Melodrama as the Experience of the Moment

By Oleg Sulkin (New York)

Melodramatics is one of the most powerful drugs that lure people into movie theaters. The mechanism for squeezing out tears on the basis of on-screen spectacles was grasped and developed at the very beginning of the 20 th century. The ability to move someone to pity, after all, is not like Newton's binomial theorem. I should note that empathy for the “insulted and the injured” has been a leitmotif in Russian art ever since Akakii Akakievich's overcoat was stolen. But Gogol''s type of pity was charged with powerful human emotions that were propelled by the gunpowder of social tensions. In the vast majority of cases, weepiness is achieved by much more primitive means. Maksim Gor'kii, the “Stormy Petrel” of the Revolution, wept in Kuokkale's summer movie parlor when, during the film, the switchman's dog, seeing that the young son had fallen asleep on the tracks, raced barking and risking its own life directly at the oncoming train in order to prevent a catastrophe. Iurii Annenkov noted in his memoirs that Gor'kii apologized upon exiting the film-barracks: “I'm a very advantageous spectator.”

In terms of weepiness, spectators are advantageous in all epochs—from those antediluvian film-barracks to the multiplexes piling up today. Regardless of social status or background, we always need to experience strong emotions that are cast in an expressive, “life-like” way. We, the majority of spectators, are like Sonetka in Leskov's novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk , who “wanted passion to be served up to her not in its raw, uncooked state, but simmering in a spicy, piquant sauce of suffering and sacrifice” (160).

There is a noticeable retreat in today's Russian mainstream cinema from Gogolian, high, social, humanitarian weepiness and a turn to ordinary, salon, bourgeois soap operas. Someone wittingly observed that if Russian culture of the start of the 20 th century came out from under Gogol''s overcoat, then the culture of the end of that century comes from Turgenev's story “Mumu.”

This tendency can be easily explained. In today's register of genres, Russian cinema is experiencing an implacable volte-face as a result of the elimination of the ideological demands imposed by the communist epoch. During the Soviet period, there was a very firm hierarchy of genres. At the pinnacle of the pyramid were the historico-revolutionary and military-patriotic genres, as well as films about “a real communist” and political counter-propaganda pamphlet-films. Below these were edifying social dramas of urban or rural life, which transmitted moral-ethical perorations. Still lower were comedies, melodramas, detectives, adventure and action films—the contemptible “pure genres.” It goes without saying that in most instances the bottom of this pyramid got the upper hand both from the point of view of spectators' sympathies and commercial preferences in distribution. Yet this reality was not reflected within the hierarchical structure.

Today, however, everything has become mixed up in the Oblonskii household: in a revolutionary move, the pyramid has been inverted, and the genres formerly on the bottom (including fantasy, which had not existed back then) have become the most respected and the most in demand in the age of commercial considerations inasmuch as these genres are the most profitable. The strengthening of the vertical structure of power and the search for a new Russian identity will inevitably reanimate the need for new “social demands” and a new ideational hierarchy. The process of building this new pyramid has to take into account these multi-directed factors; it is still in process and far from complete. Many people assume that the optimal solution would be the principle of equality of genres, isocephaly—to invoke the term used to describe the convention in ancient Greek friezes of placing the heads of all figures at the same height. After all, any hierarchy, from their point of view, presupposes the presence of ideological priorities, whether communist or bourgeois or any other (for example, anarchistic avant-garde).

This is a good place to call attention to cinema's “separateness,” having become once again the victim of its own socio-political usefulness (just recall Lenin's “most important of the arts”). In this respect, the film industry has noticeably lagged behind other, more liberalized forms of art—for example, the graphic arts. Within art history today, there is a rejection of the table of ranks in analyzing pictorial perspective. Academician Boris Raushenbakh has polemically established an equality of rights for all kinds of perspectives—ancient Egyptian (two-dimensional), Renaissance (Paolo Uccello, Piero della Francesca), icon painting (inversion), Cézanne (spherical, spiraling). There is a mathematical justification for each perspective, Raushenbakh demonstrated. In this way, all artists are righteous and sinners, depending on one's point of view, and have the right to construct space using different methods. That's absolute artistic freedom for you! It would be worthwhile instigating Raushenbakh's programmatic anti-dogmatic conception into the Russian film industry, which is as yet still a captive of inert conceptions concerning genre priorities. But this is just a rosy dream.

