Ethical Masochism in Recent Russian Melodrama

By David MacFadyen (UCLA)

Little by little—and with great determination—we'll gather everything that's still salvageable and restore it to Russia. We will help Russian Orthodoxy renovate its churches and monasteries.

— President Putin upon returning the Lady of Vladimir icon to Patriarch Aleksei II (7 February 2007)

Melodramatic Tragedy: Ivan Vyrypaev's Euphoria ( Èiforiia ) 2006

The word “euphoria” comes from the Greek, more specifically from the notion of “bearing or carrying wellness.” Euphoria is a brief or fleeting equilibrium with the plentitude of the outside world. It is more than mere exhilaration, yet less than ecstasy, which—again according to Greek etymology—is existence wholly "outside" of oneself. In ecstasy, exteriority breaches the body's margins. Nature's ecstatic resident no longer exists; he is, in a sense, absent or devoid of discernible limits.

The debut film by 33 year-old Siberian playwright Ivan Vyrypaev is full of these destabilizing breaches, where that same exteriority invades the people who inhabit it. On occasion it seems as if Vyrypaev, having left the four walls of a confined theater, is staggered by the open spaces outdoors. This short feature film, which could easily have been called Agoraphobia, is overflowing with deep fields (in both senses), low-hung horizons, and towering skies. The displacement of land by endless azure skies, together with the swaying, handheld footage of the film's opening scene both accentuate a fluid, even maritime province, rather than terra firma. Cars slip and slide over ankle-deep dust as though hydroplaning; low-level aerial shots swoop and hover over the grassy steppe, always missing the object of their attention like wetland airboats. More than once our viewpoint comes from a camera bound tightly to some rickety vessel—a helicopter, motorbike, or rusty car—as if we would drown outdoors without a raft. Likewise, the main residence in this film has no doors or windows: anything resembling an impenetrable enclosure or hull is absent. One of our minor characters even sits, post coitus, on the side of the road, underpants in hand. Everything is open and nothing is closed: this is the slip from balanced euphoria into the externalizing forces of ecstasy.

Bits of bodies are quickly claimed by this outside world: a little girl's fingertip is ripped off by a dog. Then, even though he drives around with several planks of wood (enough to make a door!), our hero later gravitates towards a rowing boat we already know is full of holes. This increasing and often aggressive osmosis between inside and out, self-containment and ecstasy, is first made complete in a twilight scene where navy-blue filters merge actors with background, text with context, in a deep, damp flood.

Tiny earthbound islands of ragged flesh will continue to flounder in this ocean because any depiction of boundlessness always requires a gap . There must always be some inexpressible remainder in any representation of limitlessness. It is there before the characters even open their mouths, before they actually reveal this inexpressibility, with endless fillers such as "Wot I mean is…," " kinda," "wha's he here for?," "what the...," "so then…" (koroche, tipa, che èto on tut?, ty che vaashche?, nu vot, znachit… ). This stumbling dialogue is also flooded by sounds from other residents of a place they cannot name: dragonflies, crickets, goats, dogs, bees, mosquitoes, wagtails, and larks. The original version of the screenplay even states explicitly that the establishing shot should be taken from “the elevation of a bird in flight” (Vyrypaev]).

These problems of exteriority inherent in Euphoria 's title and text are what bind it to a melodramatic tradition; the dilemmas regarding some slippery, if not oceanic state that is both “outside” and resistant to symbolization. In 19 th -century melodrama, paltry or inadequate dialogue was bolstered by musical interludes from outside—from the pit—in order to synchronize harmonies with audience sympathy and evoke something beyond the four walls of the theater. In Pixérécourt's Parisian melodramas, off-stage sounds were even used to bypass a ban on spoken dialogue in unofficial venues. The tools that plastered the gaps in a spoken story (its presence ) weren't in it.

In this spirit, Euphoria offers us a prize-winning performance from young Tatar accordionist Aidar Gainulin, with whom Vyrypaev has already worked on stage. Their original plan was to play Shostakovich melodies on the accordion (which soon revealed itself as a bad idea); instead the director used the musician's skills to weave what he would subsequently call a returning, repetitive “leitmotif” (qtd. Kichin). In the words of the press service, the entire movie is even “whipped onwards by [Gainulin's] unceasing accordion off screen” (Denisova). A non-diegetic tool breaches the frame with sounds that another newspaper, Novaia gazeta, termed a “tango with death” (Maliukova). Twice we hear the hero and heroine feebly, if not pathetically whistle this same fatal melody to themselves.

