Andrei Eshpai: Ellipsis (Mnogotochie, 2006)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell© 2007

Lenin, Lovers, and Excess: Stalinist Past, Thaw Story, and Putin's Russia

in Andrei Eshpai's Ellipsis

Andrei Eshpai's Ellipsis opens with a slow pan of the six-meter framework for a statue of Lenin towering in the spacious workshop of a successful Moscow sculptor. Andrei Ledenev's harsh, industrial musical theme blends in with construction noises and blinding flashes of welding to create a psychologically disturbing, almost surreal atmosphere, in which Kira Georgievna (Evgeniia Simonova), dressed in a pair of worker's overalls, produces her socialist-realist masterpieces. The experienced sculptor carefully supervises the finest minutiae of the assembly process in an effort to ensure that the monument “lasts for ages.”

The next episode of the pre-credit sequence takes us into the private space of Kira's apartment, where we see her artist husband, Nikolai Ivanovich (Sergei Dreiden), and his doctor friend (Nikolai Chindiaikin) watch silent documentary footage of Rome filmed in the cinéma-verité tradition. Along with the film's democratic style and the subjects that are virtually unaffected by directorial manipulation or officially prescribed artistic canons, the quiet humming of a portable movie projector in the shimmering semi-darkness of a family room creates an intimately personal environment. The men take particular interest in a brief street scene, in which an anonymous young man turns in the direction of an attractive woman in gray but, to the two viewers' great chagrin, fails to follow her in the end. Like the proverbial young viewer of the highly popular Russian Civil War classic Chapaev (dir. “Vasil'ev brothers,” 1934) who returned to watch the movie over and over again in the hope that the heroic title character eventually escapes his tragic fate, Nikolai Ivanovich, who is going through a creative crisis, spends long nights re-watching the seemingly inconsequential episode, hoping that the young lad finally “comes to his senses” and pursues what may be the love of his life.

Upon her return home, Kira briefly greets her husband and goes to bed alone in her private bedroom under Martiros Saryan's sun-filled tempera painting of an Armenian village scene (K rodniku, 1926). As Kira falls asleep, the branches of Saryan's tree soon metamorphose into those of a gloriously lush and tall beech, lit through with sunlight, and the heroine embarks on her nightly journey “to a natural spring”—a dramatic contrast to the monstrous metal structure that dominates her waking life. The sunlit landscape of Kira's dreams is juxtaposed to her husband's nocturnal cine-reveries. At the film's opening, Kira and Nikolai Ivanovich inhabit separate emotional worlds.

As the film progresses, the three thematic lines introduced in the opening sequence weave in and out of the plot to create an associative network of meanings and images that unearth the characters' suppressed feelings and desires in Eshpai's story of star-crossed lovers who unexpectedly meet again after twenty-five years of forced separation. The three artistic styles that inform each of the thematic segments—socialist realism, cinéma-verité documentary, and pantheistic landscape painting—outline three different life models pursued by individual characters in the film. The heroes' efforts at accessing, transcending, or combining these models illuminate their frustration with the rigidity of the society in which they live. Eshpai further utilizes techniques of cinematic melodrama to transform a Thaw-era social drama into a symbolic narrative about the heroes' suffering and powerlessness in the face of an oppressive Idea (or state system) that they themselves helped to create. According to Eshpai, his film has relevance not only for today's Russia, but also for the world at large. [1] Coming as a part of last year's upsurge in melodramatic production in Russia, Ellipsis more generally reflects present-day popular anxieties and fears underlying the officially promoted—and actively televised—image of Russia as the land of economic “stability” and "rule of law." [2]

