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“13 Tzameti” flaunts a grim sense of the absurd that suggests a French new wave film infected with a virulent strain of Eastern European nihilism. The most pronounced Gallic flavor in the film, a handsome black-and-white thriller, in which Gela Babluani, a Georgian filmmaker, makes his flashy directorial debut, is the French language. With its icy cynicism and desolate settings, the film evokes the work of the young Roman Polanski in his sadistic trickster mode.

The movie’s protagonist, Sebastien (Georges Babluani, the director’s brother), is a wiry, 20-year-old Georgian immigrant living from hand to mouth in a rural French town filmed to suggest crumbling Eastern European ruin. While repairing a neighbor’s roof, he overhears an enigmatic conversation in which his suave, white-haired employer, Jean-François (Philippe Passon), alludes to a job that may lead to easy money.

When Jean-François dies of a morphine overdose, Sebastien is brusquely informed that his services are no longer needed, and that he won’t be paid for his work. Stealing a letter to Jean-François with information about the high-paying job, Sebastien follows its cryptic instructions to pick up a first-class train ticket and get off at a certain stop. From the moment he boards the train, the police begin keeping an eye on him. Met at a crossroads, Sebastien is whisked to a remote chateau in the woods, surrounded by shiny black limousines.

Up to this halfway point, “13 Tzameti” steadily intensifies a mood of Kafkaesque foreboding. Its air of life-or-death secrecy recalls “Eyes Wide Shut,” in which Tom Cruise infiltrates a club of orgiasts. But “13 Tzameti” is not about sex. If you don’t want any of its secrets unlocked, stop reading here.

Escorted into the mansion, Sebastien finds himself a prisoner obliged to participate in a deadly game in which the chances of his surviving are slim. He is in the clubhouse of a secret society of high-stakes gamblers who bet on an elaborate variation of Russian roulette, in which numbered players stand in a circle with loaded guns pointed at their neighbors’ heads and shoot on command. Sebastien has the unlucky number 13. (“Tzameti” means 13 in Georgian.)

Over successive rounds, each player is given one, then two, three and four bullets. As a referee (Pascal Bongard) barks instructions like a feral prison guard, the players spin their cartridges, wait for a striped lightbulb to flash, then fire. The survivor is the winner of a climactic duel in which the last two players face each other eye to eye, gun to forehead, and simultaneously pull the trigger. The winner collects a suitcase full of money. His ultimate challenge is to escape the premises without interception by the police, or worse.

As the bodies topple, there is a remarkable lack of bloodshed onscreen. Realistic gore would only distract from the tension and undermine the league-of-depraved-gentlemen elegance surrounding the proceedings. A kink in the rules allows players, when overcome with terror, to be injected with morphine.

If the game is a quintessentially Polanskian exercise in macho diabolism, it has little of the anguished emotional resonance of the Russian roulette played in “The Deer Hunter.” The games are closer in feel to the kind of fiendish practical jokes played in the “Saw” horror movies. Addressing the atavistic side of the male psyche, which gravitates toward cockfights and extreme sports, “13 Tzameti” dares you to be shocked.

Observing the contained excitement of the assembled high-rollers, an image flashed through my mind of the jowly Adolphe Menjou in “Paths of Glory,” playing a cynical French general who blithely dispatches young men to certain slaughter in World War I. For such men, blood lust keeps the juices flowing, and the notion that human life is worth anything more than the resale value of severed body parts is just so much foolish sentimentality.
Date Added: 04/29/2013 by Bondo Babluani
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