Ekaterina Grokhovskaia: The Man of No Return (Chelovek bezvozvratnyi, 2006)
reviewed by Marcia Landy © 2007
After the success of her short film, The Two (Dvoe, 2004), Ekaterina Grokhovskaia has made her first foray into feature length film with The Man of No Return. The film has been shown at festivals in Russia and in Sweden, playing along with other European films. Financed at one million rubles, the film explores sexuality, the family, generational and gender difference, and memory, portraying a “society in crisis” (Gillespie 93). The film's focus on familial relations would seem to place it alongside the plethora of genre films that have characterized the recent Russian commercial cinema, including comedies, melodramas, gangster films, science fiction, war films, and fantasy. Given its focus on the family, The Man of No Return would seem to belong to this form of filmmaking. However, if the family melodrama, as some critics have claimed, is preoccupied with emotional excess arising from irreconcilable moral polarities, recording “the failure of the protagonist to act in a way that could shape the events and influence the stifling emotional environment, let alone change the stifling social milieu” (Elsaesser 55). The Man of No Return undermines these premises. In an unsettling and elliptical narrative mode, the film prefers to investigate the clichés upon which the family melodrama has been constructed, not only portraying what the characters and viewers see through the image, but how they see.
A superficial description of events in the film involves the disintegration of a family headed by an autocratic father, Boris Kniazev. Head of a military academy, he is determined to have his son, Andrei, a cadet at the school, carry on the tradition of order and discipline he espouses, but his son refuses to conform to the father's dictates. The entire family—the mother, Tania; the daughters, Vera and Nadezhda; and the son, Andrei—can be regarded as dysfunctional products of conjugal and familial strife. Similarly, other characters can also be included in these domestic dramas of emotional atrophy. However, the film's form undermines this facile summary by refusing the viewer familiar information about the characters and a straightforward linear recounting of the situations into which they are placed.
While the film remains confined to the private sphere, by means of its imagistic treatment of character and in its brief allusions to landscape it suggests filiations to a broader social and cultural milieu. The film works like a kaleidoscope or a puzzle, forcing uneasy questions on the spectator about who the characters are, their relations to each other, and about the clichéd images that constitute the world in which they act or are acted upon. Gilles Deleuze discusses the “civilization of the cliché where all the powers have an interest in hiding images from us… Sometimes it is necessary to restore the lost parts, to rediscover everything that cannot be seen in the image, everything that has been removed to make it ‘interesting'” (Deleuze 21). In its discontinuities, obsession with time, and resistance to transparency, The Man of No Return probes the propensity of the image to fall into cliché and works against this tendency.
The opening images—of cigarette smoke, of a hand holding the cigarette, and then of a nude torso of a man standing against a curtained window that resembles a backlit film screen—are interrupted by a woman dressing and urging him to hurry, since they have only fifteen minutes until they must leave. The woman goes to her purse, removes money, and places it in the man's pants pocket. Minimal information is provided about the couple's identity, but this episode in retrospect provides clues to the film's eccentric style: the window, the cigarette smoke, a semi-clad body, the reference to time passing, and the suggestion of a sexual encounter between a man and a woman that concludes with monetary payment. These images will be recapitulated and constitute the tenor of the entire film. The film will continue to introduce characters through visual and auditory clues, stubbornly resisting conventional explanatory data about them. Constructed from fragments of encounters, in seemingly random and elliptical fashion, the narrative will create shifting and kaleidoscopic portraits of a world in transition that will rely on the viewer to question, not interpret, what is given to see and hear.
If the viewer anticipates that ensuing scenes will immediately clarify events, she is disappointed. Deferral and ambiguity persist in the abrupt introduction of a nameless young man on a bus giving money to an elderly woman, though he is short of the required payment. A contrast between the first episode of payment and this one of debt is offered to be stored in the viewer's memory. The bus window, serving as yet another screen, visualizes barriers to seeing and distinctions between interiors and exteriors. This episode jumps abruptly to a static image of a woman smoking, leaning against a wall and gazing into space. Her body is fragmented, offering images of her face, arms, and legs. A man passes her, removes the cigarette from her mouth and informs her that he will see her “later,” thus again invoking the element of time, but of time deferred. Roused to movement, she climbs a circular stairway, goes to sit at a table, and reads the news on television. She is a stylish, attractive professional woman who seems to be animated by the promise of a sexual encounter.
