Origin of the Species: Post-Soviet Melodrama

By Mikhail Trofimenkov (Moscow)

Over the past twenty years there have been many melodramas made in Soviet and Russian cinema, or, to be more accurate, films that the filmmakers considered to be melodramas. There has been only one melodrama in the strictly objective sense: Aleksei Balabanov's It Doesn't Hurt (Mne ne bol'no, 2006). I even wrote that this film should have been entitled simply Melodrama , just as Jean-Luc Godard dared to name his film simply Détective (1985). Actually, Alain Resnais called his 1986 film Mélo, which played with genre and imitated the high-society aesthetics of the boulevard theater of the beginning of the 20 th century. Aleksei Balabanov also plays with genre, but this play is extremely serious.

Indeed, the story of It Doesn't Hurt is a variation on the classical theme of The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Misha (Aleksandr Iatsenko), a poor architect, is in love with a kept woman who is terminally ill—not with old-fashioned consumption, but leukemia. It would be much more topical if Natella Antonovna were ill from AIDS; however, the director, having the reputation of a provocateur, is prepared to sacrifice advertising topicality for a topicality “on the margins” of the major action. So what if the basic melodramatic line is completely conventional? But then, the depiction of the reality in which it is immersed, namely the reality of 1990s St. Petersburg, as in all of Aleksei Balabanov's films, exceeds the limits of any conception of “good taste” reigning in contemporary Russian cinema.

Generally speaking, in Balabanov's films the context and the trivial background details are at least as important as, if not more important than, the “text.” What takes place “on the sidelines” forms the heart of the film. Any episodic character in his films is a voice from the chorus commenting on the basic action. It is worth listening in on any “noise of time” in his films inasmuch as it offers a mediated decryption of the film's moral. The songs heard in the background, in clubs, from the CD-player in Brother (Brat, 1997), dot all of the “i's” in this Bildungsroman of a simple young killer in the epoch of the First Chechen War. War (Voina, 2001) is a purported adventure story played out on the Chechen front. It is, for Aleksei Balabanov, merely a particular episode of that war of “all against all,” which rages not only and not so much in the North Caucasus as all across Russia. But this total war is concealed in “minor” episodes, seemingly in no way linked with the story of the rescue of an English girl who has been kidnapped by Chechen fighters. The portrait of Vladimir Putin, under whose “protection” reigns the General, an extortioner and scoundrel, appears on a visual plane that is much more important than all the shooting scenes taken together. And in Aleksei Balabanov's latest film, Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007), the kinds of songs to which they dance in the clubs in 1984, the environment of the industrial zones through which at a certain moment the heroes transit, are almost more important than the basic story line—the story of a sadistic and impotent policeman and murderer, who considers himself the master of life and death of all who cross his path on their life's, or more precisely, death's journey.

Aleksei Balabanov is in his own way an archaeologist of Russia's most recent history. He is interested in the secret aspects of the epoch, its underside. In Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei, 1998) this was the underside of the “Silver Age”: the first works of Russian pornography, the subject matter of the film, resonated with the blossoming of poetry and high society's sexual revolution. In Cargo 200, sexual violence and lawlessness, sanctified by the power status of the one who commits it, is the underside of “Stagnation” well-being. Similarly, in It Doesn't Hurt the main thing is not the melodramatic form, constant over the course of 150 years, but rather the lively reality in which this form is immersed.

Natella Antonovna must die: such is the law of the genre. But much more important is not the fact of her death nor of what she dies, but rather in which world she dies. Iosif Brodskii once wrote that in the 20 th century it is not the hero of the tragedy but rather the chorus that dies. Surely in the age of mass society and mass terror similar changes ought to take place not only in tragedy but also in melodrama. In this case, however, we find that melodrama is now not quite melodrama in the classical sense of the term.

Melodrama is traditionally thought to be a genre having very few signifying connections to the real world. Eric Bentley called it “tragedy for simple souls” who do not agonize over accursed questions of existence but exclusively over their own private problems. Melodrama, by definition, cannot attain historical dimensions, it remains a private event. In this regard, the turn by this or that significant artist—and Aleksei Balabanov can certainly be considered one of the most significant artists of contemporary Russia—to traditional melodramatic forms is taken to be simple escapism, a stylistic exercise. It is curious that the most recent Russian director before Balabanov to stage The Lady of the Camellias was Vsevolod Meyerhold. According to the critical reactions of his contemporaries, this was just such a stylistic exercise, art for the sake of art, pure genre. And what is more, this took place in 1935, when reality was deeply tragic, when Meyerhold himself could already feel the ring of terror closing in around him, when, in a word, there was nothing further removed from Moscow than this melodrama by Dumas, fils.

