Post by Anna Fomicheva
#4 Valentina Ivanovna Sviridova from Brief Encounters (“Короткие встречи”, 1967)
Kira Muratova, the director and the lead actor of Brief Encounters, is a good example of why I study Russian cinema and believe in its promotion beyond Russia’s borders. Now an acknowledged master, a living legend, she was not very well known during the Soviet period due to her admirable stubborness and purposefulness in making films that she wanted to make, regardless of what the Soviet censorship demanded. Naturally, that meant that her films (and there weren’t many at the time) were made with great difficulty and were very badly distributed, if at all.
Brief Encounters, her debut solo film (she had previously co-directed two minor movies with her first husband, Aleksandr Muratov), is no exception. The film struggled with censorship at every possible stage, from writing to production to editing, and it is quite remarkable that it was completed at all and even shown in about three cinemas before being shelved. With all this censorship trouble you’d be forgiven for thinking that Brief Encounters contains some kind of ruthless critique of the Soviet state, but things are a bit more subtle and complicated here, as is the case with all truly great art.
Muratova’s character Valentina is a mid-level bureaucrat in a provincial town, and the film shows the fuitily of her work and effort, despite her best intentions. However, this kind of soft critique of the functionings of Soviet institutions was not uncommon in Russian cinema and television of the time (see the satirical TV-journal Fuse (“Фитиль”, 1962-2008) or the rather decent 1976 flm Bonus (“Премия”)), as the fight with bureaucracy was always encouraged, at least in theory. So what was it about this film that rubbed the censors the wrong way?
Here’s how Muratova describes the film herself in a 1997 interview: “So I wanted to make a story about a young decisive woman who is in charge of all the water in the city, and yet there is never any water. And absolutely nothing in her life is going right: a man comes and goes… and he also has his own life. And there’s a girl who’s in love with him, and nothing works out for them…”
The film is indeed saturated with melancholy, but this melancholy is of course not reducable to the bureacracy of Soviet institutions. It is melancholy of the existential kind that stems from people’s inabilty to connect, to stay, to settle. Life consits of brief encounters that promise a lot but do not lead anywhere.
The plot of the film is this: Valentina meets Maksim, who is played by Vladimir Vysotsky (a singer-songwriter as well as an actor, and possibly the most cult figure of the late Soviet period) with whom she starts a romantic relationship. He is a geologist, a profession that was hugely romanticised in the 1960’s, and has to regularly travel for expeditions. He is a free spirit, a romantic with a guitar, and cannot be “tamed”. After he announces this latter point to Valentina she breaks off with him, and he goes away. But Maksim soon meets a young village girl, Nadya, marvellously played by another outstanding Russian actor, Nina Ruslanova, in her debut role. She is completely taken by him, and they have an affair (of which in the final cut there is only a suggestion – Soviet censors would have none of it) before he leaves again. When lovelorn Nadya abandons her village to find him, she follows the address he left behind and turns up on the doorstep of Valentina’s house. Valentina takes Nadya for a new housekeeper and Nadya goes along with that, despite realising the nature of Maksim and Valentina’s relationship. Later, Valentina receives a birthday message from Maksim in which he expresses a desire to rekindle their relationship, and announces his impending but brief return. Valentina will be away on a conference during this period, but does not have the chance to inform him. On the day of Maksim’s return Nadya sets up the dinner table for two, puts on her boots, grabs her suitcase, steals an orange and leaves to the delightful music of composer Oleg Karavaichuk. The end.
The wonderfully clever and understated melancholy that permeates the film could have been too subtle for the Soviet censors, who saw Brief Encounters as pointless, not overtly optimistic, and lacking in character development. The other problem, of course, would have been the film’s structure. The linear narrative I have just described above is nowehere to be seen in the film, which consists of a series of flashbacks, most of which present a brief human encounter.
In her superb essay on the film (which can be found in this collection) Susan Larsen convincingly argues that before the appearence of Laura Mulvey’s influential 1975 article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (which suggests that traditional cinematic structure reinforces the dominant cultural dynamic in which woman is a spectacle to be looked at, a ‘passive raw material for the active gaze of man’), and “decades before the emergence of anything resembling feminist thought in the former Soviet Union, Muratova structured Brief Encounters in ways that disrupt the viewer’s ability to identify with the male gaze at every level of the film’s structure, which repeatedly locates the origin of the on-screen gaze within the memories of her two female characters.”
This female gaze and the general viewpoint which dominates Brief Encounters (as well as Muratova’s most other movies) gives it not only an exhilaratingly refreshing feel, but also means that it is completely devoid of visual and behavioral stereotypes of women. And what I love most about women in this film is that even in the moments of the most piercing melancholy their inner selves, their strength to forgive their unforgiving and disappointing everyday existence always shines through.