And yet, despite any modernization—whether actual or potential—no structural liberalization can cancel the autonomy of genres as a series of self-sufficient rules that organize narrative. Genres are recognized and marked not because they are entered as such in some cinematic Book of Destiny, but because this is an immanent feature of artistic works. Typologically, there are genres that are more capacious—for example, drama or comedy. Many very different films fall into these ranks because drama and comedy—as a sum of devices—are a feature of an overwhelming majority of all works. In addition, the balance between seriousness and smiling in many instances is mediated and difficult to measure. This is why we have recourse to constructions like “a drama with elements of comedy” or “a comedy with elements of drama.” If the criteria are more strictly defined and if specific components of melodrama are isolated, it will turn out that part of these film-dramas fall into the category of melodrama, while the other part belongs to other genres but nonetheless makes use of melodramatic devices.

It is curious that directors—who in the past regarded melodrama with distaste—are using melodrama more actively. Take, for example, Aleksei Balabanov, who always identifies art with ideology, who has used cinema with great talent as a channel to “combine” programmatic theses in a series of very well-known agitational films in support of the new Russian “superman”— Brother (Brat, 1997), Brother-2 (Brat-2, 2000), and War (Voina, 2002). In his latest film, It Doesn't Hurt (Mne ne bol'no, 2006), Balabanov uses the structure of the melodramatic love triangle, with its traditional resolution of the dramatic conflict: the heroine has an incurable disease and dies. But almost as if recalling the old joke that “no matter how hard they tried to make a vacuum cleaner, all that came out was a machine gun,” Balabanov veers off onto his usual tracks of contemplating strained social relations and world-views, and in so doing destroys the integrity of the genre's structure, essentially breaking the melodrama's spine across his knee.

Initially the love story of two very different people—an intelligent and modest young man (Aleksandr Iatsenko) and a pathos-filled, vulgar kept woman (Renata Litvinova)—seems to follow the established laws of the sentimental genre, complete with a villain, deceit, threats, and moral dualism. In the second part of the film, however, a profoundly ideological “message” takes the foreground, a “message” that has nothing to do with the experiences of the heroes in resolving the fates of their emotions, but is connected to the director's feelings concerning the fate of Russia. Somewhere in the middle of the film, the director conceptually shifts the camera away from his heroes-lovers to anonymous paratroopers, who are called upon to embody the theme of a victorious masculine brotherhood that has undergone severe trials. This is the idea that Balabanov incorporates into each of his films and that can be traced across them. The lovers' triangle is left to its own destiny; one of its “corners”—the tyrannical benefactor who is also the platonic protector of the heroine (masterfully played by Nikita Mikhalkov)—disappears without any clear explanation. Balabanov is much more interested in digging into the nuances of “lamentable” psychology, in breaking through the thorns of doubts in order to get to his programmatic maxim about the brotherhood of real people, about self-sacrifice in the name of a quasi-patriotic idea that borders on chauvinism and xenophobia. Literary critic and translator Semen Lipkin is credited with a clever edification: You can go to a brothel. Or to a synagogue. But you shouldn't confuse a brothel with a synagogue. I shall not specify what these two kinds of public spaces are associated with in the context of Balabanov, but the violent combination of incompatible discourses can be seen by the untrained eye.

I suspect that because of his indisputable talent, Balabanov's films will remain in the history of Russian cinema as centaurs, in which imposed ideologemes (with elements of paranoia) co-exist in a tragic tension with inspiring human stories—at times suffocated by their weightiness, at others lightening the weight and thereby giving art its life-sustaining “de-ideologized” air. If this problem is viewed from a historical perspective, art—even the Muse of filmmaking—is always social, always charged and engaged (as I mentioned earlier); there is always a sovereign region of “useless” human activity, a self-contained way that allows people to reflect upon their place in the world and the world within them. By contrast, ideology as a system of views and ideas, as a collection of coordinated postulates, is a pragmatic instrument for political, social, and moral actions directed at society with the goal of either protecting it or changing it. Art always reflects ideology; it is a carrier of ideology; and in many instances it is tempting to describe art epidemiologically as the transmitter of ideology. But whether the artist wishes it or not, art is always broader in its signification than ideology and semantically richer. Simplifying matters, one could say that ideology is transitory, while art is eternal. Even the greatest epochs dissolve into nothingness, the ideological context is blown away to the last grain of sand. But genuine works of art, forgive the pathos, remain for a long time, sometimes for ages, and preserve their aesthetic and philosophical significance.