In his now classic biography of Meyerhold, Konstantin Rudnitskii captures the reaction of the semi-official Soviet dramatists Aleksandr Afinogenov and Vsevolod Vishnevskii to the production of 1935:

A. Afinogenov, for example, wrote in his journal: Lady of the Camellias ... The delicate poison of decay... such was the lure of the old world, splendor, velvet, silk, the luminance of things... and the notion that a prostitute is also a woman... pity her, poor viewers, give her one hundred thousand francs so that she can arrange her own life and that of Armand. And the audience applauds in delight and cries “Bravo!” Afinogenov considered this all to be “nonsense and rot.” (404)

Vishnevskii, who at the time argued effusively with Afinogenov, also berated The Lady of the Camellias, only not in his journal but in the Literary Gazette (Literaturnaia gazeta). He maintained that “the production is asocial”; without a shade of humor he enumerated what Meyerhold had left out—the Paris Communards, Garibaldists, Thiers, Hugo, “La Marseillaise,” the “black sons of France, awaiting liberation”... But even Vishnevskii grudgingly admitted that the production was “attractive, masterfully executed.”

With that, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who would seem to have been one of Vsevolod Meyerhold's main antagonists in regards to the very philosophy of theater, noted that “Meyerhold staged The Lady of the Camellias bravely.” And Konstantin Rudnitskii himself concluded, “Meyerhold conducted his melodrama as a tragedy: dry and controlled, dynamic and intense” (403).

It is scarcely possible to draw absolute parallels between 1935 and 2006. Although, in both cases, we are dealing with an age of terror. In the case of Vsevolod Meyerhold it is state terror. In the case of Aleksei Balabanov it is terror that has been privatized by political, financial, and criminal groups, just as these groups privatized the material property left behind by the Soviet Union. This terror is every bit as blind and merciless as in the 1930s, but materialized in the private sphere. In the 1930s political opponents were annihilated. In the 1990s, business or private opponents were eliminated. Naturally, in both cases, a large number of bystanders became victims.

Aleksei Balabanov, like Vsevolod Meyerhold, has been charged with escapism. More exactly, critics have expressed puzzlement: how could a director who so accurately “photographed” the contemporary condition of Russian society in Brother and War, shoot a story about some random little society lady. It is amusing that just a bit earlier many Russian critics directed completely analogous criticism at Bernardo Bertolucci, who in his film The Dreamers (2003) supposedly did not show the revolutionary events of 1968 in Paris, but rather closed himself off, together with his heroes, in a bourgeois apartment, where they remained absorbed in their exclusively sexual experiments.

However, the criticism directed at Aleksei Balabanov very quickly quieted down, inasmuch as It Doesn't Hurt very accurately reproduces St. Petersburg at the end of the 20 th century, which paradoxically does not contradict in any way the melodramatic nature of the film. In contrast to Vsevolod Meyerhold, he forgets neither the “Paris Communards” nor the “black sons of France.” Of course, with the necessary corrections for Russian reality of the 1990s, where veterans of the Chechen War and illegal immigrants from the Caucasus must take the place of the “Communards” and “black sons,” and the agents of law enforcement, drunk with their own immunity from punishment, the place of Versailles troops under Thiers.

In It Doesn't Hurt there are two moments when this behind-the-scene reality moves into the foreground, giving the traditional melodramatic form up-to-date meanings. The first one is the episode in the inexpensive café. The police abuse a young waitress, who is apparently a recent arrival from the North Caucasus. Natella Antonovna does not simply come to her defense. It is her only attack of feverish rage in the film. From the context one can guess that she once worked in that very same café and that she, in the social rather than the national sense, is the very same kind of stranger, the very same kind of “illegal immigrant,” even if not from Chechnya or Dagestan, but rather from the city of Kozel'sk.

