Sergei Potemkin: Sunless City (Gorod bez solntsa), 2005

reviewed by Daniel H. Wild© 2006

A film that takes as its central plot premise the bane of drug addiction invites inevitable comparisons to the touchstones of the drug-film genre such as Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, UK 1995), Christiane F. (Uli Edel, Germany 1981), or Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, USA 2000). For Sergei Potemkin’s promising but flawed feature-film debut Sunless City, however, these comparisons are beside the point because Sunless City seems to have been made either without any conscious awareness of these films at all or as a means to expurgate their importance by deliberately withholding any cinematic registers of reference. Unlike Aronofsky’s profound meditation on the nature of addiction or Boyle’s subversive celebration of the anarchic and transgressive pleasures of heroin use, Potemkin’s film offers aid and comfort to advocates of public health. Ironically in this respect, the film’s structure is most closely aligned with Christiane F., since both films are dedicated to demonstrating how a particular urban environment is dangerously detrimental to a young girl who will ultimately find the promise of salvation only by transcending the city’s entrapments in favor of the purity of the countryside. But this is not 1970s Berlin and we are not dealing with drug-addled youngsters that make up the social detritus willingly accepted by the brutality of capitalism―once one of the major tropes of populist Soviet critiques of the West. Rather, this is contemporary St. Petersburg.

The girl in question is Lucy, as in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Lucy is a free-spirited actress and artist who flouts conformity as evidenced by the fact that she wears funky clothes and sticks her head out car windows to let the breeze run through her red-dyed hair. By accident Lucy runs into Egor’s car one day and he feels obliged to give her a lift. In contrast to Lucy, Egor is a by-the-book engineer who works in a tobacco factory, wears neatly pressed shirts with matching ties, does not smoke for health reasons, and drives a German import car which attests to his modest but legitimate business success. Despite their obvious differences, Egor is open-minded and curious, so he is invited by Lucy to her circle of artist friends in the bohemian part of the city. There he encounters Alex, Lucy’s brother, whose jittery, shifty manners and forced sarcasm are fueled by joints that mask his fear of ennui and lack of purpose. Egor’s presence prompts animated discussions and proclamations on the necessity of art, the role of artists in general, and on what their freedom means. But even though Egor is sympathetic to their plight, he disapproves of their indulgences. Lucy and Egor attend an important performance piece by Alex and they are drawn more and more to each other, she perhaps by his steadfast calm and he by her fearless charm. Their mutual attraction and budding love promises to bring out the best in both of them until one morning Egor awakens next to Lucy and notices needle track marks on her arm.

At this point their relationship abruptly shifts into a completely different dynamic, characterized by Egor’s selfless attempts to help Lucy overcome the grip of her drug addiction, which began, as she tells him, when she had “nothing to lose” and continued because it made her life “easier.” In this struggle he is joined by Semen, an avuncular children’s theater director, who sees in Lucy’s promising talent as an actress a gift that she is willing to abandon in her desperate need for drugs. Both men try to help Lucy according to the best of their abilities. Semen hopes to show her how her life would have a purpose and meaning in the theatre and Egor dedicates himself completely to the care of Lucy who becomes increasingly infantilized by her condition. Meanwhile, Alex, who is also addicted to drugs, learns that he has AIDS and plans to use his impending death as a final performance piece by recording the stages of his debilitation in photographs of his face. “No one has the right to force me to live,” Alex announces deliriously. The inevitable and seemingly inescapable path that Alex and Lucy have chosen is punctuated only by the search for the next dose and the physical agonies of the symptoms of withdrawal.

All of Egor’s heroic attempts to help Lucy prove futile and one night during the white nights celebrations he drinks himself into a stupor and dances spastically, while Lucy wanders the streets jonesing, having abandoned her obligations to appear on the theater stage. A trip to the countryside offers relief to both Egor and Lucy, who reveals that her real name is Liudmilla to an old monk they encounter in a church. The monk imparts sage advice and tells them that angels only come to children because they fear adults. This prompts Lucy to realize the importance of her work for children and she recounts the moral lesson Semen sees in the play they are staging together: “The inability to kill someone is already an achievement.” Back in the “sunless city,” however, she resorts back to her old ways until Egor even offers to inject himself with drugs so that they will no longer be separated. But Lucy is too ravaged to recognize this desperate gesture of sacrifice and storms out onto the streets again. A succession of photographs reveals that Alex has died, while Semen’s children’s theater is closed so that it can be converted into a casino. Semen tells Egor of his dreams to leave the city and to go on the road with a traveling theater. After a long search, Egor finds Lucy overdosed in her brother’s apartment and takes her to a hospital. There a doctor gives him the diagnosis that Lucy will never be cured of her addiction but that “there is always hope.” Egor quits his position at the factory and trades his car in for a van. Semen and Egor visit Lucy in the hospital, but when she opens the blinds on her window, the walls fall down and she finds that her hospital room has merged with a theater stage. Elated, Lucy joins the performance in progress and smiles when she sees a clean and healthy Alex, who quietly nods his approval as he sits by himself in the space of the audience. In Egor’s new van, the theater troupe leaves the city and they drive into the countryside with a church visible in the distance.