The image of her framed as a television announcer further underscores the motif of looking, and her television image is transferred to a kitchen where another woman stands working. The woman's activity is interrupted by the appearance of a man who is clothed except for his pants. As with the previous scenes the dialogue is minimal, providing only commonplace details of their interaction. They are a married couple. Thus, a portrait of quotidian marital life is introduced, with only a vague hint of a possible connection between this episode and the previous ones. The wife assumes a prominent role, whereas the husband, by contrast, reveals himself inept at domestic details. The element of time is again inserted as the woman warns the man, who returns in uniform, “to keep track of the time.” Yet the element of time, the relation between past and present, remains obscure as does the specific sense of place.
The kaleidoscope moves to a parade ground of men on review that gives way to a scene in a classroom where, for the first time characters begin to reappear: the man in the opening shots and the man on the bus are cadets at the school, listening in a classroom to an officer lecturing on military matters. One young man falls asleep and has to be awakened by the other just in time to save him from being chastised. In an office, the man seen earlier at home dressing is revealed as the top administrator of the academy, lecturing other officers about the imperative for the cadets to learn about military equipment or be punished. The lecturer from the previous scene informs his superior about the young man who had fallen asleep: it is the administrator's son, Andrei, who, the father insists, must be disciplined. The element of kinship is further developed between father and son and, by extension, to the mother introduced earlier. Contrasts between the father, Boris Kniazev, and his wife, Tania, are evident in his autocratic treatment of his son and his awkward behavior at home. Further, the transition from a domestic to a military context reinforces the film's strategy of cryptically linking private to public institutions.
The viewer is not given further data about this military setting: no reference is made to any history of the role of the military establishment in Russian life; no references to war, to the training of young men for combat - though there is no doubt of resistance from Andrei to the training and discipline imposed on him. A direct encounter between father and son is deferred to allow for the introduction of other enigmatic characters. An elderly woman sits on a train looking out of a window and eavesdropping on a conversation of another elderly woman who complains about how quickly cemeteries fill up, thus inserting a reference to death that will later be recapitulated significantly in relation to a maternal figure. Instead, from the train window a crowded landscape can be seen, a reminder of the reiterated reference to connections between exterior and interior landscapes seen especially from a moving vehicle. These shots bring the viewer into indeterminate contact with the world outside, underscoring the film's ambiguity about connections between public and private spheres.
This episode relies on the spectator's attentiveness to images, not only in the allusions to a changing landscape, but also to the ages of the women and to an implied past in relation to the present. A jump cut to the elderly woman, Elizaveta, situates her in a hospital, gazing at a photograph of herself, her looking interrupted by a friendly greeting from one of the hospital staff. Elizaveta is a relic from an unrecoverable past, but her figure underscores the film's emphasis on generational differences integral to the film's subtle invocation of time and change. Like the military academy, the hospital will increasingly assume importance in the episodes to follow that reinforce the film's focus on the vicissitudes of the body and sexual desire.
A vignette that reinforces and expands on the film's connections between money and sex, more particularly of prostitution as another institution, occurs between Andrei and his friend Roman, who waylays Andrei, asking to borrow money and seeking advice on how, like Andrei, he can find a rich woman to alleviate his indebtedness. Slowly but inexorably, the equation between sex and monetary exchange become increasingly central to the film's investigation of male and female bodies. While prostitution is the focus of such films as The Spot (Tochka; dir. Iurii Moroz, 2006), in this film it is only one dimension of the film's understated investigation of sexuality. Aside from Andrei's encounters with Alevtina, the woman with whom he has been having sexual relations, sexuality is introduced in an episode featuring a young lame woman, Olesia, whose television viewing is interrupted by the ringing of the phone. Unseen, the speaker at the other end of the line questions her about the color of her hair, her eyes, the attractiveness of her breasts—until she asks, “Are we having phone sex—” She hangs up when he asks to see her and studies her image in the mirror, thus reinforcing the film's reiterated emphasis on women's self-scrutiny and, more broadly, even reflexively, on the role of seeing.
