The Thing It Makes Happen
By Sarah Fensom

A Little Love Package
Dir. Gastón Solnicki, Argentina/Austria, no distributor

A Little Love Package plays Sunday, March 19 at Museum of the Moving Image's 2023 First Look festival.

A wealthy woman is looking for an apartment in Vienna. That’s the story at the center of A Little Love Package, a quirky, meandering comedy by Gastón Solnicki (Kékszakállú). Angeliki (Angeliki Papoulia) enlists the help of an interior designer friend, Carmen (Carmen Chaplin, Charlie’s granddaughter), and the two women walk side-by-side through the streets of the Austrian capital, in the wood-paneled galleries of its museums, and the empty rooms of its available apartments. They are apt comic foils for one another. Angeliki is somewhat awkward and skittish, her interactions with others strained by a lingering sense of discontent and evasion. Carmen, at ease in her statuesque body and direct in conversation, tries heartily to pin down what Angeliki wants.

It’s through their contrasting personalities that the central, albeit light, conflict arises. Angeliki has rejected a number of apartments for nearly Seinfeldian reasons—one has creaky parquet floors, another has tiles that are the wrong color, a third is too close to a potentially noisy restaurant (“It’s a Japanese restaurant,” Carmen deadpans. “It’s not going to be noisy”). Sitting at a café, after another fruitless search, Carmen lets loose on her friend. She can’t figure out what Angeliki wants and why she never smiles. “Am I wasting my time?” she asks. Angeliki’s reluctance to part with her money and “enjoy life” confounds Carmen. “Who are you going to give the money to? Who are your descendants getting this money? . . . People who don’t want to spend their money have serious issues,” she says. Shots fired. For the remaining two-thirds of the film, we see glimpses of Angeliki spending her money, connecting with other people, and little-by-little, settling into Vienna.

The lion’s share of the film isn’t focused on Angeliki and Carmen but on an unfolding anthology of strangers, neighbors, children, and craftspeople. There’s a cheesemonger sculpting wheels of cheese in a brick basement that looks like a crypt; shoemakers arranging hundreds of wooden shoe molds; and a scientist surrounded by his papers and rare rock specimens in a cluttered office. A group of children bowl with old wooden pins; a teenage boy with dyed blonde hair rolls down a hill in front of a modern-looking hospital; an unnamed girl, chaperoned by Angeliki, plays the piano for a musician who may become her new instructor. Narration by the Mexican writer Mario Bellatin accompanies the audience to the Naturhistorisches Museum; to Andalusia, where Carmen visits her family; and around the streets of Vienna in a vintage white Ferrari, but his voiceover doesn’t necessarily add background information. As in his earlier films, like Kékszakállú, Solnicki works without a script and typically with non-actors (in fact, this is his first film using trained actors—Papoulia and Chaplin). The majority of the film’s minimal dialogue is improvised and highly naturalistic.

The film is bookended by sequences of locals smoking in cafés. The filmmaker shot this footage with a skeleton crew in the Café Weidinger and the Kleines Café in 2019, when he learned an indoor smoking ban would take effect in the city while he was there presenting a short film. The footage captures the waning moments of a certain type of Viennese café culture. Using this footage in A Little Love Package, Solnicki gives it new context. In every city there exists two shifting realities—how things are in the present and how they used to be (the recognition of both distinguishes locals from tourists). A collective, conversational archive forms among those who remember the old ways or the old places. In Solnicki’s film, we see a rare, suspended moment—a memory palace about to be built. Perhaps the most fruitful way to approach the film is as a time capsule. In a 2021 interview, Solnicki described his use of children in A Little Love Package in terms of memory-building, as witnessing or discovering what the world used to be like. “A fire that is still alive.” The film’s title, he says, references the notion of a gift—a totem from the past.

In A Little Love Package, Vienna is beautiful and historic and weird. Solnicki’s web of random, unidentified characters certainly contributes to an overall sense of the city’s drifting strangeness, but its interiors, its streets feel alive even without the presence of people. Solnicki, who made his 2018 documentary Introduzione AllOscuro in Vienna as well, captures the city with awe—a foreigner from Argentina, he seems to be trying to understand it more deeply as he films. What’s more, the apartment search plot provides an ideal opportunity for cinematographer Rui Poças (the director’s frequent collaborator) to probe the mysterious corners Solnicki seems intent on peering around.

Solnicki shot the majority of A Little Love Package in 2020 during the pandemic. There’s a palpable emptiness and silence in the city that affects its scale—it seems to grow and shrink throughout the film. “I had heard someone say that Vienna combined the splendor of a capital and the familiarity of a village,” Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote in A Time of Gifts (1977), recalling a period in the city in the early 1930s. “There were squares as small and complete and as carefully furnished as rooms.” It’s striking how similar Fermor’s prewar Vienna is to Solnicki’s mid-pandemic Vienna: everywhere there is both intimacy and grandeur.

Amidst this beautiful and mysterious backdrop, sequences occur at random without explanation and don’t always add up to a broader narrative. But much of A Little Love Package’s strength lies in the fact that very little happens and even less seems to connote meaning in the way we’re used to in cinema. The poet Wayne Koestenbaum said that “poetry making nothing happen is the thing it makes happen.” Similarly, as the film delights in the strangeness and humor of existence in this very particular place, it achieves a sense of poetry—a middle ground between happening and not happening, meaning and meaninglessness.