This final transition, tinged with the sentiments of magical realism as a means to escape the confinements of the narrative, is not necessarily surprising, given the film’s adamant refusal to treat drugs as anything but symptomatic and, therefore, by extension as symbolic. At no point does the film provide an actual moment of doubt or weakness, which would indicate the power of the temptation or even the pleasure that drugs might convey. Here drugs are the ritual that provides the empty condition of existence with a semblance of reason, and there is no discernable difference between a needle injection into your veins or a joint held in the cup of your hand. The level of symbolic abstraction is such that the film even refuses to grant any specific names to the multitude of drugs that are presented. The characters might speak obliquely of the next “dose,” but otherwise drugs remain purely that which must not be named, but which nonetheless inevitably structures their entire mode of being. In this respect, drugs for this film are not a concrete issue but rather the symptom of a larger question around the redemptive value of art. The film asserts that the fundamental mistake that entraps both Lucy and Alex is their solipsistic and misguided notion that art can flourish in the absence of reason or without a sense of its larger social purpose, since this allows them to abandon the sanctity of their physical existence and turn the devastation of their own bodies into a declaration of autonomy.

Alex, whose performance art consists of offering his own body up for consumption, at first metaphorically but later literally, is chided that he only imagines he is destroying the “society of the spectacle” when, in fact, he merely manages to “tickle its nerves by offering knick-knacks for tourists.” Semen urges Lucy to understand the special status of the role of the clown, who is allowed to “laugh when he wants to cry,” whereas others in the same predicament would be sent to the madhouse. Such proclamations befit the humorless didacticism that characterizes the film and help explain the peculiar anachronistic debate that is staged here around two important artistic figures of 20th century Leningrad. While Alex is associated with a left-bank sentiment of bohemian decadence and he invokes the arcane formal abstractions of Osip Mandel'shtam in his performance art that is ultimately merely self-indulgent, Semen is an adherent of Daniil Kharms, whose grotesque and satirical vignettes are nonetheless easily accessible and intelligible to children. By the time the monk in the church affirms the superiority of Semen’s position, the film has already spent considerable efforts to spell this out, both through the dialogue and on a visual level.

This is unfortunate, because there is a strong sense of visual acuity and originality in Potemkin’s work―a few shots on the rooftops of Piter, not Paris, and a few too many images of caged birds notwithstanding. Vast, panoramic, and extreme long shots of St. Petersburg show the city as an oppressive but beautiful open space, in which the individual becomes lost in the crowds and the white nights offer only bluish-dark hues of a cold light with no warmth. In these moments the film occasionally comes close to another, more sophisticated and bitter portrait of urban emptiness, Aleksandr Zel'dovich’s Moscow (2000). In this film’s urban state of mind, St. Petersburg is now a city of precious few heroes, but Egor and Semen do their best to live a life of humble decency in a city that has lost its moral compass. This kind of dichotomy is underscored by the brilliant production and costume design, which leaves no doubt about the protagonists’ characteristics, down to the fact that the walls of Egor’s apartment are adorned with tasteful Impressionist art and paintings of flowers and his pressed shirts are tucked away neatly in shelves underneath an aquarium, while Alex dresses in flamboyant shirts with Chinese characters on them and covers his windows with gloomy photographs of the city. Ultimately, however, this determined reliance on predictable modes of symbolism ends up inverting the film’s promise in the tagline with which it is currently making the film festival rounds, namely that it is “an idealistic tragedy about love defeating death.” Without a notion of what the human price must be that is exacted from such a defeat, the film remains only a fable on the virtues of sobriety.

Daniel H. Wild (University of Pittsburgh)

Sunless City, Russia, 2005
Color, 101 minutes
Directed: Sergei Potemkin.
Screenplay: Igor' Gertsev and Sergei Potemkin
Cinematography: Sergei Iurizditskii
Edited: Leda Semenova.
Production Design and Costumes: Olga Rostrosta
Music: Sergei Shchurakov
Cast: Iuliia Mavrina, Maksim Averin, Sergei Bezrukov, Semen Furman, Nikolai Trofimov, Iuliia Kamanina, Kirill Korolev.
Producer: Vitalii Potemkin
Production: Kino Plus, with financial support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Sergei Potemkin: Sunless City (Gorod bez solntsa), 2005

reviewed by Daniel H. Wild© 2006

Updated: 14 Jan 06