Samuel’s Travels (aka Squeal) opens with a confusion of signals. The credits handwritten on parchment in inked calligraphy, and the jaunty grace of the accompanying Minuet from Handel’s Water Music Suite No.1 in F Major, combine to suggest a couple’s choreography, told in a classical, literary mode – which is not an unfair description of what will eventually follow. The title, too, promises something akin to an old-world Swiftian satire. Yet the opening image, over which the title has been writtten in its elaborate cursive script, is of an airplane flying across the sky, as viewed through trees below, revealing unexpectedly that the film’s events are unfolding within, or at least on the margins of, modernity, even if the remote rural Latvian location will prove to be as backwards as it is is backwoods.
Even more surprisingly, the ground-level witness to this passing plane will turn out to be a recently escaped piglet, getting its first glimpse of freedom as it perhaps dreams that even pigs may fly. If this immediately has viewers thinking of Chris Noonan’s Babe (1995), writer/director Aik Karapetian (The Man in the Orange Jacket, 2014) seems to encourage this suspicion by having not just an omniscient narrator (Uldis Verners Brūns) to tell his farm-set tale, but one who speaks in a decidedly Australian accent.
The narrator’s first words – “It’s better to die, exhausted in freedom, from starvation than to be satiated in slavery” – are to be the film’s principal crux, and the dilemma with which it will eventually end. For the film’s human hero Samuel (Kevin Janssens) might appear, at least at first, to be free, as we see him driving on the open road, unencumbered by any erotic attachments or family connections. Yet he seems uncomfortable in that freedom – which, as the narrator points out, Samuel calls his “loneliness”. Lost both literally and metaphorically, he is “in a country that he had never heard of, to find his father who he had never seen before” – in search of roots, or of anything to tie him down. En route, he accidentally hits the piglet with his car, an encounter which will in turn bring him into collision with the piglet’s owner Kirke (Laura Silina). Sizing Samuel up and down with the eyes of a professional, Kirke decides that she would like to keep this stranger – and so, helped by her invalid father Gustavs (Aigars Vilims) and the jealous handyman Jančuks (Normunds Griestinš), she chains Samuel up naked in the pigpen where, after being beaten into submission, he is put to work.
Stripped down to nothing and treated like an animal, Samuel longs – like the piglet – to escape this “boring, filthy, beast-like life”. Yet it is not just the chains that will hold him there, but his new-found sense of belonging to a household where for once he has a place. This includes a close dependency on Kirke, who alone can speak English – for the otherwise linguistically isolated Samuel finds it easier to communicate with the pigs than with the other farmers. Yet even as he proves an asset around the farm, and is rewarded with a longer leash, Samuel nonetheless seems conflicted in any desire to regain his freedom, as though serving Kirke might in fact be all the fulfilment that he has really ever needed or wanted.
Accordingly, Karapetian’s farmyard fairytale offers an odd kind of romance – cruel, brutal and based in captivity. For, like Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (1964), Ate de Jong’s Deadly Virtues (2014), Carles Torrens’ Pet (2016), Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing (2018) and Jens Dahl’s Breeder (2020), it allegorises the give-and-take power dynamics that can exist in any relationship, all through the language of barnyard bondage where the voluntary servitude of hard work and animal husbandry represents a form of happiness, if not liberty, to tame the beast in man. Playing out tropes familiar from ‘torture porn’, while inverting the usual gender dynamics of that subgenre, Samuel’s Travels is an absurdist fable of freedom and slavery, with a BDSM kink in its porcine tail. It is charming and sweet – peculiarly so given its protagonist’s plight – and enjoyable precisely for the confusion of categories that makes tying down its meaning so hard.
strap: Aik Karapetian’s absurdist fable follows a stranger seeking freedom and attachment in barnyard bondage
© Anton Bitel