The second, seemingly superfluous, episode depicts Paratrooper's Day, traditionally celebrated at the beginning of August by those who served in the airborne troops and usually characterized by street rowdiness. In It Doesn't Hurt there is no rowdiness. There is a street concert, in which talented amateurs from among the veterans perform their simple songs. They sing them in their own groups, pushed out of the festive center of St. Petersburg into surrounding courtyards and alleyways. Orphans of a state that still thinks itself an empire, that sent them to die and to kill, but is now ashamed of them and wishes to forget them.

Aleksei Balabanov shows surprising directorial control when he works with the context rather than the text of the film. It is obvious that any other director would have found insurmountable the temptation to inject into the fabric of the basic theme the violence that is literally emanating out of the surrounding world. It is easy to imagine how in a film by one of his colleagues, the wild rejection that Natella Antonovna gives to the policemen would have elicited a brutal reaction on their part. Or how the singing paratroopers would have taken the side of the heroes in resistance to the cold external world. But nothing of the sort happens and this, as in the films of Michael Haneke, for example, gives the theme its particular hopelessness. There is no catharsis, not even a senseless and brutal one. There is no way out for the violence that gathers round the heroes: they exist for themselves, the world exists for itself. But they are dependent on that very world, they are caught in its trap, even if they consider themselves to be free.

In discussing It Doesn't Hurt, one is involuntarily tempted to take the name of Fedor Dostoevskii in vain. Above all, one thinks of The Insulted and the Injured and “White Nights,” the books in which St. Petersburg appears not only as one of the major, if not the major character, but also predetermines the fate of its inhabitants. It is the city that provokes fruitless romantic dreams, the first city in Russia to construct a clear hierarchy between the “masters of life” and the inhabitants of the social and metaphysical “underground.” The heroes of Aleksei Balabanov, be they the murderer from Brother , the pornographers from Of Freaks and Men, the sadist from Cargo 200, or the romantic architects from It Doesn't Hurt, are always the “people from the underground.”

The hero of “ White Nights” imagined himself to be a hero of romantic adventures. In It Doesn't Hurt he corresponds not so much to Misha as to Natella Antonovna. This is because Renata Litvinova, who played the role, has over the course of many years consistently played the role of the “diva,” the femme fatale, a character from another world, from the world of reveries, including those of the cinema. Aleksei Balabanov is essentially the first to give this phantom, constructed by Litvinova, flesh and blood. The reveries of the screen “Litvinova” are the reveries of an unhappy little girl from the city outskirts or a provincial town, who has wasted time to such a degree that her own life and death have gotten away from her.

It Doesn't Hurt deviates from the traditional melodrama in yet another way—in the canonical version the moral accents should be in a very strict arrangement, and it absolutely ought to convey some kind of edifying meaning. And the heroes ought to be portrayed definitively, without any doubts lingering between the poles of “good” and “evil.” In this sense as well, It Doesn't Hurt is an exception. To return to the formula of Iosif Brodskii, in Aleksei Balabanov's film it is not any one of the heroes who is evil, but rather the chorus. And, if we paraphrase the poet's formula, in today's melodrama the chorus does not die, but rather kills.

It Doesn't Hurt is a melodrama in which there is no single “evil” character. Even Sergei (Nikita Mikhalkov), Natella Antonovna's lover, demonstrates aggression toward Misha merely in the beginning, having ordered the bodyguard to beat him. Afterwards he turns out to be just as unhappy and in love as his rival.

Private fate turns out to be historical fate in It Doesn't Hurt . And if at first I tried to place this film in the context of adventures of the traditional melodramatic forms, I shall now try to place it in the context of "Soviet melodramatics." This will be logical for two reasons. First, melodrama lived in the 20 th century its particular life within the context of the cinema of Socialist Realism. Second, according to an interesting comment by Andrei Plakhov (“Gruzilovo 200”) the work of Aleksei Balabanov is the expression of a deeply personal ideological trauma that he experienced as a great artist formed during the last exhausted gasp of the Soviet epoch. This means, among other things, that he inherited the Soviet "Grand Style." It is his inheritance even when he refutes it. He may very well hate the Soviet epoch, but he is not capable of hating Soviet cinema as it is impossible to hate one's own unconscious.

In this connection, it is interesting to trace the kinds of historical moments that melodrama, officially considered during the Soviet period to be an ideologically foreign, bourgeois genre, went through during the time of its renaissance. Of course, it always existed, mimicking, pretending to be something else, but existing all the same. We are concerned here with the periods in which melodrama corrected its basic thematic forms in correspondence with the realities of the turbulent 20th century. This correction is of more than merely academic interest, inasmuch as the thematic novelties of the Soviet period, as I will try to show, are those that are now called for in Russian cinema.

