Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 New York Film Festival. MUBI releases the film in theaters on Friday, November 12.
Movies can truly be anything, and the beauty of Alexandre Koberidze’s lyrical and ineffably romantic “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” is how it reminds us of that — time and again — during almost every one of its meandering 150 minutes.
Nevertheless, a crucial scene towards the beginning stands out for the way it epitomizes that magic. A soccer player named Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) and a knowledgeable young pharmacist named Lisa (Ani Karseladze) have just enjoyed an extremely Lanthimos-esque meet-cute along the banks of the Rioni River in the ancient Georgian city of Kutaisi; we’ve only seen them interact from the knees down or through nighttime long shots lensed from so far away that these characters have been reduced to specks of light in the darkness, but the film’s affectless narrator (voiced by Koberidze himself) assures us of their shared affections. Alas, they are both about to be cursed as well, if only because true love should never be so easy to find.
A surveillance camera, a rain gutter, and the wind itself all raise their voices to warn Lisa that she will wake up in a different body the next morning, and yet the loud motor of a passing car prevents her from hearing the most important detail: The same evil eye has cast its gaze on Giorgi as well, meaning that he too will transform into someone else. How will these sweet young people recognize each other at the date they’ve scheduled for the next evening? How will they ever know if they’re sitting across from their greatest potential happiness, or brushing past it as they walk across one of the wood-planked bridges that connect the city together? What an awful fate this is — the kind that unveils waking life to be a witless fairy tale.
Sure enough, Giorgi and Lisa are played by different actors when they wake up the next morning (Giorgi Bochorishvili and Oliko Barbakadze, respectively, both movie-handsome in a way that some evil eyes are kinder than others), but the swap itself is less important than how “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” prepares us for it. As the old Lisa lies in bed, Koberidze’s voice instructs us to close our eyes until we hear the signal to open them — there’s even a cute little countdown on screen.
It doesn’t matter: Nothing materially changes during the shot. Lisa doesn’t move. There isn’t a sudden flurry of CG or any sort of lo-fi, Gondry-esque body swap. All the same, these 10 or 15 seconds are suddenly charged with a uniquely cinematic potentiality that’s easy to feel but impossible to see, as Koberidze teaches us how to watch his sun-kissed poem of a movie about how the real magic of our world is always invisible.
“What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” might sound like the sort of impenetrable art film that only a critic could love, or maybe the sort of cloyingly precious import that critics reject for hiding cheap sentimentality under an impressive runtime and a cloak of festival laurels, but the truth is that Koberidze’s playful second feature is ultimately neither fish nor fowl. Mostly, because it’s so unconcerned about typifying either one (his debut, the even longer and more formally unsettled “Let the Summer Never Come Again,” tipped a bit more towards the former category). It’s unhurried but winsome — heady but also Hallmark simple, and always as easy to follow along as the river that runs through it.
“What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” never loses sight of Lisa and Giorgi (both of whom are forced out of their specialized jobs because of the curse, and find low-paying gigs near each other at the center of town), but it almost completely eschews the typical ups and downs associated with their wacky rom-com predicament. Instead, Koberidze uses their situation as a lens through which to look at all of Kutaisi, from its local pranksters to its soccer-obsessed local kids and even the area’s overlooked stray dogs — they also have their favorite teams. One minute we focus on the hapless owner of the sports bar where Lisa is hired to run the ice cream machine; he buys a projector to screen the World Cup, but can’t figure out how to position it away from the glare of the sun. The next, we watch a misplayed ball float down the river as Koberidze’s narration reflects on the peripheral horrors of the modern world, and the supposed irresponsibility of making such effervescent art during this age of tragedies.
“What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” follows nothing aside from the hidden rhythms of time and the city, which it listens for with every fiber of its being. People walk this way and that. Faraz Fesharaki’s velvety soft 16mm cinematography zooms in on whatever strikes its fancy, the film itself becoming as watchful and reactive as its audience while rays of the afternoon sun trace small universes between the trees. Documentary filmmakers (played by the director’s own parents) pop in and out as they search for 50 different couples to interview for their movie about modern love, even if they only plan to use six of them.
At one point, an over-eager casting assistant makes strangers pretend to be couples in order to hit her casting quota, unaware that consecrating a fake romance on camera might be enough to make it real. Over time, we realize that Koberidze’s discursive tone poem orbits around Giorgi and Lisa only because their fable-esque missed connection so perfectly embodies the kind of wonder that we see around us every day, but spend our whole lives searching for all the same.
Too distracted to be a love story, too contained to be a city symphony, and not didactic enough to feel like an essay film, “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” gradually coalesces into a kind of abstract pastoral romance more than anything else — it finds the romance that fringes everything around us, and captures it on camera with the unbearable lightness of a movie that knows we could never hope to see it with the naked eye. In any other context, Giorgi and Lisa would just be two people forced to work shit jobs in a city they will never be able to leave, but here we look at them with a mystic awe that we just aren’t capable of creating on our own.
Koberidze is able to lull you into a state of receptiveness because he doesn’t try to teach us anything we don’t already know, or lift our hearts with anything we could take with us once the lights come up; his brother’s Sundance-ready score pipes up at random, as if unsure where to gild the lily. That, too, is part of the film’s easy charm. “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” may require a massive degree of patience that it never intends to reward with any kind of seismic payoff, but Koberidze knows that its spell — the same one cast on Giorgi and Lisa — will only last for as long as the film does, and so it does us the kindness of taking its sweet time.
“What Do We Do When We Look at the Sky?” made its American debut at the 2021 New York Film Festival. MUBI will release it in theaters on Friday, November 12.