A Wonderful Cloud was waiting in my mailbox when I arrived home from a Halloween party on Friday night, along with a request, with an impossible deadline, to write something about it, so I decided to watch it immediately to see if it was my cup of tea. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had been drinking only tea at the party, so I sat down expectantly in front of the computer, forgetting that I was still in full “Vulcan clown” costume, and watched the movie. An hour and a half later, my head spinning with “What did I just see?” wonder, I stumbled to the bathroom, startled by the hideous visage that met me there in the filthy mirror, and for a moment thought I had been transported to “Present Day Los Angeles, California.”
All the best movies do that to you. A Wonderful Cloud, written and directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko, invites you to come along on an intimate journey with Eugene (played by Kotlyarenko) and his ex, Katelyn (played by Kate Lyn Sheil), who is visiting him in Los Angeles. We quickly find out that besides a slightly uncomfortable reunion, there is business to take care of; as a couple, they were partners in a small clothing company, which Katelyn wants him to sign over to her. Not quite as complex as divorcing with children involved, but complicated nonetheless, as it soon becomes evident that they each still have feelings for each other — though those feelings are everything from sexual, to resentment, to revulsion, to that feeling no one’s named yet. Most of us have been in a similar situation, meeting up with an ex (unless you are someone whose relationships have ended with restraining orders) — that weird zone of remembered intimacy mixed with oversensitivity; a kind of uncomfortable comfortableness.
Their reunion is filled with tension. Eugene tries to hide the importance of the event behind his constant joking, goofy-guy humor, but rehearses their meeting on his way to the airport, desperate to make a good first impression. The importance of first impressions is a theme running through the movie, along with the question of whether a second impression is even possible. While a lot of Eugene’s desires and anxieties are verbalized, it is much harder to read Katelyn, who is holding something more complex within herself. The two seem to fall into a kind of half-aggressive familiarity that comes with a shared history. Katelyn is constantly challenging, and Eugene is constantly pushing the boundaries of what she will put up with from him. An activity as simple as buying dinner from Eugene’s favorite burrito place is infused with tension and a sense of foreboding.
A Wonderful Cloud starts with cellphone video footage of much younger versions of Eugene and Katelyn, which asks you to consider the possibility that the actors were a real-life couple and now they are playing a version of themselves. Because of this immediacy, along with the improvisational acting style, you can’t help creating your own imagined backstory of the characters and the actors alike. I imagine them as a couple in New York, Kate Lyn Sheil an actress and Eugene Kotlyarenko making his first films, until a bad breakup encourages Eugene to escape to Los Angeles. After some success there, he hatches this plot to get them back together. Kate Lyn, despite having some serious qualms, agrees to do it, and they become characters, replacing the film world with the fashion world.
I’m not saying this is how it all went down; I don’t know. But that possibility creates an emotional depth all the more fascinating when played out amidst a lineup of bizarre secondary characters and disastrous, hilarious social situations. While we are laughing, we might notice that though Katelyn and Eugene still have feelings for each other, Katelyn can’t help revisiting what she didn’t like about Eugene, and Eugene can’t come to terms with the resentment he’s been holding onto. As funny as it all is, there is a melancholy seriousness underneath, visible for those who are looking.
For me, the movie took on an even more improbable resonance because some years ago I attempted to make a movie about a failed relationship, titled: Wonderland. The idea came while getting over a difficult breakup, and the plan was to dramatize a series of fictional relationships (potentially as many as a dozen) by only showing three similar scenes from each one. First, the two lovers are in bed, having an uncomfortable conversation after first sleeping together. Then, an extended close-up of the woman, sometime later, maybe doing nothing, but alone with her thoughts. Finally, the long, difficult conversion about the decision to break up. I don’t know how I was going to arrange and edit these scenes, or if it would have been a movie or a video installation, but I finally abandoned the project after the painful experience of watching the footage.
The women were actresses, musicians, artists, next-door neighbors, and all lovely and compelling. What became the problem, for me, was that I was playing the man in each of these scenes, and while it’s generally uncomfortable for me to see myself on screen, this was like watching a time-lapse science film of a developing, infected pimple; unbearable for me to witness. Maybe it was just vanity getting in the way, or maybe it was not wanting to be face to face with myself: neither my ugly mug nor my ugly inner self.
One thing I felt about A Wonderful Cloud: better him than me. To his credit, Kotlyarenko courageously displays the raw side of his personality; his breezy goofiness never hides his disappointment and sadness for very long. Whether, to you, the movie is a mirror or a peephole — and it ultimately doesn’t try to tell you anything, but allows you take from it what you will — it is most certainly a sad song, and a beautiful yet ugly — ugly and beautiful — poem.