The obvious ideological charge in It Doesn't Hurt disfigures the melodrama (like a boil), shifting into the direction of quasi-patriotism and shattering the structure of the genre. This is regrettable, of course, and ruins the fun; at the same time, however, it imprints the film with Balabanov's inimitable trademark. Possibly Balabanov is mistaken in his ideational formulations, but these very mistakes are significant and representative because they are rooted in society. An artist's “mistakes” frequently say more in his favor than any “correct” ideas. Even with his penetrating sensitivity, Solzhenitsyn was unable “to catch the scent” of the approaching era of cloning, stating categorically that humanity, “with all its atomic power” will never create an “insignificant, pitiful, yellow duckling” in a test tube (149). Was the wise Solzhenitsyn wrong? Obviously! The era of Dolly and other cloned sheep and ducklings has arrived on the world's stage. Yet Solzhenitsyn is correct conceptually in his pantheistic ecstasy in the face of the uniqueness of the world. And no genetic engineering can cancel out this ecstasy.

The case of Balabanov is also interesting because he represents a new quest, mixing and removing the taboo on genres in Russian cinema in the first decade of the 21st century. Genres are being turned inside out: authors say one thing, but assume another.

As an example, let's take what at first glance appears to be an indisputable melodrama, Andrei Kravchuk's The Italian (Ital'ianets, 2005), which represents a classic sub-genre: the sentimental narrative of orphanhood. A young boy runs away from an orphanage in search of his mother. What a panorama in which to squeeze out tears! What unique possibilities for orchestrating spiritual emotions! Yet Kravchuk, by his own admission, is little interested in this. As he said in an interview that I conducted with him:

I wanted to tell a contemporary story using almost a documentary approach… “to conceal” the director maximally. There is practically no music. More accurately, there is music but it does not move the melodrama along, it does not illustrate the plot and does not decorate it. Aleksandr Knaifel''s music creates the essential conditions necessary to expand the space of experience, but does not give an unequivocal coloration to the story. Any attempt to add purple prose, any intensification of the melodrama would have destroyed the plot from my point of view. Perhaps viewers would have wept more, but it would have seemed to me that we were selling our homeland, like those impoverished people who sell matreshkas. (Sulkin)

Let's look more closely at The Italian. The film is shot, for the most part, using mid-shots. It is quite clear that the director is resisting superficial melodramatics. He clearly does not want his film to resemble—even formally, even in its devices—Argentine soap operas, which are constructed on the basis of emotionally colored editing of close-up shots that are accompanied by soul-wrenching music. Later in his interview, Kravchuk said to me:

Please note that there are very few close-up shots in the film. I felt it important to give depth to each scene. The main events have to occur in the middle plane, between the foreground and background. I did not remove the restraints that could have freed my hands during the editing. There is an episode in the film where the run-away, Vania, is sitting on the steps at the train station and his pursuers, not noticing him, run down the steps as the train is leaving. The cameraman kept insisting that we shoot the face of the boy in close-up. But I refused. This would have been purple prose.

The conclusion is clear: any attempt to decorate the genre claims of The Italian is neither the whimsy of the director, nor a formal perversion, but a programmatic desire to establish a different cinema on the basis of the devices of melodrama. Different how? I would call it a patriotic parable. Vania, the “wandering son,” casts himself at the feet of Mother Russia, preferring to live in the shadows of Russia's teetering fences, rather than eating oranges in sunny Italy, where he has won the lottery—in the guise of an affectionate and childless couple that has chosen to adopt specifically him, Vania.

Kravchuk and many other directors with art-house habits consider harping on melodramatics to be synonymous with bad taste, something very shameful, somewhat like masturbating in public. And we have heard Kravchuk state that he almost removed the entire music track, justifiably seeing it as the most active variable that precipitates emotions, aggressively provoking the aesthetics of weepiness. Directors of this type approach melodrama with caution, as an alien and archaic instrument, as a two-sided blade with which one can easily hurt one's reputation. This cautious approach, it seems, is related to the unbridled exploitation of melodrama in mass culture on television—in mini-series and multi-episode programs. As a rule, such episodes are slapped together on the fly using the aesthetics of the soap opera, with its unreflective style of “crease twice, fold three times” (dva pritopa, tri prikhlopa) in those very same infamous close-ups that Kravchuk tried to avoid.