Gainulin's obsessive, thanatic leitmotif has led the director and critics to compare this film to Greek tragedy or myth, even—rather than to melodrama (Aitova). Here we shift from balanced euphoria to unwise ecstasy, to the primacy of whatever lies outside our broken bodies and door-less homes. Narrative progression becomes a spiraling, audible chorus that clarifies the power of fate, of gods, or the ways things must be. After all, the etymology of the Greek word choros is itself “a dance in a circular fashion.”

Yet just as our compulsive, ecstatic accordion is occasionally interspersed with affecting, melodramatic strings, so Vyrypaev has also said that tragedy pure and simple is a genre we “can't take seriously today, since we've no religious consciousness, no cosmogonical sense of the world any more” (qtd. Kharitonova). And indeed, over above the “fated” elements in this film, such as the gravitation of red objects towards one another, we see elements of comedy (in particular a late reappearance by the motorcyclist). These impure, muddled genres and musical styles do much to vivify the metaphors of sexual penetration, wind-filled houses, and permeable rowboats. What is vital, however, is that the meaninglessness of comedy does not impinge upon the lives of the central couple.

Here we leave euphoric balance far behind, because what's frightening is the lovers' strange willingness to invoke the fateful, ineffable force around them. They're blessed by the dignity of the T/thing outside; they “ forfeit terrestrial life for it, so that their very defeat is their triumph, conferring onto them the sublime dignity ” (Žižek). Consider the proceedings thus far. We have an increasingly “feral” drama played out on the edge of European Russia, between the Don and Volga rivers. It is orchestrated by a “hot-headed” Tartar. We can then add the film's verbal dumbness, driven by an ineffable object of attention—its looping, orchestrated insistence upon a fatefulness that blesses us through our loss. All this reiteration and “fated” affirmation starts to evoke a source of power to which we must masochistically, unquestioningly submit for self-affirmation. Does this not suggest the tautology of statehood (or the nation as the Thing itself)?

Take the denouement: the heroes remove their red clothing and don white, almost translucent garb (they let light breach their bodies); they use a rowboat we already know is full of holes (they let the water breach their hull); and they consciously invoke the wrath of a man they already know has just shot a dog (then, in an incredibly decelerated final scene, almost allow his gunshots to breach both their bodies and the boat). The heroine's furious, monolithic husband grants the couple's relationship its raison d'être. Again as in Greek tragedy, awareness of this monolithic paternalism is “known throughout” (anagnorisis); it is always there, outside, as a way to turn tongue-tied failure into divine victory. Vyrypaev does not repeat the angry conflations of ethics and divinity that we have seen in recent films like Pavel Lungin's The Island (Ostrov, 2006), but it is heading in the same self-demeaning, masochistically statist direction. Only the occasional joke suggests any nervousness from the director about these implicit worldviews.

In Steven Shainberg's comedy of 2002, Secretary, the heroine played by Maggie Gyllenhaal confronts her therapist, who is concerned that she is masochistically cutting herself as a desperate way to designate or feel something , to overcome the absence of euphoria. She lacks even exhilaration, a problem that today's medical profession calls anhedonia. Gyllenhaal's therapist tells her: “You know, there's a long history of this in Catholicism. You're part of a great tradition.” Let's reflect on that awkward joke against the background, once again, of Vyrypaev's original screenplay. Before the director's establishing shot from a bird's godly perspective, we have a biblical epigraph taken from Acts 22:7. Here Paul relates his Damascus road experience, in particular the invisible voice of God “round about,” begging Paul to stop frustrating (that is, “persecuting”) Divine Will: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Savl, Savl, chto ty gonish' menia?). Paul acquiesces to the Thing, to the irrational, supreme cause of meaning that—precisely because it is supreme, can mean nothing in particular. It is just there, “round about,” no matter how you lock your doors, wear your underpants, or plug your boat.