When she walks into her workshop the morning after the events described in the opening sequence, Kira finds herself face to face with her first husband, Vadim (Igor' Mirkurbanov), who was wrongfully arrested in a sweeping wave of Stalinist purges in Kiev, where they then both lived. Shortly before his disappearance into the GULag camps, Vadim sent Kira a note relieving her of her conjugal vows (as was commonly done in those years to spare loved ones from being branded as relatives of an “enemy of the people”). Having no address to respond to, Kira, who did not want to let Vadim go, reconciled herself to her fate, and in due time she remarried and moved to Moscow with her new husband. Nikolai Ivanovich's position as an established older artist facilitated the progress of Kira's own career as a sculptor, helping her to secure both a workshop of her own and well-paying, ideologically charged projects. However, deep inside Kira preserved the repressed memories of her youthful love, which keep returning in her dreams about the majestic beech. Vadim's sudden reappearance in Kira's existence releases these long-suppressed feelings. The emotions that flood to the surface disturb Kira's carefully crafted emotional landscape, thereby providing the dense visual and auditory texture of the film. Spatial organization, along with visual symbolism, becomes particularly important for tracing narrative development in what initially appears to be a loosely connected series of vignettes about Kira and Vadim's rekindled relationship.

Based on Viktor Nekrasov's novella Kira Georgievna (1959) and incorporating his “A Really Most Extraordinary Story” (“V vysshei stepeni strannaia istoriia,” 1967), Ellipsis joins a quickly growing company of film and television adaptations of Soviet and Russian prose, a cultural shift that reflects a renewed interest in national history and cultural heritage. It is Eshpai's third adaptation, following The Insulted and the Injured (Unizhennye i oskorblennye, 1991), a cinematic version of Fedor Dostoevskii's novel, and The Children of Arbat (Deti Arbata, 2004), a television series based on Anatolii Rybakov's trilogy set during Stalinist purges and Second World War. [3]

Set in a freer period of Soviet history—the brief but hopeful years of the post-Stalinist Thaw— Ellipsis nonetheless continues The Children of Arbat 's inquiry into how “people themselves create and nourish a [grand] idea that later destroys them” (Eshpai, qtd. Parsegova). In this respect, the film furthers another prominent tendency in contemporary Russian cinema directed at revising an idealized perception of the Thaw as a period of unprecedented political and personal freedom. Similar to the issues raised in Pavel Chukhrai's A Driver for Vera (Voditel' dlia Very, 2004) and Aleksei Uchitel''s Dreaming of Space (Kosmos kak predchuvstvie, 2005), Ellipsis reveals the sturdy backbone of the authoritarian system under the seemingly liberal and carefree Thaw façade. In Eshpai's film, not only does this framework remain largely undisturbed, it actually gets steady reinforcement from the society that claims to have overcome its Stalinist past.

In order to get the literary originals to yield a more universal story about humanity's perennial quest for inner freedom, Eshpai and scriptwriter El'ga Lyndina have virtually rewritten Nekrasov's stories, toning down their somewhat outdated political references and even reversing some of the original accents. Kira Georgievna is deeply rooted in Thaw-era literary discourse. In a rather straightforward manner it renegotiates the boundaries between the public and the private, addresses the problems of ideological complicity, social stratification, and generational conflict, as well as cautiously raising the previously silenced issue of political prisoners' readjustment to Soviet life upon their return from the camps. [4] These clearly stated social and ideological tensions condition the uneasy relationship between Kira and Vadim. The heroes' eventual failure to reconstruct their nuclear family, torn apart by the totalitarian machine, attests to the profundity of the rift in a society that glosses over its grave internal conflicts and ideological divisions.

Much more self-assured and egocentric than she is in the film, Nekrasov's Kira is a confirmed follower of the Soviet system, which, she believes, has been once and for all cleansed of Stalinist excesses. Kira gets increasingly annoyed at Vadim's occasional references to his experiences outside her safe ideological sphere of “normal” Soviet life. She urges him to forget what happened to him in the past and to look forward to a bright socialist future instead. For Vadim, by contrast, the years spent at the country's geographical and ideological periphery became the re/formative years of his life, during which he met interesting people and experienced the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood. Unlike Eshpai's passive Vadim, Nekrasov's hero returns from internment a stronger and wiser man, eager to be reintegrated into the new life but also more readily aware of its problems and falsities. Vadim's “alien” status in the allegedly regenerated Soviet society comes through most clearly in how the system channels his creative energies and utilizes his experience. While his camp memoirs have no hope of reaching Soviet readership and his genuine story about wild life in Siberia is rejected for publication, Mosfil ' m Studio commissions him to contrive a scenario about fishermen who heroically triumph over the elements. The task is so preposterous and out of sync with Vadim's background that he spends hours lying under a three-hundred-year-old "Gogolian" oak without the slightest spark of inspiration.

