Kira Muratova:Two in One (Dva v odnom, 2006, rel. 2007)

reviewed by Nancy Condee© 2007


1 + 1 = 3, or Double-Yolked Cinema

Rolling thunder, a darkened theatre, shrouded seats, a stagehand quoting Hamlet, a hanging corpse: these elements signal that we are about to watch a mock-sinister performance, a “play within a play,” or, as Muratova puts it, a two-in-one.

First entitled Two More Stories: One Simple and the Other More Complicated (Eshche dve istorii: odna prostaia, drugaia slozhnee), the film's original designation evokes Muratova's earlier Three Stories (Tri istorii, 1997), a trilogy about crime without punishment. Here in Two in One, we once again have crime without punishment, although the exact number of crimes committed is the film's central, unanswered question.

The film's first segment (“Stagehands”) follows the theatre staff's daily routine, contrasting mundane chitchat with a suicide and murder on the stage itself. The stagehands are preparing a theatrical performance, Meeting with a Woman for Life , which will in fact constitute the film's second segment. In the meantime, therefore, in the film's first sequence before the play begins, its three actors—real-life film actors Renata Litvinova, Natal'ia Buz'ko, and Bogdan Stupka— make cameo appearances. Referred to by their real names (“Renata,” etc.), they wander amid props intended for the upcoming, second segment. They take time to argue with the stagehands and have a good, long stare at the suicide's corpse.

The second segment— “A Woman for Life,” initially imbedded in the first, but then gaining its own diegetic reality—is a play with three characters: a depraved old father (Stupka), his grown daughter, Masha (Buz'ko) with whom he has an incestuous relationship, and the daughter's friend Alisa (Litvinova), whom they invite home for a New Year's celebration so as to satisfy the father's loneliness and sexual needs. The camera's repeated high-angle or overhead shots, contrasted with extreme low-angle shots, create a structural similarity between the first segment's theatre and the second segment's arena of sexual perversion.

And so, three realities intertwine in the film: first, the real life of the intelligentsia outside the film (here, for example, “Renata” really is Renata and the theatre segment is shot at Odessa's well-known Drama Theatre); second, the film's diegesis (set in a theatre); third, the play's diegesis (set in a mansion), which gradually becomes its own cinematic diegesis. These three planes—real life, the film diegesis, and the theatrical diegesis—bear a contingent and fluid relation to each other.

If it is not already clear, Two in One is a familiar object. Muratova's Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1989, released 1990) had also been an imbedded film. There, in Asthenic Syndrome , the initial black-and-white segment turned out to be a film screening, imbedded in the second segment. Here, in Two in One , Muratova inverts the order: the second, dramaturgical part is embedded in the first. In both films, the transition between the first and second segments is effected with the help of an unctuous emcee, who ushers us from one segment to the other. As in Asthenic Syndrome (where actress Ol'ga Antonova is referred to by her own name; where Muratova is mentioned, alongside Sokurov and German), or Three Stories (where little Liliia Murlykina plays Liliia Murlykina)—the cast is selectively permitted a real-life existence.

But there are other Muratovian signatures as well, foregrounding the director's enduring love of theatricalization, mannerism, and performance for its own sake: the identical twins (here, Father Frosts); the dolls; the caviar binges (familiar from Asthenic Syndrome ); the paired opposites (a blond and brunette, identically dressed), declamatory clichés and rehearsed speech (“I am a veteran of the stage”; “laughter through tears”); ritual humiliation and shaming; similarly performing humans and animals (here, the endearing urination scene), but also human emission of animal and bird calls in times of intense frustration; gestural repetitions (hands that cover and uncover a corpse's face, as in Asthenic Syndrome and Three Stories); the identification of women with inanimate female forms (nude paintings, nude sculptures, nude dolls, pornographic photography, a mannequin); the word play (“end” as in orgasm, death, the tram's end stop, as in Asthenic Syndrome, and the film's end), all staged by a familiar cast and crew—beyond Litvinova and Buz'ko, we re-encounter Nina Ruslanova (from Brief Encounters [Korotkie vstrechi, 1967]), Aleksandra Svenskaia, Leonid Kushnir (most memorable as the poet of Three Stories), Jean-Daniel, and scriptwriter Evgenii Golubenko.