Simplifying somewhat, we can say that in the USSR the most hospitable time periods for the rebirth of melodrama were the 1920s and the 1960s—that is, the years of the New Economic Policy and the years of the Thaw. In other words, those periods, albeit short, in which elements of market relations (as in the 1920s) or the development of bourgeois humanism (as in the 1960s) were permitted in our country. This confirms, by the way, the dogmatic position of Soviet ideologues who considered melodrama to be a bourgeois genre.

The 1920s were the time when People's Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii (a dramatist who had written only melodramas) stood at the head of Soviet culture and put out the call to create “red” melodramas. In this period the melodramatic conception of the mésalliance took on its classical color. Social fate, which in bourgeois melodrama got in the way of a simple Count and a complex peasant girl now inevitably led to a bloody end. The mésalliance became a metaphor for the Civil War. The husband killed his wife, who had turned out to be a White Guard spy in a partisan detachment. Or, the other way round, the woman killed her class-enemy husband, choosing—in the fatal minute between love and class interests—in favor of the latter.

One of the basic tasks of cinematic mythmaking in the 1960s was the creation of a new humanistic myth about war, destined to replace the imperial Stalinist myth. From the end of the 1950s it was precisely war that became a powerful source for melodramatics on the screen. Here one can highlight two basic themes about which Evgenii Margolit in particular has written: the theme of the soldier's return from the front, whereby his wife, naturally, did not remain faithful; and the theme of the orphan: the search for the child lost in the wartime chaos and the adoptive mother who is able to become the true mother for another's child (231). Both of these themes, which had become a cliché of mass cinema in the 1960s, had already been reestablished in the two main films of the second half of the 1950s. The soldier's betrayal by an unfaithful woman figured in Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying (Letiat zhiravli, 1957), while the orphan and the founding of a new family constituted the theme of Sergei Bondarchuk's The Fate of a Man (Sud'ba cheloveka, 1956).

Finally, one more important correction to the genre of melodrama in Soviet cinema, although not directly related to historical cataclysms, took place in the 1960s–1970s, with the arrival of the period of “Stagnation.” First the auteur film, and then mass cinema of these years, changed the gender dominant of melodrama. The films of this period, from Mikhail Kalik's Love (Liubov' , 1970) to Georgii Daneliia's Autumn Marathon (Osennii marafon, 1978), from Andrei Smirnov's Autumn (Osen' , 1974) to Igor' Maslennikov's Winter Cherries (Zimniaia vishnia, 1985), dethrone with logical consistency the figure of the man. The man turns out time and again to be unworthy of love. Love perishes as a result of his social non-viability in the sense that the man does not dare to make responsible decisions and shows himself to be a greater conformist than does the woman.

Let us observe what has happened with this Soviet version of classical melodramatic forms on the border of the 20th and 21st centuries. Social, class-based inequality once again makes itself felt as a powerful and still relevant source of melodramatics. Dmitrii Astrakhan first brought this to the fore in his almost parodically ingenuous film Everything Will Be Alright (Vse budet khorosho, 1995), in which a plain new-Russian millionaire meets the love of his youth who now lives in poverty. As in the 1920s–1930s, the family becomes in contemporary Russian cinema the arena for a near civil war that has been called forth by class-based inequality. So in Denis Evstigneev's film Let's Make Love (Zaimemsia liubov'iu, 2002), an unsuccessful attempt to combine aspects of the American “teen comedy” with Russian social realia, a husband, belonging to the class of criminal businessmen, killed his wife, who had involved herself with an impoverished student. From among other Russian variations on the theme of insoluble class conflict within the confines of melodramatic discourse one can name Sergei Potemkin's Sunless City (Gorod bez solntsa, 2005), in which a successful yuppie, the manager of a foreign tobacco company in St. Petersburg, falls in love with a bohemian artist who is strung out on heroin.

