Konstantin Lopushanskii: The Ugly Swans (Gadkie lebedi, 2006)
reviewed by Ol'ga Surkova© 2006
Ugly Swans over Tashlinsk (from Solaris to Stalker to Tashlinsk)
In his new film, The Ugly Swans, Konstantin Lopushanskii once again prefers to speak about the state of the contemporary world in the all-encompassing language of the philosophical parable, concealed this time by the visible traces of (as they used to say in days of old) the science fiction genre or (nowadays) the more commercially sellable “mystical thriller.” The only exception for this director would seem to be his preceding film, The Turn of the Century (Konets veka, 2001), which represented its vision of the present time in the language of realism, masterfully incorporating documentary footage of the 1960s, tinged with a bitter nostalgic aftertaste, into the narrative. The very title of the film obligated the director to undertake an especially profound assessment of our recent historical past, which determined the future it had prepared.
It is significant that this future did not seem too attractive to Lopushanskii. After all, it was no accident that the elderly heroine of The Turn of the Century, who was clearly so close to the director, was unwilling to accept this imminent future in her heart or mind, preferring to commit suicide at the end of the film to the accompaniment of military fireworks. So the end of that century sounded, in Lopushanskii’s interpretation, like a verdict on the new one, which had parted with beloved ideals that hold for us―or for those like us (like him?)—a distinctive ending.
A similar apocalyptic orientation has more than once preoccupied by no means the worst minds of humanity, especially Russian minds, which are inclined towards a dreamer’s melancholy and become disoriented in the face of time’s disturbances, the dirty means necessary to struggle for its values, and the impotence in resisting all-conquering Evil, and which, therefore, prefer to seek Truth on the other side of Being. Without a doubt, Lopushanskii belongs to this category of thinkers who pay with the pain of their personal conscience for the mournful consequences, still only glimmering in the future, of our―at a minimum―ambiguous acts in cultivating the space of our lives.
What is surprising is that if one were to watch the beginning of this “fantastical”—or, as Lopushankii describes The Ugly Swans, this “mystical”—film by accident… for example, by switching channels after watching a television news broadcast, one would at first be taken aback mostly because of the frightening realism of the burning forest landscape seen through the window of a moving train, which appears on the screen as the opening credits roll. These establishing shots of the strange, secretive, and scary landscape that is on fire—masterfully organized by the filmmaker—also put the viewer on guard because of their verisimilitude: such frightening realities cry out to us daily from our television sets—from forest fires to explosions, from innocent corpses to the pockmarked ruins of buildings to the flooded streets of cities and villages.
Victor Banev, a Russian writer now living in America, arrives in just such a flooded city (with a made-up name—Tashlinsk) at the start of Lopushanskii’s film. He is seeking his daughter in the expanse of his former homeland. Perhaps the city is blessed with unearthly beauty, but it is ill suited to our lives. It is constantly raining and foggy; the only source of light is the sinister ultra-red illumination, which comes from a source that humans can’t figure out. The city now belongs to strange human-like beings called mokretsy (“The Wet Ones”). Their origin is as mysterious as the climatic changes that have occurred in city, now surrounded by an army and isolated from the rest of humanity.
While mokretsy are human-like beings, their faces are covered by masks. Their genetic make-up is unknown. They generate a special energy barrier to protect themselves from or to prevent communication with undesirable human specimens that have already “messed things up” on this planet. Only certain human subjects can have contact with them, those who have not yet had time to lose completely the best humanistic qualities that humanity has achieved. As the Bible says: “Many are called, few are chosen” (Matthew 20:16).
For this reason, the majority of mankind, frightened and alarmed, considers the mokretsy to be dangerous enemies, deserving total annihilation from chemical weapons. Yet the small group of people allowed into Tashlinsk by its new leaders seeks contact with them, agreeing in the depths of their consciousness that the tragic result of our evolutionary process is the isolation of individuals, so demoralizing to people. “The time is at hand” (Revelation 1:3) and in the eyes of some of the humans who have been observing the contemporary world, this signal from the Most High is not an empty phrase. With his latest film, Lopushanskii joins this group of people.
The mokretsy speak in a plain language that is understandable, but they make demands on people that—in our understanding—are inhumanly cruel, requiring an overly sober self-analysis and a total spiritual cleansing, which only a select few are willing to undertake, those who have experienced despair to the fullest and yet have not lost the deep-seated yearning for a more perfect world.