It is the playful way in which Nadya puts her boots on in the final scene of the movie and then takes an orange from a sunlit bowl. And the way Valentina rehearses her conference speech in the first moments of the film, as if trying to break through the dryness of the bureaucratic style with her own langauge: “Comrades! My dear dear comrades…”
#3 Olga Vasilyeva from Mothers and Daughters (“Дочки-матери”, 1974)
This is the second appearence of Sergey Gerasimov on this list. Mothers and Daughters is a late and relativeley little-known work of this longevous master (his directorial career spans seven decades, 1929-1984), but possibly my favourite of his.
The film is a very gentle and bittersweet look at the huge cultural gap and social disparities between those two traditional categories of Russian society – narod (‘the people’, ‘the common folk’) and the intelligentsia. The implicit and not always conscious exploration of class issues (and let’s face it, this is what that division is) permeates an enourmous amount of Russian art and cinema, especially during the late period of the Soviet empire, when Russian society was meant to be classless in theory but was far from it in practice. Mothers and Daughters deals with it in a more direct way. (It is not the only film to do so, however: see 1980’s The Old New Year for a surprisingly honest and unflinching example of such exploration).
Olga Vasilyeva, the film’s protagonist, leaves Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), where she was brought up in a children’s home, for Moscow in order to find her biological mother. The only thing to guide her is an old letter, containing her mother’s name.
In the opening moments of the film we get a static shot of a noticeably affluent Moscow flat, and see family interactions between an erratic academic (played by the great Innokenty Smoktunovsky) who has lost an important paper, his ballet teacher wife (played by Gerasimov’s own spouse Tamara Makarova) who tries to calm him down, and their two entirely self-focused teenage daughters. The doorbell rings. One of the daughters opens it and there stands Olga, in her ushanka clutching presents she brought from Ural. She says she is here to see Yelena Vasilyeva. The daughter apathetically and not very loudly shouts ‘Mom!’ and disappears from view. Moments later Olga is still standing in the doorway waiting. Eventually another daughter appears and notices Olga. Just as apathetically as her sister she informs her mother, who is still nowhere to be seen, that somebody is there to see her…
Thus begins the story of the clash of different worlds and worldviews, cultures and modes of behaviour. Olga thinks that Yelena Vasilyeva is her mother. Yelena Vasilyeva knows it couldn’t be so, but feels for the young girl and invites her to stay in the appartment with her family. She also offers help with the search.
Olga is the perfect Soviet child, brought up in the collective by the collective, a diligent worker and participant in the everyday Soviet officialdom, and she has no experience of family life and dynamics. Her honesty, directness and, of course, naivety cause plenty of awkwardness and embarrassment to her host family. The Vasilievs, in turn, are the perfect Moscow intelligenty, with their Aesopian speak and nostalgia for the days when culture was great. One of the interesting things that the film gives us a glimpse into is the high social and (often) economic status that the intelligenstia occupied in the late-Soviet period. Despite Olga’s perfect Soviet conformity and background she quite clearly feels socially inferior to the Vasilyevs, whose decision to take her in feels like an act of benevolence and even charity.
But with the high social status come certain vices, which the film highlights. Gerasimov, whilst belonging to the intelligentsia class himself, criticises it for being indifferent, self-serving, closed-minded, and sometimes even cruel (evident in the treatment of Olga by the teenage Vasilyev sisters) to the representatives of narod.
It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that this is the prime focus of the film or that it has a moralistic tone. The interactions between Olga and the Vasilyev family are never just negative, and both sides are enriched in various subtle ways by the mutual interactions. But most importantly, Gerasimov never lets us forget that at the centre of it is a human story, and the life-changing experiences of a young girl, poignantly played by Lyubov’ Polekhina. In the end Olga leaves Moscow without finding her mother. In fact, it is suggested that she gives up the search in the fear that her real mother and her real roots will not live up to the world she found in that Moscow flat.
She travels back to Sverdlovsk and the way that Gerasimov chooses to show us her post-Moscow life there is some of the most heart-breaking cinema I have ever seen, and it is the subtlety of the choices that does it for me. The most poignant moment comes when Olga enters a huge hall, decorated with all the appropriate official Soviet propaganda, and we, the viewers, can almost physically feel the coldness of the space. In a firm, resonant and echoing voice (which confirms the impersonal and unkind nature of the space she is in) she reads out a celebratory poem full of generic Soviet cliches. And as the camera focuses on Olga’s face, the contrast between the joyous tone of the poem, the forcefulness of her delivery and the sadness in her eyes is almost too much to bear.