There is something implacably appealing in the devices of melodramatics, which explains why directors of films that are so widely different in their way of constructing genres and meanings make use of them. Aleksandr Veledinskii's Alive (Zhivoi, 2006) is a penetrating, masterful drama with existential spices about the return of an invalid soldier from the war in Chechnia. The veteran, who has come to know the true cost of human relations in the hell of mortal combat, keeps measuring—like a tuning fork—this high ideal among “civilians.” Here in post-Soviet Russia, however, everything is a morass, no matter where you cast your eye. And nobody can pass this fault-finding “lie detector's” trial, except the Orthodox priest, a kind of alter-ego to the film's hero (it is no accident that these two roles are played by the Chadov brothers, Aleksei and Andrei). So far I have been describing the living, but the tuning fork itself is a kind of “itinerant court,” which takes the form of the hero's constant interaction with the materialized spirits of the two army buddies who saved his life at the cost of their own. The soundtrack, which consists of the latest hits of Russian confessional rock, emphasizes the emotional, heart-rending nature of thoughts about Russia's destinies. One of the participants of this year's Symposium in Pittsburgh even remarked that there were too many songs, that the soundtrack was overloaded.

Veledinskii, whose earlier film was Russian (Russkoe, 2004), works with a crude poetics, akin to Vladimir Vysotskii's urban ballads, and the pain that springs from the collision of the prose of everyday life with the protagonist's romantic aspirations is unlikely to be seen as falling within a profound melodramatic experience. Yet there are moments when the stern poet Veledinskii cannot resist the temptation of an easy victory over the viewer. The hero makes his way, escorted by his ghosts, to the apartment of a war buddy who has survived unharmed, and one of the spirits becomes overwhelmed with emotions upon seeing his buddy's son—he remembers his own children, now orphaned. Here the director does not conceal that he is opening the gates for viewers' emotions, blatantly plays with close-ups to provoke the flow of emotions. On the whole, however, Veledinskii is aiming much higher: he needs an elevated catharsis in the viewer; a sharp, burning identification with the hero's gradual coming to learn that “there is no truth on earth, but there is no truth above either.”

The iconoclastic revolt by the hero of Pavel Lungin's The Island (Ostrov, 2006)—a sinner repenting at the cost of his entire righteous life, making amends for the fatal sin of his youth—is also not averse to sentimentalism.. Father Anatolii's, the “holy sinner,” strict life—as played in Petr Mamonov's calligraphic performance—is flawlessly shaped visually. Exquisite graphic landscapes of the Russian North in the lapidary style of Rockwell Kent (Andrei Zhegalov, the cameraman, regrettably died recently); the restrained exaltation of church choirs; flexible, energetic dialogs. This is not the place to discuss either the disappointing superficiality—on the level of a newspaper comic strip—of the “atonement” that the film offers or the director's use of populism as an instrument to build some kind of second-class “Christian MacDonald's” in the guise of an Orthodox monastery. These issues—as much as a socio-metric analysis of The Island 's phenomenal success in Russia—are a separate topic that requires very careful and detailed examination.

What is important from the point of view of this article is that amongst the assortment of artistic means used to represent Father Anatolii's righteous life and moral “feats,” the most actively used is the serial junk-poetics of melodramatization. A young boy, crippled by a rotting hip bone, has undergone four operations; nothing has helped. The mother and son come to our miracle-worker. “God will help,” says Father Anatolii with assurance. The mother cries, the boy cries. And he, the miracle-worker, prays devoutly. And achieves a miracle. The boy no longer needs his crutches. Total ecstasy. In an analogous way, at the end of the film Father Anatolii miraculously cures young Nastia, the daughter of admiral Tikhon Petrovich, that very same comrade of Anatolii's who has magically survived the murder (attempted murder it turns out), the sin for which Father Anatolii has prayed for forgiveness his entire life. Nastiia suffers from acute epilepsy, but there are no limits to the power of devout prayer. And the girl is healed—thank God and his representative on Earth, Father Anatolii! At one point in its history, Soviet cinema mocked such theatrical “healings”—for example, in atheistic comedies like Iakov Protazanov's St. Jurgen's Day (Prazdnik sviatogo Iorgena, 1930). But the fervent struggle against God in post-Soviet cinema has taken a backseat, as something irrelevant, even shameful, during the period of Christianizing post-communist space—a campaign being carried out exactly like a campaign authorized by the Party. Nowadays, people are not embarrassed to pass off the crassness (poshlost' ) of provincial mysticism for genuine discoveries of the human soul.