Nekrasov's Kira exists entirely outside of nature and her sheltered Moscow life provides her with little insight for her art. The “Youth” of Kira's sculpture, commissioned for an agricultural exhibition, faithfully captures the well-built, athletic body of her model, the twenty-year-old Iurochka, but lacks his psychological depth. With his “lifeless” face slightly tilted back, the idealistic Youth vacantly stares into some abstract bright future. In Vadim's discerning view, Kira, who is fixated exclusively on her model's youthful body (in the novella Kira and Iurochka are actually lovers), fails to capture the inner essence of this sensitive young man, who for Vadim “epitomizes [the new generation's] intense questioning and thirst for answers, faith and doubt along with a burning desire to make sense of incomprehensible but vitally important issues.” [5] In addition to commenting on Kira's artistic superficiality, her sculpture perpetuates the Stalinist myth of Soviet history as a “radiant path” unhindered by human suffering and sacrifice. Vadim further questions and subverts the Youth's optimistic future-bound gaze when, in a key argument with Kira, he denies this unclouded future to the protagonist of Sergei Bondarchuk's film The Fate of a Man (Sud'ba cheloveka, 1959). Where Kira sees a victorious closure to a Soviet soldier's heroic battle against fascism, Vadim perceives a long road lying ahead of the tired and devastated man, a road that is uncertain and rife with new hardships and tribulations.

Regardless of how critical Nekrasov was of individual aspects of Soviet society, at the time he wrote his novella, he believed in the fairness of the original revolutionary ideals and, as a result, in the possibility of reforming the society built upon them. His faith in the questioning and creative energies of the new generation—who got the ideological baton from those unjustly victimized by the Stalinist regime—allowed him to end the story on a hopeful note. Holding no illusions about the essentially authoritarian nature of the Soviet system that has since been reincarnated in Putin's “strong state,” Eshpai represents it as an overwhelmingly formidable force embodied not only in the ominous statue in Kira's workshop, but also in the film's less historically specific visual and spatial symbolism. He further revises the more optimistic Thaw-era paradigm by readjusting Vadim's image from a refurbished version of a socialist realist hero, an unbroken ex-prisoner “tempered” by hardships in Stalinist camps, to a portrait of a “charming but lost and defeated man… no longer capable of real love or creativity” (Eshpai, qtd. Parsegova). [6] Eshpai therefore transforms the active hero of an updated socialist realist narrative into the suffering hero of melodrama. [7] By further marginalizing Iurochka (Evgenii Tsyganov) as a potential redeemer of the flawed system, Eshpai leaves no characters in the film that would be capable of standing up to the source of oppression. Kira, who is at least partly empowered through her belonging to the system, also fails to surmount her circumstances, despite the active stance she takes in the film. When all is said and done, she cannot escape the socialist realist plot she helped to create for herself; it follows her everywhere she goes.