Muratova arranges and re-arranges these familiar objects as auteurist sight gags in her own hermetic space. Her work in this respect bears an affinity to the visual humor of Jacques Tati, and (in a longer historical trajectory) to mime and puppetry, enacted most explicitly in the incested daughter's protracted "puppet dance.” It is a world in which human objects—we might otherwise think of them as actors—exist so as to perform amusing, sometimes sadistic, and often repetitive tasks. This is our known Muratova. One goes to “it”—that is to say, to Muratova—the way one would go to Vivaldi or Bach, with a set of expectations concerning the artist's signature.

For all this familiarity, a specific game is set in motion here. As the film's title suggests, two items are paired together, then enveloped in or subordinated to a third element, which serves as the dominant. Or—out of boredom—the order is reversed: a dominant element is set off against the pair, which are opposites or twins of each other. Hence, Two in One, Muratova's double-yolked egg, is conditioned by the very circumstances of its production: Evgenii Golubenko's and Renata Litvinova's scripts, so different from each other, are subordinated to Muratova's directorial will as a study in both pattern and asymmetry.

One elaboration of this game is the film's three deaths. Two “small deaths” appear in the first segment: the suicide of Borisov and the murder of Boriska. Their deaths are set off by a third death, one that escapes our notice until we learn to look for the larger, dominant element, the “A” that logically follows “B.” Or, more precisely, the double A (Andrei Andreevich) that follows the two little B's, Borisov and Boriska. Large and easy to miss, this third death— mentioned only in the opening lines of the transition—renders everything else a flashback, a dramaturgical eulogy to Andrei Andreevich, the “greatest man on earth”:

First girl . Listen . That's probably his soul flying away. What a lovely sound it's making!...

Second girl . I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for him. After all, it's the end of the greatest man on earth. […]

First girl. And what an unexpected finale! (88)

(Первая девушка. Слушай, наверное это его душа отлетела. Как шумит красиво!...
Вторая девушка. Жалко его. Жалко его. Все-таки это был конец самого великого мужчины на свете. [...]
Первая девушка. И какой неожиданный финал!)

Did he die suddenly? Was he murdered? Only the director and her paired co-conspirators seem to know. We are excluded from the answer. The two women, the blond Litvinova and brunette Buz'ko, identically the same in this opening shot, are both lovers of Andrei Andreevich. They make an unsuccessful attempt to drown Andrei Andreevich in his bathtub, but his eventual, successful death—the “unexpected finale” mentioned above—will be at the invisible hand of Muratova herself.

In a smaller instance of the same pattern, the stagehand Vitia, the first segment's protagonist, is accompanied by two other, less important stagehands, Iura and Igor' (“Bobchinskii and Dobchinskii,” as the script nicknames them [79]). And, as if this pattern were not complex enough, Iura and Igor' are paired with namesakes: two other, even more minor stagehands, also called Iura and Igor'. Their stage sets—and eventually the entire mise-en-scène throughout the film—are paired tonalities of black and white (sometimes grey and deep blue), sharply contrasting with Litvinova's bright clothing and a single scarlet flower that appears and reappears throughout the film to the very end, when it appears in Litvinova's hair.