This episode realigns its kaleidoscopic images, focusing on the lame body of a young woman, the ubiquitous television screen, and the mirror. In addition, the telephone comes into greater prominence as an instrument whereby the physical body is dissociated from vision and, further, an instrument of fantasy and unrealized desire, becoming “phone sex.” Moreover, the young woman's room is claustrophobic: crowded with a bed, the television, wheel chair, and photographs papering the walls. Thus, too, this episode reinforces the motif of solitude that is rhymed by a jump cut to the television announcer, Nadezhda, which portrays her arrival at a darkened apartment. Upon her entry, after turning on the light, she gazes at her face in a mirror, takes a beer, sprawls on a chair holding her cat, and turns on the television, remaining immobile until the doorbell rings. Nadezhda is not seen again at the television studio; she remains locked, like Olesia, in her living quarters, waiting for a reprieve from boredom and loneliness. The film seems determined to avoid a portrait of excessive wealth or poverty as if resisting familiar social class coding. Moreover, the film eschews inflated and grotesque images of the characters' physical appearance and behavior, preferring to present them in understated and attractive fashion rather than as grotesque and distorted, thus muting conventional stark binary distinctions between good and bad characters.
Without preparation, the viewer confronts a man, Dmitrii, Nadezhda's paramour, as he sits smoking in a car, using his cell phone to call a woman, presumably his wife, to inform her that he will be working late. On the soundtrack a song about the dangers of smoking can be heard as his face is reflected from a rear view mirror. As the conversation progresses, it becomes evident that he is employing the familiar cliché of “working late” to evade a commitment, mollify the disappointment, and allay the anger of the person at the other end of the line. Marriage is avoided in favor of sexual pleasure and escape, but again this is communicated through the telephone. As is consistently the case in the film, the phone becomes an instrument of evasion and distance, and smoking a trope for boredom and relief from tension. The film returns to Nadezhda briefly, opening the door to her male caller, Dmitrii, without lingering on the physical details of their meeting.
For a second time, the film revisits Boris and Tania in an episode that will serve to shed further light on their marriage. In a scene of the couple in bed, the father complains of Andrei who, he is convinced, gets his money from illegal sources, not from working as a guard. This scene captures the chaste affection of the husband for his wife, a subtle indication of their habitual interactions, giving no indication of sexual contact between the two. Instead, Tania listens as Boris recites his grievances with Andrei, neither commenting nor disagreeing. Boris is one of the few characters allowed dialogue and an expression of excessive affect. And with the introduction of the next character, the film will finally inject a note of violence.
A young woman, Vera, sits gazing at her image in the mirror. Below the mirror are numerous bottles of cosmetics. As in the portraits of Nadezhda and Olesia, the mirror images of the women emphasize their obsession with physical beauty, if not the fear of aging and of undesirability as a sexual partner. Vera rises, dropping her clothes to the floor, thus providing a view of her feet. A cut to her opening a door, moving to a bed where a man, her husband, feigns sleep, brings her to the bed. She seeks to embrace him but he rejects her, causing her to cry violently. Her cries bring two girl children to the door, observing the father trying to calm the woman. The viewer observes this recognizable, even clichéd, scene of conjugal estrangement unaccompanied by dialogue, which could only reinforce its banality. However, the impact of the episode is not lost, for the young children are its silent and stunned audience. Following this, the promised meeting of Boris and Andrei takes place with the father hitting his son and ordering him to conform, but Andrei merely tells his father, “I do not want to be like you.” As if sparing the audience yet another vision of the already known, these scenes provide further clues to the film's investment in investigating the present differently, rather than rehearsing well-known scenarios derived from cinema and television.