As we know, Saint Paul has often been employed by recent continental thought to investigate the nature of epiphany, the ability to “subtract truth from [any] communitarian grasp, be it that of a people, a city, an empire, a territory, or a social class” (Badiou 5), but here we have the reverse. There's a huge irony that our drama of boundless, supposedly Eurasian passion is played out in lands that housed Asian invaders—the same people who would one day create the future capital of Russia with their support for Muscovite princes.

Our obsessive Tatar chorus invokes more sad associations than it would like. Journalists in southern Russia, where this movie was shot, rightly compared the film's score to legendary Argentinean accordionist Ástor Piazzolla, a man whom Vyrypaev has credited with a “monopoly” on all associations with accordion music (qtd. Shervud). In last year's NTV drama In the Rhythm of the Tango (V ritme tango; dir. Aleksandr Pavlovskii), an Argentinean couple come to Russia after the collapse of the Buenos Aires economy. Only in Moscow do they learn what it means to be really passionate, to be Tatar, if you like—or really Catholic. If Vyrypaev is right that we cannot have true tragedy today, since there is no shared cosmogony, then it seems we are dangerously close to self-injury or self-harm, together with other borderline personality disorders. What causes this behavior? In the view of modern medicine, very often it is low self-esteem. We all know the saying that “if you scratch a Russian you'll find a Tartar.” If you keep scratching, though, not only will you hurt yourself, but you'll leave a big hole—and heaven knows what will come flooding in from the outside.

Tragic Melodrama: Viktor Merezhko's Son'ka Golden-Hands (Son'ka—Zolotaia ruchka) 2007

Euphoria takes melodrama's traditional use of happenstance, a force “outside” the wings of the stage, and moves in the direction of a modern tragedy “whipped on” by some very unhealthy intensions. In his examination of providence, Vyrypaev shifts from euphoria to the etymological root of ecstasy, to being outside oneself in an “ex-stasis.” The private is driven by something horribly public, if not invisibly ubiquitous. Vyrypaev's movie may seem an isolated, rather extreme attempt to portray inevitability, but it does have parallels in television drama that are even more explicit. One of the best examples has been the recent TV series written and directed by Viktor Merezhko, Son'ka Golden-Hands. It had an enormously successful debut, even though Boris Yeltsin's funeral took place on the same day. No live event on Russian TV has attracted as many viewers in the last five years; the audience share for Son'ka was less than one percent behind Yeltsin's (Borodina). Death and destiny are both intriguing, if not appealing themes.

In my overview of romantically-driven television written for KinoKultura in 2005, I suggested that recent crime or detective series have tended almost unanimously to depict their social context, the status quo, as unalterable. Good, evil, and the conflict between them have remained stuck in a fateful or at least disheartening Manicheanism. This has resulted in several narrative tendencies or philosophical stances, each epitomized by a certain kind of broadcast and/or hero.

•  Autonomy as/in stately agency: Turetskii's March (Marsh Turetskogo, dir. Mikhail Tumanishvili, since 2000). Confidently active policemen, like lead actor Aleksandr Domogarov who plays the overt representative of a governmental institution, cannot be taken seriously in 2005. Self-assured ladies' men who draw upon their employers for that same assurance smack on occasion of Soviet cockiness or chvanstvo.  Their free will is unconvincingly unfettered.

•  Stately agency frustrated by the daily grind: Kamenskaia (dir. Iurii Moroz, since 1999). Here the representatives of law and order are scaled down. They reside within the Manicheanism mentioned above. In this series, detective Anastasiia Kamenskaia (played by Elena Iakovleva) puts love and married life on a par with police work. Hard-won romance and barely self-sufficient detectives are both embodiments of modest, credible social amelioration.  The troubled domestic subplots here must be palpable, lest we fall to the complaints suffered by confident, institutionally sustained Turetskii.

•  Stately agency as credible only on a tiny/cute scale: A Policeman's Beat (Uchastok; dir. Aleksandr Baranov, 2003). This is the very quiet television series in which Sergei Bezrukov starred after mafia epic Th e Brigade (Brigada; dir. Aleksei Sidorov, 2002) came to an end. As the promotional materials had it: “ Policeman Pavel Kravtsov is a rather strange person.  If he has to handcuff somebody he apologizes and asks if the cuffs pinch.  He's ambitious but honest; he's young but pensive.” A kindly, if not shy member of the police fixes small-scale village problems amid a multitude of loving references to calm, decent dramas under Brezhnev.

