By turns triumphant and obnoxiously opaque, My Joy is at once terribly difficult to come to grips with, and impossible to shake, and it's both of these things for very much the same reason.

There are two halves to the film, which is not the least of the reasons it's so wholly inscrutable, and the plot of the first part goes a little something like this (very little, but I am getting ahead of myself): Georgi (Viktor Nemets) is a truck driver headed from one place to another in the normal course of his job, but we stumble across him during a particularly off day. He is stopped at a customs checkpoint for no apparent reason, though he is able to sneak off; he gets stuck in an inexplicable traffic jam and takes the advice of a teenage prostitute (Olga Shuvalova) to take a long cut through the local town and surrounding woods; this gets him hopelessly lost, and he parks for the night in a clearing, miles off the nearest road, where a group of locals attempt to rob him; upon finding out that he has nothing of particular value, they instead invite him to a late night drink around a campfire.

The second half, an indeterminate amount of time later, involves... stuff. I am loathe to even attempt to describe it, for that would both spoil things, and prove that I am wildly ignorant. It is winter, there is an isolated community out in the country, awful violence happens). It is rather more like a fairy tale than a realistic narrative; not that the first part of My Joy is tremendously "realistic", but it seems like a De Sica picture in comparison.

Whatever the exact story the movie is telling, it seems to be relatively easy to declare that it's taking a good long look at the frustrations and petty miseries of modern life, with special attention paid to the way that the post-Soviet Russia has been unable to re-define itself as anything but even more capriciously violent and facelessly bureaucratic than the notoriously broken-down system it was meant to replace. Georgi is deliberately kept vague and understated, all the better to make him a hapless Everyman tumbling from one absurd situation to another.

More to the point, everything about the very fabric of My Joy is designed to draw our attention to the universal, not the particular - a film that spend more time forgetting that its protagonist exists is a rare sight. Writer-diretor Sergei Loznitsa, making his debut fiction film after a decade making documentaries, is every bit as interested in the world around Georgi as in what happens to the nominal lead, if not more so. Opening with a shot of a dead body being dumped in a concrete foundation, a moment unconnected to everything else in the film (unless it is the theme of a society teetering on the edge of violent implosion), Loznitsa takes a great many pauses throughout the film to wander off in pursuit of some entirely spurious moment or image, with a degree of fearlessness quite admirable for a first feature. Sometimes, the wandering is quite literal, as in a bravura tracking shot that begins following Georgi as he stumbles through a crowd in the middle of a small town, abruptly stops following him to pursue a local as he pushes into a side lane, and stops following him to end in a little cemetery, considering the tombstones with quiet seriousness as the sounds of the crowd are just barely audible in the background. Other times, Loznitsa and cinematographer Oleg Mutu (whose brilliant work in Romania in the last decade includes The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) leave the camera mostly still and use the static frame as a chance to capture life wandering by: there's an early shot in which Georgi's head, foregrounded and slightly off-center, divides the shot into two smaller tableaux of people fighting and people just driving by, both halves of the image incontestably more important than whatever is happening to Georgi himself. And at times, the shift happens in the narrative itself, as when an old man, a veteran of World War II, ushers in a flashback to a horrible incident that happened to him once in Stalin's army.

In all cases, the point seems to be the same: there's a whole fascinating world out there, and no one perspective can take it all in. Loznitsa seems hellbent on doing everything he can to give us a flavor of everything out there, which is at once My Joy's great achievement and its most frustrating problem: there's just too much in it, assembled with gusto but little discrimination, and as much as every single moment in the film achieves near-transcendence, there's very little flow from one moment to the next: certainly none in the narrative, and very little in terms of mood or intellectual feeling. It is not intuitively solid; maybe it isn't supposed to be. Certainly, the second half (which superficially recalls Mulholland Dr. in its complete divorce from the first half, anchored by the presence of a character who is version of the same actor's character from the first half, and the dream-logic of its narrative) makes a hash of the idea that any of this is meant to be obviously coherent.

And yet, something about My Joy makes sense on some basic level, underneath the "meaning" of the narrative. Its depiction of an unforgiving world is entirely coherent, a unified impressionistic hellscape of modernity that gives way into a dreamy mythic version of the same. I'd call it the kind of movie that requires multiple viewings to make sense of it all, though I don't honestly know that there's any sense to be made - perhaps the only sense of My Joy lies in its compelling, driving creation of a world that is itself made up of nonsense.