The kaleidoscope moves again to a bus where a woman, Nina, a tour guide, narrates the history of the terrain to the riders, commenting that one of the houses was the home of Catherine the Great, and that it has now become a bank, thus invoking, in matter-of-fact fashion, an equation between past Russian history and contemporary financial matters. A man, Arkadii, approaches her. He invites her to dinner. She accepts and this scene is interrupted by an image of the young lame woman, Olesia, gazing out of her window and watching a young couple embrace. Olesia's world is defined by the narrow confines of her room, and instead of the television set as her entry to an external world, her window becomes another substitute, like the television, for fantasy. Thus far, no one has entered to disturb her solitary existence. Her lameness assumes allegorical proportion, becoming a trope for her maimed femininity and frustrated sexual desire, a motif central to most of the episodes.
A mirror shot reintroduces Tania, dressing to leave the house and looking at herself in a mirror. She exits, runs for a bus but falls to the sidewalk. A jump cut to the hospital reveals physicians studying an x-ray. The viewer is denied the doctor's dialogue, since the scene is shot from outside the room through a glass transom. The x-ray, like the repeated views of photographs, provides an image of bodily interiority as opposed to the mirror views of the female characters. This image heightens the motif of death alluded to by the older woman on the train. Finally, an interaction between mothers and daughters transpires—through a phone call between Tania and Nadezhda that occurs while the daughter is in bed with her lover Dmitrii. This phone conversation involves the traditional advice of a mother to her daughter, ironically paralleling Boris' practical concern about his son's future. Tania lectures Nadezdha about the need for the young woman to find a husband and have children (later mirrored in a phone call that occurs between Alevtina and Elizaveta). The daughter's response is non-committal, but she does not reprimand her mother. After the call ends, Nadezhda tells Dmitrii to leave, that his wife is waiting for him. In the case of the four women—Nadezhda, Olesia, Vera, and Alevtina—sex is what keeps them trapped in desire or in humiliating, unrewarding, or fantasized relationships. A brief inserted episode involves Vera's husband on the phone, reserving a room for two in a hotel.
With the mother's discovery that she has cancer, the kaleidoscope assumes a new formation that moves the characters in different directions. Vera, for example, encounters a man at the swimming pool who observes her and seems eager to form a relationship. By contrast, Andrei's friend Roman, in his desperation for money, has agreed, despite Andrei's warnings to the contrary, to enter into sexual arrangements with a banker and he appears at the hotel to meet him. Upon entering the room, he insists to the man on money before performance of the sexual act. Another hotel scene follows with Andrei and his new lover Katia; however, in contrast to his relationship with Alevtina, his affair with Katia entails sex and conversation between the characters. She shares her “history” with him: she is from the country where her mother, Vera, lives in comfort and tends her garden. He tells her of his two sisters and of his parents who had hoped that he would be a girl. No money is exchanged and this encounter suggests the possibility of their escape from boredom and alienated sexuality.
Immediately following this portrait of affection between a man and woman, the scene cuts abruptly to Olesia, alone at night, holding a flashlight and masturbating to a photograph of a young man who looks like James Dean. The scene ends with her flashlight falling to the floor. This scene of Olesia's masturbating becomes another of the many episodes that comprise the film's focus on sexuality—prostitution, heterosexual marriage, adultery, masturbation, homosexuality, and friendship. Another unsatisfactory phone call between a mother and daughter that mirrors Nadezhda's with Tania also involves an older woman urging the daughter to find a husband and settle down, but Alevtina rejects this advice, informing her mother that she has no sympathy with her mother's life of nurture, service, and religious piety, claiming her independence. Alevtina will experience the darker side of her professed self-sufficient life, first in her rejection by Andrei, later in the theft of her savings.