The aliens—or the genetically transformed earthlings—appeal primarily to sensitive souls who have not yet been spoiled, especially to gifted children who in the past had been in a special boarding school in Tashlinsk. And amongst them is Victor Banev’s daughter. These children with a new consciousness, raised by the mokretsy, guarantee the forthcoming transformation of the world along a more perfect template. Around these children unfolds a confrontation of incompatible world views, each of which contains its own grain of truth. Only one thing is clear: a total and logically consistent belief in absolute categories and judgments is incompatible with actual reality… We must assume that in his newest film Lopushanskii is not calling for the destruction of “not the most perfect of all worlds,” as Voltaire wrote, but is sounding the alarm and calling for our attention.
Before the film, the made-up city of Tashlinsk was just as unknown to anyone as the unknown planet Solaris or the profession of Stalker—in the films of the same title by Andrei Tarkovskii—were unknown to anyone. Lopushanskii is one of the most zealous followers of this Russian classic filmmaker and continues to pursue his dialog with him within the philosophical space that Tarkovskii had chosen. It should be pointed out, of course, that prior to the films all three of the word formations—Solaris, Stalker, Tashlink—arose in the science fiction works of Stanislav Lem and the Strugatskii brothers: Solaris (Lem) engaged humanity in a frightening dialog; Stalker (in the Strugatskiis brothers’ novel Picnic by the Roadside) was the name of a profession that does not exist in reality—illegal “guides” into the Zone, a region on Earth that had been marked by the passage of some kind of aliens and is now forbidden to enter. And now, in The Ugly Swans, also based on a novel by the Strugatskii brothers, the Zone called Tashlinsk is once again occupied by materialized mutants or aliens, who are called upon to give advice and lessons to humanity, which has become lost in its own sins, about the humanism it has desecrated.
But how times have changed between Tarkovskii’s Solaris (1972) and Lopushanskii’s The Ugly Swans! The constantly shrinking distance between fantasy and reality is simply dumbfounding. I once had occasion to write an article during the shooting of Tarkovskii’s Solaris, which I could easily have entitled “Earth… Solaris… Earth…,” because the things that really mattered to the director were Man and Earth. As I wrote back then: “Solaris is not about how man will change in the future, but about the main, essential things that according to Tarkovskii will be preserved in him as an invaluable gift—even in the astral expanses of the Universe—like an unchangeable coin that must be offered up in order to gain the right to call oneself human… Earth will always be necessary for Man.” The heroes of Solaris strove to remain human under inhuman conditions, while the Earth breathed with its pre-dawn fogs and warmed itself in the windows of the paternal home.
In Stalker (1979), heroes set out into the Zone in search of Truth. But finding themselves in the “Examination Room” specially prepared for each of them, they were brought to a decisive existential boundary; they became afraid of themselves and could not bring themselves to trust in the most sacred and final choice. And yet, the inner drama, made more acute in them by the inhuman conditions of the Zone, was resolved for them upon their return home by the unquestioning, non-judgmental, sacrificial love of a woman; by the sacrament of unshakeable, internal, familial ties; by currents of energy that were special and mutual, and were not subject to doubt. While the earth was already unattractive, with its steamy miasmic fumes, the main earthly values remained unchanged and untouched: “Man needs Man.”
The city of Tashlinsk, occupied by the mokretsy, like the Zone in Stalker, is not only a place that it unsuitable for human habitation, but is also a prototype of the universal flood. So, even the barest traces of human interaction—when, for example, someone is offered a “hot sandwich” in a café that is half underwater—wring the viewer’s heart. It is like a stroke of unexpected luck! Or the hope of salvation in Noah’s ark, where someone can find a comfortable place that accommodates the most basic human values. Or like the family photograph on the wall that we see in the long-ago abandoned apartment where Banev used to live with his now shattered family, which he was unable to preserve. In Lopushanskii’s film, unlike in Tarkovskii’s films, the fragments of these interactions have been scattered throughout the world in new configurations; they are merely signs of lost values.
