Just over a year ago the bold first feature of young French-educated Georgian director Gela Babluani was released in the UK to great press acclaim but little public notice. While salivating in anticipation of Babluani’s new offering, scheduled to pop up on these shores later this year, we take a look back at 13 (Tzameti).
In a small town on the French Atlantic coast, Sébastien, a struggling young Georgian roofer (played by Babluani’s brother Georges), starts working on a house belonging to a shady, ageing drug addict by the name of Godon. When Sébastien’s work engagement abruptly comes to an end without hope of payment, he steals a letter addressed to his former employer, which contains instructions regarding a mysterious and possibly dangerous money-making scheme. Recklessly impersonating Godon, Sébastien follows the instructions and arrives at an isolated mansion outside Paris. There he finds that he is to be a player in a deadly game of Russian roulette in which men bet on other men’s lives. Unable to back out, Sébastien is assigned the number 13.
While the number 13 immediately suggests bad luck, it proves to be neither lucky nor unlucky in the film. The number is not important in itself but in the fact that it strips the man it designates of all that makes him human, reducing him to a lottery ball spun around by the cruel law of chance. Gone are his hopes, desires and loves. Sébastien is now simply number 13, his thoughts limited to where the bullet is, and whether his whole being will be casually obliterated like nothing more than a fleck of dust in the next round of the game.
This game is truly an initiation to life in all its random brutality. The fresh-faced Sébastien is put through a trial by fire by a pack of hardened old gamblers who watch jadedly as he learns that in the game of life one can only kill or be killed. In the first round, still innocent, he simply cannot bring himself to fire his pistol into another man’s head. In the acute tension of that scene we experience right through our bones the emotions of an ordinary man suddenly faced with no other choice but to kill another man. Once that line is crossed the only thing that remains in Sébastien is a ferocious survival instinct – no longer innocent, he now plays by the rules of the game.
The tension that builds up as the players go through the different rounds is almost unbearable. And what the game lacks in ingenuity and sophistication, it more than makes up for in sheer, brutal efficacy. As economical as it gets, the bare-bone set-up lets Babluani’s visual flair and gift for dramatic tension shine through. The high-contrast black and white photography infuses the film with an oppressive feel – right from the more mundane opening scenes the grey sky is laden with the promise of inevitable doom. The strange, almost claustrophobic atmosphere is compounded by the impressive gallery of rugged, leathery gamblers, who, with their crocodile skins and glassy eyes look like the monstrous offspring of film noir villains and Goya portraits.
13 displays obvious similarities to the earlier Spanish thriller Intacto, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Intacto also revolved around a game of chance but while the plot was more complex than in 13, the exploration of the central theme was paradoxically shallow and simplistic. In Intacto luck was reduced to a simple attribute tied to one’s photograph, which rather too straightforwardly could be augmented by stealing other people’s photos or lost if one’s photo was taken. While it was an undeniably engaging thriller, Intacto had neither the elegance of a Borgesian conundrum nor the raw power and existential intensity of 13.
13 also has much in common with Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1882 short story ‘The Suicide Club’. In that story Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his faithful confidant Colonel Geraldine, having gone out in the mean streets of London in search of an adventure, follow a desperate young man to the Suicide Club, a secret society set up to ‘help’ ruined men desirous to commit suicide. Brought together by misfortune, these men become the instrument of fate in each other’s lives. Every night they solemnly sit around a table for a random card draw, the ace of clubs designating the man who must kill, the ace of spades the man who will be killed that night. Once there, Prince Florizel and Colonel Geraldine find that they are now bound by the rules of the Club and must take part in the fateful card game.
Just as in ‘The Suicide Club’, the world of 13 is a fascinating secret society of men who meet to play a game of life and death. And just like Prince Florizel, Sébastien naíÂ¯vely embarks on what he thinks is a promising adventure, unaware that by doing so he has already signed his name at the bottom of a diabolical pact. The fates of both men are sealed as soon as Prince Florizel follows the suicidal young man and Sébastien opens his employer’s letter, with no possibility of turning back. Of course, Stevenson being such a conservative writer, the ending of the otherwise compelling ‘Suicide Club’ is a boring, moralistic, and rather unconvincing return to order. Not so in 13.