If The Island is a sign of the return to religious consciousness, even if in a simplified, comic book version, then Ivan Vyrypaev's debut film, Euphoria (Eiforiia, 2006) is a polemical demonstration of such retro-back-stepping for the simple reason that the post-Soviet habitus is entirely amoral and lacking in spirituality. Greek tragedy is implanted into the dried-out earth of the southern Russian steppe and is spiced with a stunning, ritualistic cruelty in the style Kim Ki-duk. The story of Pavel and Vera's growing closeness, love, and death is told without any sentimentalism or lisping, with demonstrative simplicity, underlining the heroes' broken speech and awkwardness. The effect, at first, is lyrically poetic, and then becomes tragically poetic thanks to the two “back-ups”: the visual and the musical. As much as the visual background is shot by cameraman Andrei Naidenov in a completely traditional way, with an epic sweep and beautiful landscapes that are head-spinning (as in Terrence Malick's first two films), the musical score by Aidar Gainullin, the composer and virtuoso baian-player, is extremely unusual in contemporary Russian filmic discourse. It is organized around one melancholic melody, clearly stylized in accordance with an Argentine tango, which is heard off-screen for practically the entire film. Inappropriate for tragedy (inasmuch as it deflates it), this melodramatic leitmotif converts the main theme of the soundtrack into a rhythmic, mantra-like abstraction, somewhat akin to Phillip Glass' or Terry Riley's serial music. The insistent repetition of a single tango melody deprives it of earthly, concrete sensitivity, transforming it into a formal musical ornament. Although this device does not pretend to demonstrate a kind of “know-how,” it allows one to call attention to the extraordinary plasticity of melodramatic exaltation as a means of aesthetic expression.

Everyone understands that Euphoria is an art-house film. Yet these young filmmakers have their own conceptions and system of coordinates that are very distant from those of the average viewer—in fact, they could not be any further. Come to think of it, they could be: for example, Kira Muratova. A different continent, a different Universe; a unique vision and poetics, with its own unique intonation that can always be recognized. Muratova's latest film, Two in One (Dva v odnom, 2007), staples together two very distinct stories. The first—about the enigmatic suicide of an actor in a theater—is decadently beautiful and pessimistic. The second—about the eruption of late-life male lust—is also decadently beautiful and pessimistic, but leaves a surprising ray of hope. As is evident in Muratova's films beginning with The Aesthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1989), she has abandoned faith in a kindly humanity and the kindness of individuals. But I shall not risk calling her characters grim chimeras and devils incarnate, even though the demonic origin of many of them is self-evident: all it takes is to listen to Aleksandr Bashirov's recitation of Hamlet's soliloquy at the beginning of Two in One to become convinced of this.

The paradox of Muratova's latest film lies in the fact that she continues—as in her earliest “provincial melodramas”—to love the people who have disillusioned her, but she loves them (as is common in Russian culture) in a peculiar way. The absence of mercy in the gaze that the director turns on the souls and bodies of her characters can easily reduce both souls and bodies to ashes. The immorality and illogicality of her characters' actions are so affected that the eruptions and splatters of her plot can only be understood as something hypothetical, as a game of shadows. Within this world of affect there beats the pulse of fatal melodrama, complete with its turbulent passions. But it is nonetheless a game of shadows. As Nancy Condee formulated with precision at the Symposium in Pittsburgh, melodramatic elements in Muratova “function as a set of empty signs, as if the blood had been drained from them…”

Postmodernism's inclusivity for Muratova is a convenient tool to create a unique “carnival of syndromes.” There is only one episode in Two in One in which melodramatics are not transformed into a sign, into a metaphor, but are communicated directly. Andrei Andreevich (the character played by Bogdan Stupka), chasing after the girls fleeing his lust—one of whom is his daughter, the other a not-yet-consummated lover—loses his breath and stops. We see his tired, suffering face, his eyes filled with intolerable pain. It is almost as if we are in a planetarium, where on the arch painted with the starry sky there remains an opening through which the real sky gapes.