•  Stately agency can only be seen ironically: The UPS Agency (Agentstvo NLS ; dir. Dmitrii Parmenov, since 2001). This is the so-called “ironic detective” tale, looking with a wry smile at yarns of masterful criminals or sage, perspicacious detectives.  Affirmative, inclusive kindness and humor counteract the cruelty of typical, dead-serious melodrama. The UPS Agency is driven wholly by affairs of the heart. The agency's very name stands for “Unusual Private Situations.”  Cases cracked by its three young (and amateurish) detectives always involve someone's amorous or familial mishap. Nobody is in any real danger.

Son'ka Golden-Hand slowly suggests that irony could (and should) be replaced with effort, with the kind of worldview that could (and should!) reinstate people like Turetskii. As part of this TV-revisionism we turn again to the time-honored interest of melodrama in both affect and chance—that is, the time before a criminal is caught. The traditional inability of melodramatic characters to say what they feel means that private tensions caused by the world outside (a world beyond their control) are suppressed. In this conflict of private and public we sense the debt of melodrama to its early contemporaries, Marx and Freud (McReynolds and Neuberger, Introduction 8). Son'ka visualizes suppressed moral, religious, and/or legal imperatives that are more often “known” or simply felt than consciously understood or articulated. What is worrying, however, is that they are all conflated in this drama—and gradually handed over to the State for assistance. We are told what we should know.

Filmed in Saint Petersburg, Yalta, Odessa, and Karelia, the introductory blurb for Merezhko's ethically concerned melodrama reads as follows:

Son'ka Golden-Hands, as she was known in the criminal world, became a kind of legend; this con-artist's life story was the foundation of serialized storytelling in Russian cinema. In the mid-1870s, fables were already being told about this elusive and resourceful woman. Nobody in the underworld could match her talent or authority. Her rare criminal genius brought her a wealth of experience, as a result of which she became increasingly bold. Son'ka dedicated her entire life and intellect to a career of stealing. Powerful bankers, foreign merchants, landowners, jewelers, high-society clubs, and the apartments of wealthy citizens… all this was within her “sphere of influence.” Son'ka was a brilliant and talented woman, beautiful and cynical—yet she could be charming and loving, also. Life for her was a game of chance. She played that game for many years, traveling around Russia and abroad. The public was constantly amazed by the ingenuity with which she fled artfully from investigators in order to hide… and then vanish altogether.

The cinematic “foundation” referred to here is a similarly-titled, six-episode silent melodrama of 1915, jointly directed by Iurii Iurevskii and Vladimir Kasianov. Today only a few fragments of the first episode exist; they are stored in Russian state archives and very rarely shown (“Na pokaz”). This initial screen adaptation also retold the legendary exploits of Son'ka, whose real name was Sonia Bliuvshtein. Its box-office success disconcerted some viewers. The film was criticized for pandering to "sensation for the sake of sensation” together with an irresponsibly “light-hearted” attitude towards the heroine's misdeeds (Youngblood 60-1).

Inspiration for the 1915 feature is, to a large degree, attributable to mythmaking from Odessa, since the city always thought of Son'ka as its own. In reality, however, she was born into a poor Jewish family on the outskirts of Warsaw; Merezhko's version makes much of Son'ka's tense relationship with Odessa's criminal elite. She died on the island of Sakhalin in 1903 where she briefly met Chekhov during her incarceration. Within a decade of her demise the facts of her biography had merged with various urban myths to create a popular novel by a certain “I. Rapkhof,” who published under the equally mysterious pseudonym of Count Amori. Businessman Aleksandr Drankov, Russia's challenger to Pathé and Gaumont in the pre-Revolutionary marketplace quickly optioned Rapkhof's text.

Merezhko's heroine owes more to Drankov's screenwriters than to Rapkhof. In the novel Son'ka is of aristocratic origin, whereas Drankov's tawdry (and more profitable!) movie remakes her as poor, dirty, and desperate. She buys clothes that have been stolen from robbers' victims, thus maintaining a sufficiently "proletarian" appearance to get work at a factory… and burglarize it. This fluidity in Son'ka's background and appearance, each time reflecting an external social or fiscal pressure, would not lessen over the decades. In 1995 a post-Soviet novel by Aleksei Drozdetskii, again bearing the heroine's name as its title, would reconstruct her as a noblewoman. It would also change her Jewish ancestry to Russian (Cherniaev; Bernshtein]).