The spatial structure of the film most vividly fleshes out the characters' sense of impotence and victimization, as well as reflecting their personal quest for some higher meaning. As a perennial social and ideological outcast, Vadim is denied any space of his own. While Kira can return to her apartment or escape to her suburban cottage, Vadim for the most part inhabits either the public space of Kira's sculpting workshop or the off-screen space of bureaucratic offices that are in charge of his rehabilitation. We first meet him sleeping on a couch in the workshop's upper loft, where he is mistaken for a squatter, a homeless wanderer seeking legitimacy in post-Stalinist society. The two-level workshop serves as an apt metaphor for the troubled dynamics between private and public spheres in the film. If the floor level of the workshop houses the Lenin sculpture, the upper loft has turned into a sort of semi-private space—with the couch, a dining table, and a washbasin. Most of the activities that take place here can be defined as either ideologically subversive or simply private: friendly drinking parties, artists' frank debates about contemporary art, reflections about the possibility of true happiness for the Thaw generation, and, most significantly, key conversations between Kira and Vadim. It is here that Kira confronts Vadim about his farewell letter and finally forgives him for “not having believed in her then.” In this same loft Kira tells Vadim about her idea of going to Kiev in the hope of recovering some solid ground for their suspended relationship. Even though they are not always successful, the loft's inhabitants reject the overtly political, transforming it instead into the personal. This happens, for example, in the episodes with an indoctrinated journalist from the GDR, Ursula (Chulpan Khamatova). After her initiation into the conventions of the loft community, Ursula's initially ideologized questions about the Lenin sculpture turn into a thoughtful inquiry about Kira's life.

While the loft allows the characters a degree of privacy, construction noises can still penetrate it, as can gazes from the ground floor, human or other. In different scenes throughout the film, the statue's outstretched arm looks as if it is either pointing to the bright future located somewhere in the loft or trying to squash the characters engrossed in their private affairs. The characters' attempts at humanizing the workshop's ground floor—like Kira and Iurochka's “tango” with a soccer ball or Vadim's gift of a bright-red soda machine—fail to free the characters from the bonds that constrain them. In the first instance (it takes place prior to Vadim's appearance), Kira must suppress her emotional need for a liberating feeling that was cut short twenty-five years ago. In the second, the communal excitement over the soda machine that Kira hopes will make common things effervescent comes to a grinding halt with the arrival of Vadim's wife and son, Vovka, another reminder of the irreversibility of the trauma incurred a quarter century before.

In Ellipsis , therefore, the characters' ascent to the upper loft—like Kira's dreams of the upward reaching tree—may be seen as an attempt at accessing the “moral occult,” which Peter Brooks defines as “the domain of operative spiritual values which is both indicated within and masked by the surface of reality. […] It bears comparison to unconscious mind, for it is a sphere of being where our most basic desires and interdictions lie, a realm which in quotidian existence may appear closed off from us, but which we must accede to since it is the realm of meaning and value” (53). For Kira, who—in her capacity as a socialist realist sculptor—upholds and advances the ideological status quo, these forays into the realm of the moral occult provide a vital outlet for her repressed feelings and desires. It is precisely in the moments of transcendence over the confines of everyday reality that Kira and Vadim experience their deepest emotional connections, in which looks and gestures have more expressive power than mere words. This happens, for example, in two playful pantomimes enacted in the loft. In a similar episode, when faced with Ursula's straightforward question “how do you live,” Kira cannot express her emotional experience; she remains silent, but the expression on her face tells much more than words ever could.

The pressure Eshpai applies to the film's visual surface “to make reality yield the terms of the drama of the moral occult” (Brooks 54), is particularly illuminating in the film's nature sequences set at or around Kira's dacha where she takes Vadim on a number of occasions. Vadim's stays at Kira's dacha appear precarious and ambiguous: the viewer can never be sure whether these scenes take place in Kira's dreams or in reality. Natural landscapes and the primordial oak that were Vadim's attributes in the novella, turn into the no-man's-land of Kira's dreams, in which both characters attempt to reclaim some of the territory for their real-life relationship. This task is far from easy because the two lovers' old nature retreats and the timeless idyll of Kira's dreams have been either built over with new construction (like the field in Kiev that Vadim used to photograph) or invaded by suppressed anxieties and real-life pressures. The characters' disquieting memories, past traumatic experiences, thoughtless ideological compromises, and new personal commitments “generate an excess that cannot be accommodated” within a more realistic narrative line (Nowell-Smith 193). Nor can it be accommodated within the officially imposed social realist narrative that Vadim is commissioned to write for Mosfil'm, the Soviet Union's largest dream factory. Vadim's eventual refusal to work on the script is his personal revolt against the circumscribing pressure of the system. After “refreshing” the typewriter issued him at Mosfil'm, Vadim recovers it from the barrel of rainwater and uses it to type his rehabilitation papers instead. This subversive textual substitution asserts the primacy of private narratives of victimization that are suppressed under authoritarian regimes.