In It Doesn't Hurt, the class motif finds its most clear development. The female protagonist is a girl being kept by a businessman who has the manners of a street thug. The male protagonist is a poor architect living a dubious squatter's existence together with some friends. In parallel with the renaissance of this melodramatic motif, the fall of Soviet ideology made relevant just such a purely bourgeois, “Victorian,” primitive figure as that of the fallen woman. It is especially noteworthy that this took place against the background of the total destruction of Victorian norms and conceptions of real life. Natella Antonovna is also “fallen,” but Aleksei Balabanov, in separating the melodramatic and realistic layers of his film, makes us understand that in this case the film is dealing with pure genre conventions. It is sufficient to compare It Doesn't Hurt with Iurii Moroz's hysterical film The Spot (Tochka, 2006), in which we find all the resilient false clichés regarding the fate of girls forced into the life of Moscow prostitutes whether by family tyranny, unhappy love, or the illness of a beloved younger brother.

As in the 1960s, the “soldier's return” has again become one of the basic thematic pillars of new Russian cinema. In the very same Spot , one of the heroines becomes a prostitute, thus betraying her fiancé who has perished in Chechnya. All of the heroes returned from the Chechen front in Aleksandr Veledinskii's Alive, although they may have returned more dead than alive. Even in It Doesn't Hurt, the “veteran's theme” is fundamental, although it has retreated into the subtext. Misha is inseparable from his colleagues and accomplices Ali (Inga Oboldina-Strelkova) and Oleg (Dmitrii Diuzhev). Oleg has also returned from Chechnya. This motivates the “Paratrooper's Day” episode in the film. The Chechen wound gives this likable bumpkin not only a tragic dimension but also a certain emanation of danger. It is not for nothing that, grieving for the fate of Misha and Natella Antonovna, he recalls certain repulsive individuals whom he needs to punish—that is, to kill. Theatrical, melodramatic pain is accompanied by a real pain that threatens death to certain persons whom we do not see on screen.

But Oleg's desire to wreak vengeance upon some unseen person simply because his friend is in pain betrays his weakness, which refers to the theme of masculine weakness harped upon by Soviet cinema in the 1960s–1970s. Oleg elicits a recollection of the figure played by the famous bard and actor Iurii Vizborg in Marlen Khutsiev's July Rain ( Iul'skii dozhd' , 1965), one of the key films of the Soviet “new wave.” He finds himself at the celebration of another's life and the not yet old man is distinguished from the others present only by his battle experience. For himself more than for the others, who pay no attention to him in any case, he recites the story of how he lay wounded, hiding from the Nazi forces, and of the unimaginable size of the lilac within the branches of which he was hiding. Oleg's friends also listen to him, almost not hearing him.

Judging from the frequency with which the theme of the soldier's return appears, Chechnya has, despite the disparity in dimension, become almost the same kind of trauma for Russia as the Great Patriotic War. And again, as during the Thaw, one of the main melodramatic themes has become the theme of the orphan, the restlessness of children who do not know their parents, and the search for family. It is as if Russia has gone through years not of positive reforms but of murder, leaving behind a legion of orphans. This thematic line is presented in its fullness in Andrei Kravchuk's The Italian (Ital'ianets, 2005).

By the way, The Italian introduces a completely different line in contemporary Russian melodrama, opposing in every way that line that Aleksei Balabanov draws with such determination. This new line is that of the socially conditioned, “made to order” melodrama. Seemingly realistic, it accentuates the genre text but is afraid to approach the social and historical context. There could not be two melodramas less alike. The juxtaposition of It Doesn't Hurt and The Italian confirms, strange as it may seem, how correct the Marxist critics of the 1920s were. As a bourgeois genre, melodrama can serve as the instrument of brainwashing and distraction from real social problems—as in The Italian. And, being a democratic genre, melodrama can, in the guise of a “cruel” city romance, become the voice of the “mute streets”—as in It Doesn't Hurt .

Translated by Gerald McCausland

Mikhail Trofimenkov, Moscow

Works Cited

Margolit, Evgenii. “Na ‘Kinotavre' pokazyvaiut fil'm Dmitriia Astrakhana ‘Ty u menia odna': Melodrama zhivet i pobezhdaet.” Noveishaia istoriia otechestvennogo kino, 1986-2000 . vol. 6: Kino i kontekst, 1992-1996. St. Peterburg: Seans, 2004. 227-237.

Plakhov, Andrei. “Gruzilovo 200.” Kommersant (30 March 2007).

Rudnitskii, Konstantin. Meierkhol'd . Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1981.


Mikhail Trofimenkov© 2007

Updated: 15 Jun 07