It would seem as though, inasmuch as auteur cinema paves the creative way for melodrama, this plays into the hands of mainstream cinema. It turns out, however, that there are not so many examples of “pure melodrama” in the stream of contemporary Russian cinema, and when melodrama is present in the complex genre determined by the collection of devices, their artistic implementation is not aesthetically convincing. Very telling in this respect is Aleksandr Rogozhkin's Transit (Peregon, 2006), a mega-genre omnibus with strong melodramatic elements. The film contains an entire bouquet of genres: a love story (and not just one), a romantic comedy, a social comedy, a war drama, a drama of masculine friendships, a criminal detective story, an ecological parable, a political drama, and—naturally—a melodrama. The director personally resolved the issue of identifying the film's genre in a simple way, proposing that his film be considered a “film novella.” This highly respected genre has a lengthy and solid tradition in Soviet cinema. The difference between Transit and Soviet film novellas—for example, those based on a war theme—lies in the fact that Rogozhkin deliberately weakens the war episodes; they exist in a sort of autonomous register and develop independently of the episodes that surround them. Structurally the film resembles a provincial carpet woven from separate pieces, parts of which rhythmically repeat the overall pattern. Robert Altman used to like to construct his films using this schema.

It is quite noticeable that the more dramatic events culminate off-screen. Pilots crash and die, but we don't see this; the commandant of the air base is killed, but this, too, occurs off-screen. According to the director, the goal was to achieve a provocational affect: the viewer's imagination is supposed to be activated by the absence of on-screen resolution. Of course, it is possible to come up with a different explanation—for example, the absence of a budget that would cover the costs of expensive action sequences with air combat—but let us put our faith in the director's explanations.

What is important for Rogozhkin is to juxtapose Russian national character with its American counterpart and, at the same time, to contemplate once again the theme of “the enigmatic Slavic soul,” in which there is a hidden merit regardless of any flaws. Rogozhkin's hobby-horse is the deconstruction of national mentality. This is the horse he rode in style in The Particularities of the National Hunt (Osobennosti natsional'noi okhoty, 1995), in the filmic continuation The Particularities of National Fishing (Osobennosti natsional'noi rybalki, 1998), and in The Cuckoo (Kukushka, 2002). The Russian-American duel, however, is insufficient for his needs: he needs metaphysical depth. As a result, a third side appears in the film in the guise of the Chukcha, or rather the entire culture indigenous to the Far East. They embody the idea of primacy, integrity, ancient myth, primordial purity. But all of these narrative lines from Chukhotka that are traced through the film—even though they are part of Rogozhkin's favorite theme concerning the primacy of natural beginnings as the absolute of honesty and reason—nevertheless are fused at the end of the film with the theme of national (in essence, imperial) unity under the flag of Russian patriotic sacrifice. As a result, the triad of Russian-American-Chukcha is merely a phantom, an illusion. What we have in fact is the blatant traditional dualism of Soviet times: “We” (Russians and Chukchas) and “They” (Americans).

Russians and Chukchas are shown, as a rule, absolutely realistically, with all nuances of character preserved, with the drama of their relationship drawn in scope and depth. By contrast, the Americans are shown as a kind of faceless anthropomorphic mass, resembling an opera chorus or a corps du ballet . The American women-pilots all look alike and speak English with a lifeless authenticity, as if they were teachers at some Moscow school for foreign languages. The director's attempts to precipitate a melodrama—to have Russian guys fall in love with American working girls—ends in failure. The problem does not lie in the fact that any spontaneous contact between Russian and American soldiers on some far eastern air base during the Second World War is a blatant fiction, a fantasy comparable to “star wars.” There are lots of examples when ahistorical fantasies proved to be more convincing and realistic than any cinéma verité. There is simply no chemistry between these guys and girls, no emotional response from these made-up, puppet-like passions. Rogozhkin has entered into the dead soil territory of the false poetics of Grigorii Aleksandrov's Meeting on the Elbe (Vstrecha na El'be, 1949), according to which every character is a “typical representative,” every phrase is either a slogan or an aphorism, every encounter between the allied armies is characterized as a propagandistic confrontation. Whether Rogozhkin meant to or not, his film as a whole is a complimentary bow to the new imperial ideologeme.