Vera now becomes involved with Aleksandr, and the two are portrayed as they walk in the country, exchanging histories. They exchange brief comments on their lives. His question about the quality of her marriage produces her response that it is “habit.” He, the son of a military officer, is divorced. In a film that places a premium on silence more than verbal language, this interchange and the following, as with Katia and Andrei, are exceptional. Nina and Arkadii (along with Olesia) also spend a day outdoors singing together. But this seemingly idyllic moment is harshly disrupted by an episode with Olesia at home, seeking to seduce Arkadii. She begs him to tell her she is not ugly, then grabs him and kisses him frenetically, causing him to leave and culminating in her suicide attempt.
The film does not exempt homosexual prostitution and gay bashing from its catalogue of sex, economic exchange, and violence. Roman, at a smoky disco, attempts to find another “rich man.” Sex between him and an older man is merely suggested as the two put on their coats in the lavatory; however, they are accosted by young rowdies on the street who call the two “fags” and violently beat Roman, leaving him bleeding on the sidewalk (seen first in long shot, then in close-up). Andrei, on parade, learns of his friend and goes to the hospital, where he is told that Roman has a debilitating spinal injury that will leave him paralyzed. Mirroring this scene of misfortune, Alevtina is accosted by a young boy, Vasia, who claims to be the child of an alcoholic mother and a dead father. She invites him home. Leaving him in the corridor to get food, she is interrupted by the phone. The boy slips into the apartment, signals others from the window, and quickly returns to the corridor, but the viewer is aware that she will be robbed. Here in the character of Vasia, as earlier in the vignettes of Vera's children, the film injects generational difference through young people. However, unlike such films as Valerii Ogorodnikov‘s The Burglar (Vzlomshchik, 1988), Sergei Solov'ev's A Tender Age (Nezhnyi vozrast, 2000), and Aleksandr Atanesian's Bastards (Svolochi, 2006) that highlight youth, The Man of No Return resists sociological and melodramatic treatment. They too are presented enigmatically as if the film relies on the audience's screen memory of other portraits.
The first direct encounter between a young man and his mother occurs with Andrei's interaction with Tania as he returns home to gather his belongings. She is in bed sewing a dress that will be her burial garment. Kneeling, she embraces him and calls him “my man of no return.” Without further dialogue, the next scene is of the Kniazev family at Tania's graveside with Andrei distracted by the sight of a moving train. The mother's death is the pivotal moment of the film, becoming both the culmination of scenes of deprivation and a tenuous suggestion of escape from the past. In telling Boris earlier about her cancer, she reminded him that she did not smoke or drink, causing her to reflect on pleasures she has missed that become emblematic of her (and Elizaveta's) adherence to a life of resignation and service.
The Man of No Return rejects iconic and idealized figures of the mother, but invokes this image allegorically. The trope of her cancer radiates beyond the physical fact of bodily illness and decomposition, suggesting forms of corruption at the base of contemporary Russian society. The past is moribund and the present devoted to the destructive quest for financial gain at the expense of individual and collective social health; hence, the centrality of the military academy and the hospital and their links to isolated, discontented, and unfulfilled bodies. Commenting on the treatment of death in Mother and Son (Mat' i syn dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, 1997), Anna Lawton, invoking Pier Paolo Pasolini's writings, states: “[I]n life, as in film, it is only with death that one can have a meaningful montage” (201). In this film, Tania's death connects to the film's obsession with time and with the characters' entrapments in moribund and self-consuming images of the world.
Determined to leave, Andrei goes to Katia's place of work and learns that she has quit and discovers that, contrary to her idyllic narrative of life in the country with her mother, she is an orphan, brought up in an institution. She, claiming that she has no money for the rent, has decided to leave, despite her roommate's urging to stay and insisting that Katia is beautiful and can have any man she wants. The issue of money is extended into the next episode with Alevtina's discovery that she has been robbed. Going to the police, she is interrogated about the sources of her wealth. She insists that the money is not hers but her company's and implicates Andrei as the person with access to her apartment. Another scene of a mother and son confrontation occurs between Vasia and his mother, who discovers the box of valuables and threatens to strangle him if he does not return it. His narrative of being an orphan is exposed as a lie when his mother berates him, telling him he is becoming like his imprisoned father who he had claimed was dead.
