Avdot'ia Smirnova: Relations (Sviaz', 2006)

reviewed by Lucy Fischer © 2007

In 1965, French director Agnès Varda created a minor shock wave in American film circles with her release of Happiness (Le Bonheur), a film that openly confronted the topic of adultery in an era before the conception of “open marriage.” The film concerned a carpenter, completely in love with his wife, who, nonetheless, has an affair with another woman, ostensibly to share his joie de vivre . When he informs his wife of his attachment, she wanders off and drowns (ostensibly an act of suicide). Without any hand wringing, he soon marries his lover. Obviously, what was novel about the film's subject matter (at least to Americans) was not its focus on adultery—a staple of film melodrama since the teens. Rather, it was the drama's accepting attitude toward marital infidelity as a fact of human nature and its view that adultery was bound to occur even within a loving union. Another French film of the era went further with the topic. In Jean-Luc Godard's A Married Woman (Une femme mariée, 1964), it was the wife, not the husband, who had a dangerous liaison—though the film's Brechtian, distanced style kept it from enjoying the popularity or emotional power of Le Bonheur .

Some forty years hence, the subject is still ubiquitous on cinematic screens and has been so, both in France and the US, throughout the intervening decades. But adultery has not always been as visible in Russian cinema, certainly not during the revolutionary and Stalinist years, when more idealized presentations of the Russian family were in order. Thus, in confronting post-Soviet Russian film, we hear an echo of H.L. Mencken's words when he said: “Adultery is the application of democracy to love.” [1]

Relations is the directorial debut of scriptwriter Avdot'ia (Dunia) Smirnova, who wrote the film's screenplay as well. She is a graduate of Moscow State University and worked as a journalist for the newspaper Kommersant and as a book reviewer for the magazine Afisha. She is the author of scripts for such documentary films as The Last Hero (Poslednii geroi, 1992) and Butterfly (Batterfliai, 1993), and for such fiction films as Giselle's Mania (Maniia Zhizeli, 1995), His Wife's Diary (Dnevnik ego zheny, 2000), and The Stroll (Progulka, 2003), all directed by Aleksei Uchitel' (who produced Smirnova's film).

Relations takes on the familiar subject of adultery in the form of a drama about two married people who engage in a protracted affair. Nina (Anna Mikhalkova) is a middle- class advertising agent who lives in St. Petersburg and is married to Nikita, a gentle and caring artist; she is also the mother of a young son. Il'ia (Mikhail Porechenkov) is a prosperous, upper-class businessman who resides in Moscow with his beautiful, stylish wife Masha and twelve year old daughter. Rather than give us any reason for or backstory about the inception of the affair, the blasé narrative begins in medias res —thus implying that there is no need for explaining the liaison's existence. The lessons of Le Bonheur have been learned and infidelity is now an omnipresent and unremarkable phenomenon—both for men and for women, both for Russians and other Europeans. The strategy is, however, purposefully confusing for viewers; in the beginning of the film, the narrative cuts fluidly between each set of couples awakening in their respective apartments, without the audience comprehending who they are or being able to distinguish between them. It is only later, in fact, that we realize that we have seen two different households rather than one; and it is a long time before we even know the various characters' names. Perhaps, on some level, this is precisely the point—as their stories are, in truth, cliché—though not for the individuals experiencing them.

This oblique mode of narration continues throughout the film as the story cuts abruptly from one locale to another, from one moment to the next, without clearly indicating its trajectory. This stands in contrast to the ”Hollywood Classical Style,” still in evidence on American contemporary screens, where temporal and spatial shifts are more clearly telegraphed and redundancy is still a viable modus operandi. Thus, in Relations , we shift unexpectedly from a scene of Nina arriving at the St. Petersburg airport to one of Il'ia and his wife at home in Moscow, or from Il'ia and Nina shopping together in Moscow to Nina's husband in St. Petersburg talking to a friend. It takes viewers considerable time to get their bearings—perhaps, replicating the puzzling whirlwind of the couple's affair—filled with trips, assignations, hideouts, alibis, and deceit.

The camera work by Sergei Machil'skii lends considerable interest to the everyday story. At points, scenes are filmed in very tight close-up (for example, the film's opening shot of Il'ia's eyes as he awakens, followed by Nina's lashes as she applies mascara; or later images of the adulterous couple's faces or hands). At moments, the lighting is quite luminous adding a certain incandescence to the imagery. Often, scenes are artfully framed by doorways, as when Masha peers into a room in which Il'ia is making a secret phone call to his lover. Furthermore, in many shots the background of the frame is rather dark, with only sections illuminated, as when Il'ia's daughter watches him drink and asks him if he is an alcoholic. A similar framing effect is utilized when Il'ia watches Masha come home drunk one night.

Although the film takes a rather nonchalant attitude toward adultery, it eventually veers toward bleakness and solemnity. When the adulterous couple steals a visit with each other at a guest house, Nina says: “We are bastards, of course” and indicates that she really “can't complain” about her husband. At a later point, however, she bemoans her “double life” and confesses to Il'ia that she wishes her husband would leave her. While, in general, the couple meet on rather safe and neutral terrain, at one point Il'ia comes dangerously close to having his path cross with Nina's and Nikita's when he stalks the couple as they attend a tango lesson. When Nikita realizes that Nina is cheating on him, he tells a friend that there is “no happiness.” Later, when he confronts Nina with her betrayal, he asks if she is going to "dump her bloke" or whether he is going to dump her. The confrontation between Il'ia and Masha is more mean-spirited. She accuses him of "gobbling up" her life and he likens her to a "shop dummy" or Barbie doll. Still later, Il'ia sits despondently outdoors on a bench smoking cigarettes; when a groundskeeper tells him to pick up the butts, he beats him up. Finally, Nina tells her cynical mother (who mocks notions of love) that she wants to die.

In a non-melodramatic move, the end of the affair is signaled in the most quotidian manner. After Nina has been “outed” by Nikita, she no longer answers Il'ia's calls, letting her cell phone ring an inappropriately jaunty tune and vibrate ominously. Here we recall that the opening sound of the film was a portentous and grating alarm buzzer, heard against a black screen. Ultimately, the final sequence of the film shows the adulterous couple in a hotel room—one they have frequented on previous occasions. As Il'ia exits and leaves Nina alone inside, the camera lingers on the room door which prominently displays the number 635, reminding us that their tale is only one of many.

Lucy Fischer
University of Pittsburgh


Notes

1] The Vintage Mencken. Ed. Alistair Cooke. NY: Vintage, 1956: 232.


Relations, Russia, 2006
Color, 80 minutes
Director: Avdot'ia Smirnova
Screenplay: Avdot'ia Smirnova
Cinematography: Sergei Machil'skii
Art Director: Andrei Vasin
Music: Boris Grebenshchikov, Aleksei Steblev, Petr Klimov
Cast: Mikhail Porechenkov, Anna Mikhalkova, Nastia Seglia, Dmitrii Shevchenko, Irina Rozanova, Musia Shapovalova, Iaroslav Pershakov, Gennadii Smirnov, Leonid Iarmol'nik
Producer: Aleksei Uchitel'
Production: Rock Film Studio, with the support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Avdot'ia Smirnova: Relations (Sviaz', 2006)

reviewed by Lucy Fischer © 2007

Updated: 14 Apr 07