This black/white opposition—and its contrast to bright color—is underscored by a repetitious, "nonsensical” inversion: Andrei Andreevich's “black” bed is in fact white; his “white” jacket is in fact black; his “black” bathrobe is in fact white, repeatedly returning our attention to the color scheme, sharply offset by a dominant scarlet associated with Litvinova. This version of the game—black-and-white versus bright color—playfully engages a larger pattern that has preoccupied Muratova over forty years, as her films have switched from black-and-white— Brief Encounters , Long Farewells (Dolgie provody, 1971, released 1987), Chekhov's Motifs (Chekhovskie motivy, 2002) and Tuner (Nastroishchik, 2004)—to color— Getting to Know the Wide World (Poznavaia belyi svet, 1978), Among Grey Stones (Sredi serykh kamnei, 1983), A Change of Fate (Peremena uchasti, 1987), Sentimental Policeman (Chuvstvitel'nyi militsioner, 1992), Passions (Uvlechen'ia, 1994), Three Stories , and Minor People (Vtorostepennye liudi, 2001)—and sometimes, as in Asthenic Syndrome, a mixing of the two.

What should we make of this two-in-one pattern? Nothing whatsoever. Nothing more than one would make of a fugue or a five-part invention, a mathematical variable, for which tokens of narrative, character, props, and mise-en-scène were inserted. The film is driven neither by Borisov's suicide (before the film), nor Boris'ka's murder (in the film), nor Masha's incest (by implication), nor Andrei Andreevich's death (by reference). These are, as the Formalists would say, devices, instances of an abstract alternation of sameness and difference. Indeed, the many reflexive references to theatre, opera, sculpture, symphonic music, ballet, painting, folk song, photography, even puppetry underscore that it is art's games—as Muratova describes her own cinema—that drive the film and never some maestro's supererogation to pronounce on contemporary social life. It is the gesture of the “great artist” that Muratova despises above all. Instead, her film challenges us to stay within the boundaries of a structured ritual, as uninhibitedly improvisational as it is rule-bound.

As in earlier films, Muratova's work exhibits many stock features of what might in another context be considered melodrama, in its generically appropriate treatment of suicide, murder, incest, lust, and illicit sex, all cosseted in the domestic interiors of Andrei Andreevich's mansion. By most theoretical schemas of melodrama—whether in Peter Brooks, Rick Altman, John Cawelti, Thomas Schatz, Thomas Elsaesser, or Mary Ann Doane—Muratova's work displays many of melodrama's “requisite” features: e xcessive expressivity against a background of heightened drama; intense moral claims of good and evil; highly charged details, no matter how trivial; hyperbolic encounters of salvation and damnation; struggle of primal ethical forces. Two in One is a virtual checklist, yet Muratova has vitiated these elements of their affect. Suicide, murder, incest, sex function as a set of empty signs. The blood had been drained from them. The film functions more as autopsy than as a living, turbulent melodramatic environment.

Muratova's brutal treatment of what would otherwise be melodrama's trove is perhaps not surprising: recall that her early work, so crudely eviscerated by the Soviet film authorities, was universally described as her "provincial melodramas.” Now, in her later work, we have her adaptive response, Muratova's exultation over the corpse of melodrama, its disemboweled parts splayed out for the film community to contemplate in all their repulsive attraction. We as the audience are invited—together with the actors, the stagehands, and the director herself—to sit right down and have a good, long, and deeply pleasurable look at the corpse.

Nancy Condee
University of Pittsburgh

Works Cited

Muratova, Kira. “ Dva v odnom .” Director's script for the novellas “Stage Hands” [“Montirovshchiki”] by Evgenii Golubenko and “A Meeting with a Woman for Life” [“Vstrecha s zhenshchinoi zhizni”] by Renata Litvinova. Iskusstvo kino 12 (2006): 76-101.

Two in One, Ukraine and Russia, 2006, released 2007
Color, 124 minutes
Director: Kira Muratova
Scriptwriters: Evgenii Golubenko and Renata Litvinova
Cinematography: Vladimir Pankov
Art Director: Evgenii Golubenko
Cast: Bogdan Stupka, Renata Litvinova, Natal'ia Buz'ko, Aleksandr Bashirov
Producers: Oleg Kohan and Ruben Dishdishian
Production: Sota Cinema Group

Kira Muratova: Two in One (Dva v odnom, 2006, rel. 2007)

reviewed by Nancy Condee© 2007

Updated: 18 Jul 07