trying to work the system to his advantage to get a job as a manager. Up next, Berta also suffers identity loss as a result of becoming a mother. Finally, Eduard joins a queue and sucks up to a slimy bureaucrat in order to leap over hurdles to get a certificate.

All the characters above join for a picnic in the park and pose as models for the Manet artwork. This is the only time in their lives (presumably) when they are able to demonstrate their individuality to the outside world. They then return to their humdrum lives. Although the film does not have English sub-titles, mercifully for me whatever Estonian-language dialogue is present seems to be secondary to the film’s plot and themes and acts as background noise that reinforces the soullessness of the society around our four comrades.

The artwork is mostly pencil-drawn save for Georg’s segment in which stop-motion animation is used on realistically rendered characters and backgrounds that turn out to be part of Georg’s day-dreaming. The animation is deliberately childish in style to emphasise the petty nature of society and how it reduces people to infantile and boorish behaviour. In Berta’s segment, the woman loses her face and any features she attempts to apply to her blankness end up primitively drawn and easily wiped off. Meanwhile photographs and paintings of her are beautifully scribbled by pencil and she tries in vain frustration to emulate these pictures before destroying them.

Although the film looks very simple, it’s quite subtle and complex: throughout the piece, sinister grey figures drag an artist through the streets while accompanied by sinister black birds. This perhaps says something about the society’s attitude to art and culture, how it derides and crushes things of beauty and individual expression. At the end of the film, the artist lies in agony on the road, his arm obliterated by a tractor. Various scenes in the film portray the little ways in which people are ground down by their depressing urban environment; as Georg’s domestic scene demonstrates with oozing black goop coming up through the kitchen sink drain and through the paintings on the wall, even home is no cozy cocoon against the grim outside world.

The film has many surreal elements and acknowledges its debt to surreal artists like Salvador Dali (early on, there is a reproduction of one of Dali’s works in the background) but even surrealism gives way to dreary reality and in the end is made to reinforce the dismal look and conduct of Soviet Estonian society in the late 1980s. Worth watching for its style and varied use of animation and those people interested in what a run-down, post-industrial society might look like when all its wealth has been exhausted and everyone is reduced to living like rats ought to watch this piece.

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