Too Obvious an Allegory
A rain of festival awards and unanimously enthusiastic opinions greeted the film Drumaniada by S.Ovcharov practically from the first days of its release. “A unique contribution to the development of Russian cinema”, “faithful to the theme of love for life” – those were some phrases praising the picture. My voice, I’m afraid, will be omitted from the chorus. Drumaniada seems to me the weak work of a talented director.
Previous fantasies by Ovcharov – Clumsy (1979), Flight of Fancy (1983), Left-hander (1986) and his version of Saltykov-Schedrin’s The Story of the One Town under the title The It (1989) – were created in an atmosphere of strict censorship that began to weaken and die only at the end of the ‘80s. Using the traditions of Russian folklore and comedy tricks from the great silent films, Ovcharov created a world built on eccentric allegory. I can’t say that director openly presented puzzles and symbols to his viewers, but the satirical sharpness of his films (The It especially) probably was read by every attentive admirer of the tenth muse.
In contrast, unnecessarily straightforward, newspaper-style satire can be felt in Drumaniada in spite of its allegorical plot. The premise itself is interesting: to make a one and a half-hour parable – about the misadventures of a funeral orchestra’s drummer who inherits an enchanted drum labeled “Stradivarius” with which he travel around Russia – without the characters speaking a single word.
But… again there’s a captious “but”… the story of this poor wretch is good enough for a short film only. Forty minutes into the picture one feels the exhaustion of the method, as one monotonous episode follows another. Even a scene in which the wonderful drum turns into a TV set for several minutes is just boring. And the climactic sequence of the visit of foreign homeless people to Russia, taking place in a town’s rubbish heap, is rather crudely made, and the actors’ performances are inexpressive.
An image of this country as a rubbish heap populated by homeless beggars has become the Russian media’s most widespread cliché. The film’s other symbols are equally straightforward and shallow. The signing of treaties for collaboration between Russian and foreign beggars won’t impress anybody as a satirically courageous fantasy. And there are a great number of such scenes. The behavior of the main character – the sad clown, a pale reflection of Baster Keaton – and the development of early episodes become too predictable. The only good thing about Drumaniada is the music on the soundtrack: Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler – this is forever!
Ivanov after Godard
For his directorial debut in feature cinema, E.Ivanov chose an ambitious project requiring a subtle stylistic gift: anew version of Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant 1959 `A Bout de souffle(Breathless) . Ivanov’s film is called Nicotine, and its action takes place not in Paris at the end of ‘50s, but in Petersburg of ‘90s. On the whole, the plot’s lines – and even several details of the characters’ dress – are retained. But something like the fantasies of Leos Carax and Jean-Jacques Beinex breaks the style of the “new wave” at times. In general, this film is close to the classical understanding of the word “remake” without parody, admixtures or eccentric pranks.
It’s a pity that Ivanov insistently demands we pay attention to his source, the legendary Godard’s debut with Belmondo and Seberg in the leading roles. He does this by making the characters attend a lecture by cinema critic and director O.Kovalov, who introduces the film `A Bout de souffle to Petersburg’s movie fans; and he also restages one of Godard’s press conferences with the help of a double.
This persistence is worthy of a better application for two reasons. First, viewers who know the creative work of Godard very well, or who at least saw `A Bout de souffle? Guess the family tree several minutes into Nicotine without any oral prompts. Secondly, viewers who don’t know who Godard is will be helped neither by lecture episodes nor by stills of his old masterpiece to perceive Nicotine as a remake: the visual associations, cutting and plot parallels remain “unreadable”.
Yet Ivanov’s biggest mistake, it seems to me, is in the unfortunate choice of actors who very much let him down. It’s hard to suppose, certainly, that a young director might his the target and find Russian performers whose scale of personality and charm would live up to Belmondo’s and Seberg’s But having cast actors deprived of not only inward charm also attractive appearance, Ivanov had to use them as visual effects, simply opportunities to underline – in strange, long passages of light and shade – the black and white style of the film.
The emotional influence `A Bout de souffle? In which the reckless Michel, having accidentally killed a cop, tried to fight his fate till the tragic realization of the exhaustion of his life, is left below the surface by the director of Nicotine.
That is why, to my mind, this is not a warm declaration of love to the French “new wave” but the fruit of cold, professional calculation.
To Believe the Prophecy for a Moment…
The film of E.Riazanov get sadder form year to year. The Prophecy is perhaps his most sorrowful. It even has a gloomy outset: a famous writer (O.Basilashvili) learns from a Gypsy fortune-teller that only a day is left for him to live and he is to meet with an unexpected man.
In that mystical tone a young man (A.Sokolov) with the same name and same temple scar appears in the writer’s flat. Who is this mysterious double – phantom or guardian angel? The answer remains open throughout the film.
So the time of summing-up comes for the tired writer, shaken by life. He is well-to-do in Russian terms: he has an apartment in the center of Moscow, a car and video camera, and his books are published in Paris. But, characteristically for a man living in a country of endless admonitions, distress his look reveals the effect of freedom’s absence. And it’s not because of the peculiarities of his biography (his father perished during the repressions, his mother is Jewish – which he couldn’t mention for a long time – and his wife died in a car accident). The brand of unfreedom is stamped on practically everybody in Russia, except those under 20.
In that regard, the choice of actress for the leading female role was perfect: French star Irene Jacob Though her character is just a modest cashier in a bank, she can be at once distinguished from the surrounding Russian fuss by her uncommon expression. She becomes a fairy princess and, probably, the writer’s last love… for this princess is colored by the shade of nostalgia for unrealized dreams.
In contrast with Riazanov’s previous works (Dear Elena Sergeevna, etc.), there is little topical populism – although the conclusion is connected with one of the most widespread script devices in Russia today (escaping from Mafia pursuit, the hero tries to leave for Israel). Sensitive to his audiences’ mood, Riazanov couldn’t but feel that a mass interest in cinematic political investigations and revelations has almost disappeared, while the need for melodramatic love stories is great.
Actually, The Prophecy, can’t be called melodrama. There are comedy episodes (a visiting fanatic suggests that the writer burn himself in Red Square as protest against something – it’s not important against something – it’s not important against what, the main thing is to perform the action), and there are elements of a parable. I don’t find such a genre alloy organic and convincing. This seems to be the director’s attempt to get a second wind.