Katia Shagalova: Pavlov’s Dog (Sobaka Pavlova, 2005)

reviewed by Michelle Kuhn© 2006

Pavlov’s Dog won the award for best debut at the 2005 Vyborg Film Festival and Best Film at the 2005 Stalker Festival in Moscow. Director Katia Shagalova, daughter of famous screenwriter Aleksandr Mindadze, adapted the screenplay for the film from her own play. Aleksei Uchitel' not only produced the film, but served as its artistic director.

Critics have pointed out that Pavlov’s Dog belongs to a long series of films dealing with the theme of insanity and the insane asylum―One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, USA, 1975), Girl Interrupted (James Mangold, Germany and USA, 1999). The 2005 Pittsburgh Russian Film Symposium, “The Yellow House of Cinema,” highlighted films treating this very topic in a Russian context. The films discussed there often shared several core thematic concerns related to madness, and these same concerns are manifest in Shagalova’s film as well: the oppositions of insider—outsider, sane—insane, freedom—captivity, and kindness—cruelty; insanity as a “normal” condition of life, and the family as both a biologically-determined and a constructed category. Since films about insanity are so numerous, viewers can easily recollect and even sometimes anticipate the ways in which these categories overlap in various configurations in film. The element that distinguishes Pavlov’s Dog is a thematic emphasis on the Soviet notion of reform and education through labor, and this idea becomes an organizing principle of life for the film’s characters and of the film’s structure.

The film is part melodrama and part tale of maturation. Two young, delinquent patients, Ksiusha and Maksim, avoid the collective labor in which patients must participate and otherwise break the daily schedule in order to have sex and, in Ksiusha’s case, get drunk. They are young lovers whose relationship is impeded by the restrictions of hospital life. A member of the staff or a resident inevitably appears, disturbing the couple’s much sought-after isolation. Ksuisha talks back to hospital personnel, instigates fits in the other patients, and sneaks off hospital grounds in order to earn vodka from some local men in exchange for a strip tease. Svetlana Sergeevna, a staff member and mother of another patient, Vova, at first claims that Ksiusha is a bad seed, provoking others and dragging them into the trouble she creates, and later is herself provoked to the point of physical violence, compromising her professional position. Ksiusha exploits her status as an inmate, as someone who is not expected to care about or abide by the laws of common decency. The film eventually discloses that the director of the hospital is a former lover of Ksiusha’s father lover, a potential clue as to why Ksiusha never sees consequences for her actions. Though the director, Larisa Ivanovna, never punishes Ksiusha, neither her allowances nor her personal connection render her exempt from Ksiusha’s wrath. In fact, Ksiusha behaves without the least respect for authority in general, including that of her father. She is a true loner and outsider to social order.

The character most instrumental in eventually transforming Ksiusha from the careless and nasty girl at the beginning of the film to the helpful, kind, and obedient patient at the film’s end is Iakob Il'ich Makarenko. Like the Makarenko from whom he borrows his name, Iakob Il'ich is a people’s hero and educator. He also happens to be paranoid, apparently suffering from Post Traumatic Stress after being poisoned in childhood by a classmate, who coincidentally turns out to be Ksiusha’s father, Kolia. This character also bears a strong physical resemblance to the trolley driver who appears during both the opening and closing shots of the film, a slightly odd aberration left open to interpretation. The establishing shots depict a trolley pulling into a station and driver-Makarenko jumping onto the platform and arguing with an off-screen voice about his need for a potty break. The film’s closing shots show the same driver―whom the viewer unmistakably recognizes by this point as the hospital’s Makarenko―intercut with shots of Ksiusha and Maksim, who are off grounds on the asylum’s holiday, “The Day of Open Gates,”chasing after the trolley, apparently also having recognized their fellow patient. Any interpretation of this framing device involves the themes of labor and insider—outsider/sane—insane relations, but it is ultimately left unresolved in the film.

One of the most unusual facets of the film is the doctor-patient relationship. Though the film incorporates both doctors and patients and deals with the theme of insanity, it never shows patients being treated. There are no couch sessions, sedations, or electroshock treatments. The closest thing to treatment depicted is the scene in which Svetlana Sergeevna gathers the patients together to organize them into teams for cleaning the hospital grounds―that is, labor therapy. If anything, doctors are incompetent in counseling the patients. Svetlana Sergeevna loses patience with Ksiusha and head doctor Larisa Ivanovna is helpless in preventing or stopping Maksim’s convulsive fits. Rather than seek therapy from the hospital’s staff, patients treat each other through something superficially resembling cognitive therapy. Maksim explains to Iakob Il'ich that he must end his paranoid fantasies and talks him through ways of avoiding false suspicions. Iakob Il'ich, in turn, finally talks sense into Ksiusha, putting into perspective her attitudes towards Maksim, Chekhov, and problematizing her attitude towards humanity in general. Finally, Ksiusha is the only character who is capable of helping Larisa Ivanovna cope with the grief Kolia brings her when he announces his imminent marriage to another woman.

Though this “horizontal” network of treatment is perhaps one of the more interesting ways by which the film differentiates itself from others, it is also the source of one of the film’s weaker elements. Because patients are diagnosing and treating each other, the dialog often sounds forced and contrived. There are several scenes in which characters have meaningless spats only in order to call each other names—among them Pavlov’s dog—and utter monologs that sound oddly akin to formal medical diagnoses. The awkwardness of the dialog, however, does not hinder the film’s depiction of a reality and of characters symbolized by the term Pavlov’s dog. The patients are trained over the course of the film. They learn to behave well and labor with the collective in exchange for a day of freedom. The film takes a nostalgic approach to the Soviet past, absorbing Anton Semenovich Makarenko’s method of behavioral reform through labor without questioning it. From this point of view, Pavlov’s Dog is a successful modern-day recycling of Nikolai Ekk’s Road to Life (Putevka v zhizn', 1931), the screen adaptation of Makarenko’s memoirs.

Michelle Kuhn
University of Pittsburgh


Pavlov’s Dog, Russia, 2005.
Color, 80 minutes
Direction and screenplay: Katia Shagalova
Cinematography: Evgenii Sinel'nikov
Art Director: Aleksei Uchitel'
Cast: Nikolai Ivanov, Elena Liadova, Mariia Zvonareva, Elena Galbina, Sergei Kachanov, Anzhelika Nevolina, Rustem Iuskaev
Producer: Aleksei Uchitel'
Production: Rok Studios, Dingo Productions

Katia Shagalova: Pavlov’s Dog (Sobaka Pavlova, 2005)

reviewed by Michelle Kuhn© 2006

Updated: 04 Jul 06