Screens at CIFF: 10/7 & 10/10
World premiere: 13 February, 2011, Berlin Film Festival

For many years, Thomas Imbach filmed the city of Zurich from the vantage point of his apartment balcony with an old 35mm camera, capturing over the course of a decade or better footage of people going back and forth in the alley below, the sun moving across the mountains in the distance, and above all footage of a smokestack languorously throwing pillars of white cloud into the sky. He then paired this footage with messages left on his answering machine over the same period of time, from lovers, his parents, his girlfriend/wife (the film doesn't specify), his young son, collaborators, producers, festival executives, friends. The resulting concoction is Day Is Done, billed with a terribly Euro-arty wink as "an autobiographical fiction", and whether we agree with that perhaps too-cutesy assessment, the film is surely one of the most idiosyncratic documentaries of recent vintage.

It's an interesting film, all right, and I don't want to bury that fact; but I can't bring myself to say that it works nearly as well as it might. At the risk of sounding like a complete philistine, the thing is repetitive to the point of tears, for once it has made its aesthetic point, something that has happened within the first 10 minutes, there is virtually no further development of the idea that yes, what we're watching is the unmoving perspective of a man stuck in one place with the same exact smokestack billowing out indistinguishable plumes of smoke as people move in and out of his life and he fails to make the kind of connection to any of them that he'd like.

I will concede at once that the film needs at least some amount of duration to work: a 20-minute version of the film, though it would "mean" the same thing, would not grind us down in quite the same way that the 111-minute version does: Imbach, after all, took 15 years to live through what we experience in under two hours. On the other hand, a 70- or 80-minute version might have worked just as well, and then maybe the first half of the movie wouldn't have been quite so miserably tedious.

But no matter: when the film deigns to get moving, the results are rarely less than captivating and frequently heartbreaking: as we hear, over the course of several messages, Imbach's girlfriend growing frustrated with his constant absence and indifference, moving steadily toward the moment that she leaves him, it's hard not to feel the gnawing that comes from watching a relationship break apart by inches on the director's behalf.

Of course, Day Is Done stacks the deck a bit by focusing almost solely on answering machine messages: by definition, that limits us to the sound of people that Imbach is not talking to, whether because he's out or because he's screening calls (one of the handful of times we hear his voice is when he picks up the phone in the middle of the recording). So it's almost impossible to hear anything other than a disconnect between the invisible man at the center of the piece and the many people that drift through his life. Even the good news, the happy calls, have the tang of melancholy: while it's self-evidently the case that the recordings and the images were edited together, the nature of the movie pushes us to think of the messages playing as Imbach stares out at the unchanging landscape, his perspective married to the camera lens, very alone.

The only break that comes in all of this is the presence of home video footage (easily spotted as it's in a narrower aspect ratio than the rest of the film), positioned as the memories, or perhaps it's better to say the meditations, of the man. I am not persuaded that these interludes serve the film as a whole all that well; the Zurich footage forms its own kind of hypnotic effect after a time, and it's always right after the video sequences that the film's limited aesthetic is most grating. Still, the film's last scene, taking the form of one such meditation, is haunting and perfect. And it can be argued that these moments make concrete what is otherwise abstract in the film, and by showing us the actual people behind the disembodied voices give those voices more of an impact.

Though Day Is Done is objectively an unconventional film, it has its forebears: chiefly, I am reminded of the city symphonies of the 1920s, movies that recorded urban life and buildings and cut them together in a visual poem, along with Derek Jarman's 1993 swan song Blue, in which the dying filmmaker's perspective on life is presented in the form of an elaborate soundscape against an unchanging blue screen. It's the latter film in particular that makes Day Is Done seem weaker in comparison: for if Jarman could make a film with absolutely no variety in its imagery seem so endless and deep, surely Imbach could have figured out how to make his movie, which at least has several different objects to look at in connection with its panoply of voices and sounds, not quite so pokey and aimless in the beginning. But I don't wish to sound like I'm grousing. The film's evocation of character entirely through what other people say to Imbach isn't quite like anything else, and it's worth respecting for that reason alone even though it's hard to warm up to it unreservedly.