While melodramatic elements are present—how could one do without them?—they serve the function of being emotional dressing. This dressing has to be balanced in its seasonings, otherwise the multi-genre omnibus will not take off. As a consequence, the humorous narratives of the film—the anecdotes about Chukchas and the story of the unfortunate pig that the Russians and Americans try to palm off on each other—combine and intertwine with the love narrative between the garrison's female interpreter and the attractive captain, and the micro-narrative of the commandant, who is mad as a hatter (richly performed by Aleksei Serebriakov). Once again, let's ignore reality, ignore the fact that such a psychopathic, alcoholic, and hooligan-fool would not be allowed within a mile of a strategic air base in time of war. In the contrived reality of Transit , the possessed commandant is offered the function of being a buffoon, a classic “holy fool” (iurodivyi), who always bluntly speaks a kernel of truth. In general, he is a character full of suffering—inasmuch as he tries with all his might to get reassigned to the frontlines, only to have his requests denied (as they should be!)—indeed, he is a heroic figure. It is absolutely clear that the director's burning sympathies lie with the commandant in the scene at the official lunch with the Americans, when he attacks the guests because of their continuing failure to open a “second front.” This scene is a heartfelt reminder to all of us of the 1940s and 1950s, when such agitational “protestations” were the only possible form of addressing the West.

The former political prisoner, whom the Party Secretary of the district brings to the air base to be their cook, fulfills a deeply heart-warming function. He was a well-known design engineer, was swept up in the Stalinist arrests, served his sentence in the GULag, and is now free once more. A tragic story if you think about it: a shattered destiny, glory that was not achieved, a broken life. But only if you think about it! If you believe in Rogozhkin's neo-myth, however, it is an almost vaudevillian tale about an endearing cook delighting the unspoiled palates of soldiers with exquisite European dainties. And when this engineer-cook declares that he is the father of the pregnant cleaning-lady-cook's future child (and she is pregnant because of the psychopathic-commandant, who has been slain by a mysterious avenger), up rises the immortal shadow of Isaura—the slave heroine of the Brazilian soap opera—in all her glory!

Forgive the sarcasm. Transit is far from being one of Rogozhkin's better films. He has been betrayed by his lack of taste. Political imperatives dominate aesthetic intuition. Even fail-safe melodrama was unable to move the over-laden omnibus along; the film gets stuck in the thorns of illogicality, phony pathos, and an absence of verisimilitude.

A reasonable question arises: how is pure melodrama doing? And does it exist? Or has it died out like the mammoths?

After watching the exquisite flow of Russian films over the past few years (I put aside television series since that is a separate conversation), I can state with some surprise that there is a striking lack of quality commercial melodramas. In this respect, Russian mainstream cinema is still far from being able to fulfill the demands of viewers. That these demands existed and continue to exist is an a priori fact. No need to go to a fortune teller. Just recall the phenomenal success of such Soviet-era melodramas as Georgii Natanson's Once More About Love (Eshche raz pro liubov' , 1968), Vladimir Men'shov's Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1980), and Igor' Maslennikov's The Frozen Cherry (Zimniaia vishnia, 1985). In this respect, two films stand out for their genre aspirations, if not their aesthetic results: Avdot'ia Smirnova's Relations (Sviaz' , 2006) and Konstantin Khudiakov's He, She, and Me (On, ona i ia, 2007). In fact, these are prototypes of pure melodrama—petty bourgeois melodrama in the first instance; salon-aristocratic, “high society” in the second.