The climactic confrontation between Andrei and his father transpires without dialogue as the father points a rifle at his son, fires, but misfires, and Andrei leaves. The final moments of the film are equally wordless, involving Olesia and Roman at the hospital, he in bed, she in her wheelchair holding hands; Vera sits at poolside with Aleksandr; Boris sits alone gazing at photographs of his dead wife; Alevtina is alone in bed; Katia and Andrei sit on a train embracing; and Nadezhda is standing by a fan in her apartment as the doorbell rings and she declines to answer. The final image of the film is a close-up of the circular rotating fan. This image captures the ambiguity, if not circularity, of the film concerning the possibility of change.
While the film has touched on major topics treated in contemporary Russian cinema—prostitution, health, delinquency, militarism, illegal and corrupt economic transaction, fantasies of romance?it has sought different cinematic strategies in their representation. For example, it is not a film that opts for a sociological treatment. It is not a social problem film. Nor is it an historical film. It is not an upbeat drama, offering pleasure and hope. As for being a conventional family and psychological melodrama that highlights the sources of corruption in familial interpersonal relationships, the film works against assigning the sources of conflict to individuals in the family. In its focus on temporality, on the body, and on vision, the film strives to attain what Gilles Deleuze has described as a cinema of brain and thought. This type of cinema functions as the time-image, whereby it works with and against clichés. It rarifies the image “by suppressing many things that have been added to make us believe that we were seeing everything” (21). If one compares The Man of No Return to Michelangelo Antonioni's films, we can see that the film makes a minimal attempt to develop an “intertwining of consequences, of temporal sequences and effects which flow from events out-of-field” (Deleuze 23).
Given the numerous vignettes of characters watching television, gazing at photographs, x-rays, looking at themselves in mirrors, and at the world without through windows, the film highlights a world where vision has primacy. But seeing is problematic, an instrument of chimeras and of self-deception. In a sense, the characters are prey to a hallucinatory vision of the world derived from their past, from loss, habit, self-preoccupation, the desire for material and sexual gratification, and from confusion between exteriority and interiority. By contrast, the spectator is offered a different screen or window to regard the characters' misperceptions and suffering. While the character has become “a prey to a vision, pursued by it or pursuing it, rather than engaged in an action (Deleuze 3), the film spectator is situated differently by gaining visual access to how the characters “are suffering less from the absence of one another than from their absence from themselves” (Deleuze 9). Specifically, through its shifting kaleidoscopic treatment of character and situations, The Man of No Return addresses the viewer by introducing another dimension of history and memory that presses against habituation. The mother's illness and death is an invitation to reflect on “the gaze which becomes real again at the moment of death” (Deleuze 8). The film's understated and elliptical style and its undermining of cinematic clichés are emblematic of the film's resistance to interpretation in favor of provoking, questioning, and experimenting with a different mode of seeing, one conducive to thinking.
University of Pittsburgh
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image . Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001.
Elsaesser, Thomas. “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama.” In Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film . Ed. Christine Gledhill. London: BFI Publishing, 1987.
Gillespie, David. Russian Cinema . Essex, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2003.
Lawton, Anna. Imaging Russia: Films and Facts . Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2001.
The Man of No Return, Russia, 2006
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Ekaterina Grokhovskaia
Scriptwriter: Petr Stepin
Cinematography: Aleksei Andrianov
Art Director: Antonnina Mavrina
Music: Evgenii Gal'perin
Cast: Galina Iovovich (Loginova), Ekaterina Rednikova, Sergei Krapiva, Anna Churina, Andrei Egorov, Alena Iakovleva, Sergei Chonishvili, Anna Khil'kevich, Elena Valiushkina, Mikhail Remizov, Vitalii Gogunskii, Ol'ga Zaitseva
Producers: Igor' Zadorin, Dmitrii Rubin
Production: ZG Film and Cineline Studio
Ekaterina Grokhovskaia: The Man of No Return (Chelovek bezvozvratnyi, 2006)
reviewed by Marcia Landy © 2007