Ivan Vyrypaev: Euphoria (Eiforiia, 2006)
reviewed by Fiona Björling © 2007
If there is one aspect of this film that remains a riddle right to the end, and long after the viewing is complete, then surely it is the title! Given the disastrous development of the drama, rightly classified as tragedy, why is this film called Euphoria? The riddle is highly effective in that it demands the viewer’s active participation and we shall return to it later.
Euphoria does not so much narrate a story as present a drama of the utmost simplicity and, as critics have pointed out, it brings to mind Greek tragedy. 32-year old director Ivan Vyrypaev graduated from the Irkutsk Theater College and is a well-known playwright, author of plays such as July and Oxygen. Given that Euphoria is his debut film, its theatrical feeling is not surprising. The main actress, Polina Agureeva, has also worked professionally in the theater; in 2003 she made her movie debut in Sergei Ursuliak’s The Long Farewell (Dolgoe proshchanie), based on Iurii Trifonov’s novel. Both Vyrypaev and Agureeva have received many awards from the theatrical world. And yet—this drama is superbly cinematic!
It is a drama of passion or adultery—whichever way you choose to see it. At the center of the triangle is Vera (Agureeva), mother to three year old Masha (Iaroslavna Serova) and married somewhat desolately to Valerii (Mikhail Okunev, also a professional theatrical actor). At the beginning of the film Vera is urgently sought out by Pakha (Maksim Ushakov, a non-professional actor who works in scritpwriting and animation). Vera and Pakha had met a week before at the wedding of mutual acquaintances. For Pakha, the meeting was fateful and has to be pursued. Vera was equally shattered by the meeting, but seems bemused and passive when Pakha arrives out of the blue at the deserted farmstead where she lives. The couple engages in a minimalist dialogue, which will be repeated as a leitmotif throughout the film: “What are we going to do about this?” asks Pakha and Vera replies: “I don't know.” But despite a naive and fumbling inability to make decisions, the lovers are swept along on their inevitable course to destruction and self-destruction. Apart from the three main characters and little Masha, there are few others—there is the neighbouring elderly couple with their grandson, a group of young friends who gather at a drunken and violent party, the man in charge at the local medical center, and that’s about it.
The location of the story is far, oh so far from the madding crowd, set in the steppe lands near the Volga (although filmed on the Don), with Volgograd as the nearest metropolis. Social isolation might well have been a theme of the film were it not for the stunning photography, which focusses not on mundane aspects of everyday life but on the lyrical beauty of the landscape. The human drama is interspersed rhythmically by long takes of the natural surroundings: particularly effective are the long sweeping shots of the green grassy steppe, with natural chalk paths and roads criss-crossing in all directions; the camera may sweep up to the sky, follow a chalk road as though by car, and then rise to take off like a low flying plane to sweep further afield and finally embrace the enormous waterways that frame the steppe. As with other aspects of the film, there is a Sokurov-like feel—particularly Sokurov’s Mother and Son (Mat' i syn, 1997)—to the way the camera lingers on the landscape in a way that makes its beauty seems both utterly poetic and lyrical, and at the same time terribly sad and deserted. For although telegraph wires criss-cross the landscape, the heroes live beyond their reach. When they finally arrive at the medical post to enquire about Masha, whose finger has been bitten off by the family dog, Pirate, the medical officer asks whether they live nearby: “Yes,” answers Vera, “we live close by, just two to three hours away!” Framed in this vast landscape are the tiny figures of Vera in her red dress and her two men—husband and lover—clothed in dark colors. The loneliness of the few human beings is ambiguously poised between social isolation and a primordial one-ness with nature, and it is in this atmosphere that the drama becomes stark and simple like myth: the ultimate story of adultery, so to speak, not to be explained by any extenuating social circumstances. The scene of the party of local young people—with its vodka and its violent and vulgar version of adultery—acts as a contrast to highlight the essential and legendary character of the main story.
This is Russian auteur cinema at its best. The photography, under the direction of Andrei Naidenov, is self-aware but not pretentious. Take, for example, the scene when Vera and Pakha lie on the shore of the river and walk naked along the beach to bathe; when they plunge into the water, twisting their naked bodies as they do so, the moment is extended for a few seconds by slow motion (extremely sparingly used otherwise); the naked surrender to the water is raised to the level of symbol, but this is subtly achieved. The photography alternates between showing the characters in close-up and then as tiny figures in the landscape: there is the wonderful scene when, after making love, the couple lies in the sand and Vera reasons with herself, turning energetically to face Pakha, not talking aloud but mouthing, so that the viewer does not hear her words but tries to read her lips: “Ne budu otkazyvat'sia,” she says, “I am not going to give this up.”
The music by composer Aidar Gainulin consists of a single melody played loudly and often, but with significant variations. At times it is played quickly and jauntily, at others slowly and with melancholy; sometimes the bayan (a kind of accordion) dominates with its folk music flavor, sometimes the music is softer and plaintively symphonic. In this film, where dialogue is secondary to the photography, there is a tendency, as in other Russian films, to rely too heavily on the music to organize the rhythm of the changing scenes, with the result that it becomes monotonous and ennervating. When, however, at the denouement of the film, the music is mixed with Vera’s whistling, the effect is truly striking.
So then, why the title Euphoria? There is a clue at the very beginning of the film before the main action begins: the vignette featuring a clumsy, physically and mentally handicapped man who is placed on a motorbike by a gang of youths and sent off into the landscape for a bike ride. The camera is trained on the rider’s face, which is at first extremely anxious. Then he looks up at the sky and an expression of utter bliss—euphoria—spreads over his face as the pleasure of the view and the speed overtakes him. Oblivious to a fork in the road, which demands turning to the right or the left, the rider plows straight on, surely heading for catastrophe! The protagonist lovers of the film travel not by motorbike, but by boat down the river; Pakha, coming to see Vera one night, lies on the bottom of his motorboat with the engine turned off and floats silently downstream for eight kilometers. He surrenders to the force that has captivated him and offers no resistance. The final scene of the film—not to be recounted here—offers a magnificent sequel to this episode, and just before the very end, the initial motorbike vignette returns for a few seconds and reminds us that to go with the flow—to give oneself over to the intensity of the moment —is greater than the tragedy that may follow.
Lund University, Sweden
Euphoria, Russia, 2006
Color, 74 minutes, Dolby Digital
Director: Ivan Vyrypaev
Scriptwriter: Ivan Vyrypaev
Cinematography: Andrei Naidenov
Art Director: Iurii Kharikov
Montage: Igor' Malakhov
Music: Aidar Gainullin
Cast: Polina Agureeva, Maksim Ushakov, Mikhail Okunev, Madlen Dzhabrailova, Maksim Litovchenko, Evgeniia Dmitrieva, Viacheslav Kokorin, Zoia Zadorozhnaia
Producer: Aleksandr Shein, Georgii Lordkipanidze
Production: First Movie Partnership and Film Studio 2-Plan-2
Ivan Vyrypaev: Euphoria (Eiforiia, 2006)
reviewed by Fiona Björling © 2007