Writers, directors, and investors have made Son'ka whomsoever they wish. Even today, blogs and online forums bring together totally opposing views; they mirror the comments scribbled on Son'ka's unmarked (and therefore) presumed resting place in Moscow's Vagan'kovskoe cemetery. This grave is topped with a headless stone torso into which visitors have chiseled both supplications and terms of abuse. Here are four online examples of similar comments from the blogs:

She was an incredibly beautiful woman, a rare individual. Such a shame that somebody who looked that good couldn't sort their life out a little better.

I'm called Sof'ia, too. I've loved her ever since I found out about her (and that was ages ago!). She's a legendary, amazing, courageous woman!!! But she had such a difficult fate… To be honest, I'm a real fan of people like her; I find it kinda difficult to express all these thoughts and feelings. SON'KA GOLDEN-HANDS FOREVER!!!

Son'ka, my dear. You're the most beautiful person in the world. I bow down before you. Please give me strength…

She was a crook. For heaven's sake, people; when will you stop fawning over wickedness?[1]

The base-text for today's TV version is Viktor Merezhko's own novel, published by Amfora in 2006. The book was immediately criticized for not being a novel, but 540 pages of almost exclusively direct speech, as if the screenplay had simply been bound and shipped off with callous disregard to bookstores. There was, said several newspapers, no sense of a crafted, overarching narrative structure; the book was just a long, unrelated series of adventures, regularly punctuated as if for primetime scheduling. Merezhko is indeed the author of more than fifty famous screenplays, but his reputation did not save him from severe condemnation. This was a badly-written story about a very bad person (Grusko).

Merezhko fought back by declaring in February 2007 that Son'ka Golden-Hands relates “the tragic life of a woman, dying from a criminal lust for diamonds. Son'ka symbolizes a populace debased by a lethal obsession with the Golden Fleece. Not all members of the public, of course, just some of them…” (qtd. Vaimugina). Given Son'ka's family background, Merezhko's remarks caused offence among Jewish viewers, both in Russia and the US. [2] Again the director went on the defensive, claiming there was nothing anti-Semitic in his remarks; Son'ka, he insisted, embodies universal values like those of Robin Hood. After all, he continued, in our world where so much is “fated,” charitable dignity towards society's nether realms (at least in financial terms) is always an admirable quality, even when proffered by an underworld kingpin. [3] Son'ka is part of Merezhko's search for a new, dynamic protagonist:

We absolutely need a [new and] ideal hero today. What does the “hero of our time” look like? Nobody has invented him yet; nobody knows what that hero ought to do. Where are his prototypes? Do we make him a banker, oligarch or perhaps a bandit? No. And as for the working class, they've ceased to exist in those terms—as a class… If we look back to Soviet times, then we can't avoid the figure of [Andrei] Sokolov. Sergei Bondarchuk played that role so wonderfully in Fate of a Man [Sud'ba cheloveka; dir. Sergei Bondarchuk, 1959]… The tragedy back then, though, was that the [Soviet] State deluged us with “heroism” from above. It made superheroes out of workers and peasants, while totally forgetting the intelligentsia—our cultural elite. No hero that's artificially cultivated by the State will ever catch on… We need worthy prototypes, the kind that viewers will trust and follow. We need a hero with high morals who'll go actively into the world and fight for all the “insulted and injured.” (qtd. Vaimugina).

The interview continues in a related vein, for Merezhko—in search of his own personal heroes—then says he regularly attends church for consultations with a spiritual advisor. Among the director's favorite saints is John of Kronstadt. I should note that this particular saint was a contemporary of Son'ka's and a member of the Union of the Russian People. The Union, connected in turn to the so-called Black Hundred, held that only sacrosanct, unchallengeable autocracy could fend off the scourge of revolution.