Herein also lays the cause of Banev’s daughter’s profound inner rejection of the world offered to her by the adults who have shattered its integrity. The message to her father that she records on tape sounds like a verdict: “We live in a world of total falsity, in a world of numbers and apparitions, in a world where words have become blurred and lost their meaning. Where the Spirit has permanently left the world. Time contracts. There is no time anymore. No space. Who said that? Who? Tell me…”
Unlike in Tarkovskii’s films, Earth has lost its appeal for Lopushanskii. It is suspiciously hostile towards us, dispersed into test-tubes together with its inhabitants in the midst of their important scientific researches, enveloped by energy fields and faster-than-sound speeds, stuffed with digital technologies. I cannot help but associate Lopushanskii’s Tashlinsk with the famous monolog written by Treplev in the opening act of Chekhov’s The Seagull: “No one awakens any longer to the cry of cranes in this meadow and May beetles are no longer heard in the lime-tree groves. Cold, cold, cold. Empty, empty, empty. Frightful, frightful, frightful… Only the spirit remains constant and immutable in the universe. Like a prisoner thrown into a deep, empty well, I do not know where I am or what awaits me… the reign of the kingdom of universal will is approaching.”
There are many mutually incompatible interpretations of this text in literary criticism, but it interests me in the context of the entire system of images in Lopushanskii’s new film—a serious articulation of a presentiment of the Apocalypse. This is how the director sees the contemporary condition of our world, precisely represented in each frame of the film, never randomly chosen and always constructed with great stylistic refinement. Even if one does not share the director’s world view, the artificial world created on screen forces one to believe in it through its artistic completeness. It is frightening in its very essence, while at the same time captivating with its exquisite imagery of light, sound, and plasticity. The world represented on screen makes sounds, breathes, groans, shudders, and strains in order to recreate itself into meditations and dreams.
The other-worldly children, newly formed by the mokretsy, accept neither us nor our life-style. The outside world lying beyond the borders of Tashlinsk elicits in them only a constant squeamishness. For us, however, for ordinary sinners and mortals, their total commitment to astral logic and egoistical meditations strike us perhaps as overly cold, like the peace experienced by Kay who was settled under the bear coat by Andersen’s Snow Queen.
The main character in the film, Victor Banev (Gregory Hlady) is attractive, smart, and inspires total trust. He organically and simply integrates ordinary human feelings that are responsive to reality and sensitive to poetic prospects. Just like Kris Kelvin in Tarkovskii’s Solaris, he remains a human being in inhuman conditions. And just like Stalker, he agonizes in his prayer, the words of which we need not hear. Yet Banev is neither Kelvin nor Stalker. He is no hero; instead, he is a loser who loses his daughter beyond any hope. Nor is he at the center of the director’s thoughts, which are transferred to the children-oldsters who perhaps no longer belong to us, mere mortals, for they are filled with a special knowledge and merely gaze at us with their contemplative and un-childlike, adult eyes. We are given up to their judgment and receive their indictment and verdict; indeed, Truth comes “from the mouths of babes…”
For this reason, the final shot of the film acquires a special drama: Banev’s daughter does not want to live in the new conditions being offered to her—a leveling of individuals or the human anthill. That is how she views our world and she cuts herself off from any dialog with it. The gaze from her widely opened eyes is directed into other spaces. Our civilization has been developing with such frightening speed for ordinary human consciousness, leaving so many ruins along its path, that the train of our hopes—so recently designated by Tarkovskii—has been stopped by Lopushanskii as a cautionary act in Tashlinsk.
Translated by Vladimir Padunov
The Ugly Swans, Russia and France, 2006
Color, 105 minutes
Director: Konstantin Lopushankii
Scriptwriter: Konstantin Lopushanskii and Viacheslav Rybakov, based on the novel of the same title by the Strugatskii brothers
Cinematography: Viacheslav Gurchin
Art Director: Konstantin Pakhotin, with the participation of Viktor Ivanov
Music: Andrei Sigle
Cast: Gregory Hlady, Leonid Mozgovoi, Aleksei Kortnev, Rimma Sarkisian, Laura Pitskhelauri, Sergei Barkovskii, Dima Ispolatov, Ol'ga Samoshina, Alekssei Ingelevich
Producer: Andrei Sigle
Production: Proline-film, CDP with the participation of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema, CNC, the Gorbachev Foundation, and The International Green Cross
Konstantin Lopushanskii: The Ugly Swans (Gadkie lebedi, 2006)
reviewed by Ol'ga Surkova© 2006