The term “petty bourgeois” is not burdened with any value judgments. It merely describes the heroes' social status in Relations : the middle-class that has emerged and that demands to be ethically and aesthetically acknowledged. Smirnova's debut film (she is a successful scriptwriter) is an attempt to French-ify, embourgeoiser post-Soviet love; it does not try to conceal its charge. He is a successful mid-level businessman, lives in Moscow, is married, has a child. She works for an advertising agency, lives in St. Petersburg, is married, has a child. Nina and Il'ia are at the same level on the social scale, there is nothing mercenary lurking in the background of their relationship, no real collisions between them exist. They are linked by their physical desire for each other, by intimacy, by a bed. The very title of the film offers a clue. Relations is a clear, polemical debunking of the romantic “love story.” Obviously we see “true love” with our own eyes—approximately in the same distilled way that we did in Claude Lelouch's A Man and a Woman (1966). But the dry, officious title of the film is supposed to highlight the aching impossibility of happiness in the given, cruel conditions out of which neither He nor She is willing to break. Nina and Il'ia (performed by Anna Mikhalkova and Mikhail Porechenkov) are nice and dear people who are forced to suffer not because they are striving to blow up the existing order of things on their way to a new happiness, but because someone or something stands in their way. I am referring to the rehabilitation of the right of private individuals to have a profoundly personal, intimate territory of emotions and feelings—something that in the Soviet system of moral-ethical coordinates was always condemned. Their suffering is a component of the philosophy within the early bourgeois “order of things,” which dictates adhering to social norms of manners, the sacredness of marriage. From this springs the impossibility for the lovers to be joined freely. Relations is a kind of quiet manifesto about the return of Russia to the bosom of European petty bourgeois culture—in its most archaic variant, the pre-“sexual revolution.” The film's melodramatics are shaped by the heroes' recognition that love is impossible, even though love is the most important, the most sacred thing for them. But they are prisoners of social circumstances and their affair is doomed.

They are kindred spirits of the classical, conservative melodrama, which is characterized by a distinct hermeticism, isolating the main love narrative from the storms and stresses of the political and social universe—which, however, does not preclude the presence of certain social realities; but they are always muted, always occur in the background. Relations play diligently by the laws of the genre, deliberately distancing itself from any recourse to Soviet discourse, which always privileged anything social over anything personal. Even at the dawn of Soviet cinema, ideologists of the new morality and new art already emphasized this essential typological distinction. Here, for example, is how the major Soviet book on film analysis from the 1930s puts it: “… individualism is the defining feature of any bourgeois work of art… [The] ‘American plan' aims to disperse and disorganize the working class by forcibly focusing viewers' attention only on matters of private life” (Shipulinskii 167).

It is curious that the completely innocent adherence to bourgeois canons of melodrama in Relations puzzled many critics and irritated others. Dmitrii Bykov, who rated the film highly on the whole, remarked: “Minimalism is a sign of rupture, of total isolation. Indisputably the country exists somewhere over there, but the heroes have nothing to do with it. Neither does it have anything to do with them.” Other critics accused Relations of failing to fill-in the social background. But this is the ancestral sign of the traditional melodrama! Yet these critics seem to demand that—as in the canon of Soviet films—something metallic be forged in the background, that the noise of the forging be clearly heard in the bedroom and in the restaurant where the lovers-heroes speak in half-whispers.

Echoes of the “big life” cannot be heard at all in the comfortable two-person ward of an elite sanatorium outside Moscow, where the action of Khudiakov's latest melodrama¸ He, She, and Me , unfolds. A dying oligarch “wills” his mistress to his roommate, a modish television moderator, together with a substantial sum of money that will ensure them a life without fear of poverty after his death. Khudiakov's film takes embourgeoisement to the extreme. The camera is glued to the luxurious furnishings of the ward, to the antique furniture, orchids, and diamond-encrusted rings given as presents to the mistress. The viewer is instructed that only the strong people of this world and the intellectual elite have the right to exalted feelings and exalted sacrifice. Stardom and property qualifications are essential ingredients in films like this in order to become a main character. But if we discard all of these New Russian trappings, then we see that the structure of the melodrama is as eternal as the world itself: love bows its head in the face of inevitable death in order to defeat and transcend it.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Oleg Sulkin
Novoye Russkoye Slovo


Works Cited

Bykov, Dmitrii. “Bykov-quickly: Vzgliad-84.” Russkii zhurnal (4 June 2007).

Leskov, Nikolai. “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk.” In Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk and Other Stories. Trans. David McDuff. London: Penguin Books, 1987. 109-171.

Raushenbakh, Boris. Sistemy perspektivy v izobrazitel'nom iskusstve. Obshchaia teoriia perspektivy. Moskva: Nauka, 1986.

Shipulinskii, Feofan. Istoriia kino. vol. 1. Moskva: GIKhL, 1933.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. Rasskazy. Moskva: Sovremennik, 1990.

Sulkin, Oleg. “Interview with Andrei Kravchuk

Oleg Sulkin© 2007

Updated: 16 Jul 07