So how does a Polish Jewish con-artist aid this search for commendable, if not divine protagonists? In Merezhko's series, Son'ka's spiritual heritage isn't terribly important. Her Jewish background serves more of a structural function within the genre expectations of melodrama; it helps to position her as a socially peripheral, downtrodden heroine. The other Jewish characters stay fundamentally within stereotype: jewelers and other tradesmen of both unpleasant physique and an equally unappealing mercantilism. These minor figures say more about Merezhko's sociopolitical views than they contextualize the heroine. She, as the above quotes suggest, is more a figure for general discussions of self-definition and destiny. The fact that we have here a heroine, as opposed to a hero, also aids this technique—as does her status as an orphan. The author has fashioned a character that is “minorized” three times over; we then sit back to see what she can do.

Her acts of self-definition—of pushing her luck—are numerous and only vaguely connected. The reviewer of Merezhko's novel is absolutely correct in chiding the story for its absent story arc. As with other long series, such as the drawn out comedy Bachelors (Kholostiaki; dir. Pavel Bardin, 2004), the episodic structure becomes theoretically endless. More stories provide more examples of the heroes' philosophies, but there is no real goal, save the tension over whether Son'ka will get caught. We wait for this to happen, save some gross deviation from history. As time goes on and likelihood starts to assert itself, Son'ka is indeed arrested and imprisoned; it is in these final episodes that some tardy yet essential themes emerge to mirror those of Euphoria.

Both productions stress action over psychology in that their heroes and heroines are all driven by “something else,” an external force expressed by the melodramatic trope of music from outside the frame. As with Euphoria, Merezhko's incidental score, here composed by Dmitrii Smirnov, is played on the piano by characters inside the scenes, too. Smirnov's signature themes appear in thirty-four variations throughout the series. Gentle though they may be, they soon recall the insistence of Aidar Gainulin's accordion.

That thematic insistence emerges most clearly when Son'ka is forced to define herself verbally either as a free agent or victim of external pressures. In Episode Nine, during her trial, she is given a chance to explain her wayward actions before the judges. What are the reasons for her surrendering to the "unavoidable" choice of crime? Son'ka answers by questioning the very tenets and nature of the law. Since jurisprudence is written by men, who are themselves inescapably fallible, how can the law be truth? “Only God has the right to judge.” Such phrases, if presaged by prior themes in prior episodes, would indeed suggest this spiritual outlook, something along the lines of Utesov: A Lifelong Song (Utesov: Pesnia dlinoiu v zhizn' ; dir. Georgii Nikolaenko) of 2006, which is so full of cack-handed spiritual “revisionism” that it is almost impossible to watch. The series is artificially full of shrewd and kindly Jewish characters, just as more and more of today's Russian sitcoms are peppered with “adorably” droll metrosexuals. It's all unnaturally contrived or some kind of Hollywood liberalism manqué.

What Son'ka does, instead of developing her brief theocentrism, is then say that society's laws have made her the way she is. The ideal is swapped for the material and the divine for the purely brutish. She calls herself a “wolf, merely providing for her cubs.” In other words, although the law may (always) be faulty, social legislation based on charitable or Christian principles could raise individuals from bestial behavior. The initial divine metaphor establishes the tone for other, more protracted sociopolitical observations after her conviction, set in the Sakhalin prison colony (the real home of the Law). These scenes were filmed in Karelia's Vazheozerskii monastery (the home of God). Merezhko apparently sees the two buildings as interchangeable.

In Episode Twelve Son'ka is finally broken by solitary confinement. She is reduced to a howling lupine state, prowling her filthy cell on all fours. In desperation she scrapes a Star of David into the rotting plaster of her wall. This is also not a spiritual gesture. It has no precedent or preparation in the previous eleven episodes. It is part of an ongoing social accent, as shown by the very final scene of the drama, which takes place outside a jewelry store. Son'ka is now back with one of her daughters, but she looks physically devastated; although dressed in city finery, her eyes are sunken and her teeth disgustingly stained by the term on Sakhalin. Prompted by the wide-eyed enthusiasm of her daughter for some jewels in the shop window, Son'ka surrenders ecstatically to the pressure of this minimal social situation (to something "outside" her) and takes the girl into the shop, evidently to return to thievery. She winks at the camera with the self-delusion of an addict. She is the evolutionary result of a sick society. Legislation could help. Indeed it already is helping; several regional authorities around Russia have introduced laws to make school courses on Orthodox culture mandatory.

The troubling implication of Son'ka Golden-Hands ' courtroom episode is that it draws initially upon melodramatic tradition, upon the use of such scenes “to escape vertigo and ally the anxiety they themselves provoke” (Lih 194-5). Son'ka's sickly, vertiginous ecstasy is caused by an addictive exteriority, a passion that leads to total “ex-stasis.” Merezhko calls this mis- or displacement the choice of a “wrong road” in life. That sacrifice, he then reasons, led in time to her characterization as “the devil in a skirt” or "devilishly beautiful." The exorcism of this demon—and the return of dignity—comes in Euphoria from a "Catholic" submission to a masochism born of cultural insecurity; in Son'ka it comes from the state's promise of improved social policy, from the almost theocratic charity of our epigraph. Although Merezhko has in one interview expressed the bizarre opinion that this final scene is “optimistic,” he adds that he is trying ultimately to "vindicate or defend Son'ka [otstaivat' ee]" (qtd. Fedotova). In other words, if there is help or “defense” available, there is reason for optimism. One anonymously logged comment appended to another interview with Merezhko on the very same subject named a source of that social help or defense in no uncertain terms: “What kind of country is this?... Doesn't the [Russian] State have some unified policy for instilling basic human values in young people?” (Reznikova).

Actually it does: look at the heroine Merezhko has planned in his next project to fight for this justice: “A female soldier and patriot. That's how a woman should be: beautiful, strong, energetic… She should be young, beautiful, severe, and tender, too—all of that together!” (qtd. Shinkareva). [4] Even though Euphoria and Son'ka Golden-Hands both employ the mellowest aspects of melodrama—the music—to examine themes of societal togetherness for lovers and even entire social classes, it seems that Vyrypaev (unconsciously) and Merezhko (overtly) would rather replace their orchestras with orchestrated policy.

And this is why films such as Lungin's The Island have divided audiences so dramatically. Established screenwriter and director Ivan Okhlobystin has even likened The Island to the greatest films about spiritual destiny in all of world cinema, like Pasolini's The Gospel according to Saint Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964 ) or Tarkovskii's Andrei Rublev (1969/1971)—(“Vot èto siuzhet!”). Okhlobystin is now, perhaps strangely, the author of this spring's big-boned, large-testicled action flick Paragraph 78 (dir. Mikhail Khleborodov). Borrowing very heavily indeed from Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979), Doom (dir. Andrzej Bartkowiak, 2005), and other international reference points, Paragraph 78 uses a $9 million budget and lots of gunfire to ponder the near, post-Putin future. Specifically it asks: “What will determine a human life? Strict submission to [outside] orders—or some inner feeling of justice?”

After making several aesthetically suspect comedies with Roman Kachanov earlier in his career, such as Down House (2000), Okhlobystin would soon bridge the gap between ethics and spirituality, answering the question posed by Paragraph 78 . He would embrace the first line of his screenplay for the military comedy Demobbed (DMB; dir. Roman Kachanov, 2000): “There's a certain word called ‘Must'!” In the autumn of that year he announced to the press that he would become an Orthodox priest. Within a few months Putin awarded him a gold watch for “Services to the Fatherland.” As the tagline for Paragraph 78 clearly tells us: “The time has come for new heroes” and, as Merezhko then concurs: “For me a hero is always a spiritual leader.” Apparently that is something they teach you on Sakhalin—and other similar islands.

David MacFadyen
University of California, Los Angeles


1] Forum entries dated between January and April 2007, housed at the celebrity website Liudi

2] See, or example, Karasin, “O ‘Son'ke zolotoi ruchke'”. An even more explicit discussion has now begun at Bol'shoi forum under the title: “Is Son'ka the Shame or Pride of Jews?” (“Son'ka — pozor ili gordost' evreistva?”).

3] See Karasin “Son'ka doshla do ruchki.” The connection with Robin Hood was also made explicit by the lead actress, Anastasiia Mikul'china.

4] Merezhko's admiration for Son'ka is touched upon by Malpas.


Works Cited

Aitova, Kseniia. “Donskaia tragediia.” Agenstvo kul'turnoi informatsii. (2 November 2006).

Badiou, Alain. Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy . London: Continuum, 2002.

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David MacFadyen© 2007

Updated: 20 Jul 07