On the surface, Kira appears to be fully in control of her life and environment. She single-handedly makes plans for her and Vadim's future, decides what to do with Vadim's family, and ignores the societal prejudice surrounding their affair. The viewer repeatedly sees her at the wheel of her personal car en route to her country retreat, but, as Nina Tsyrkun aptly notes, Kira's car almost never reaches its destination without an interruption. Kira's failure to master the distance that separates the ideologized, socialist realist space of her Moscow workshop from the idyllic landscapes of her country estate reverberates with her inability to control her dreams for her and Vadim's future. The further the narrative unfolds, the less control Kira has over her imaginary (emotional) world.

Shortly after Vadim's reappearance, Kira dreams of him smoking under her tree. They later spend a night at her dacha together and Kira has a joyful dream, in which she stands under the majestic beech with a happy smile on her face. It is raining but the tree is saturated through with sunlight and Kira removes her umbrella, surrendering herself to the cleansing power of the rain. This scene, accompanied by Edvard Grieg's life-affirming music, ties back to Vadim's recollection of their first meeting under a heavy rain, as well as to Vadim's attempt to “refresh” his typewriter in a barrel of rain water. Waking from her dream, Kira finds herself next to Vadim as the couple spends a summer afternoon lying on a riverbank. When she inquires into the progress of his script about the heroic fishermen, Vadim tells her that he wasn't actually writing. Instead, he was wondering what fish do during long winters when they are trapped under thick ice. Surely, he speculates, they feel so miserable that they must long for someone to pull them out and kill them. Kira is troubled by Vadim's words and tells him to “forget everything and simply live.” Vadim's next question about their street in Kiev, however, shows that he is not as ready to forget as Kira. His thoughts about fish under ice, when linked to the importance of memory, raise the problem of Kira's complicity in the society's “forgetfulness” about Stalinist crimes and, thus, in perpetuating the system that allowed them.

Still under the impression of Vadim's disturbing evocation of fish imagery, and as if wishing to reaffirm her happy dream, Kira wonders what the two strangers, a man and a woman stranded next to them in a broken-down car, think of them as a couple. Vadim approaches the strangers with the question only to find out that they think “absolutely nothing” about them. The narrative suddenly takes us back to Kira's imaginary world, where we once again see her standing under her tree. This time around, however, the scene is dark, there is no rain, and Ledenev's disquieting music accentuates the apprehensive expression on Kira's face. The ensuing associative montage of mental images flashing through Kira's mind depicts the heroine's feverish attempt at reconciling the incompatible fragments and disparate ideological models in her disintegrating emotional world.

In this montage, the Italian woman of Nikolai Ivanovich's documentary film appears alongside a countryside scene in which Kira finds herself amidst a group of boys returning from a fishing trip. The boys throw a flapping fish in the air and then impale it in the eye in a terrifying materialization of Vadim's thoughts about trapped fish. We next see Vadim and Kira playing with her umbrella on a striped cot in the backyard of Kira's workshop, followed by a claustrophobic scene in which Vadim appears trapped behind metal netting next to the Lenin statue. We finally see Vadim falling off a running motorcycle in direct contrast to Kira's confident driving skills. Interspersed with these scenes are alternating images of Vadim lying alone in a grassy field and of Nikolai Ivanovich first lying next to Kira on the bed in Kira's bedroom and tossing his artist's skullcap in the air, then preparing a canvas and painting it white with confident wide strokes. A bright patch of sunlight that falls across the canvas connects this imagery with Kira's happy dreams about her tree.

Nikolai Ivanovich appears in Kira's dreams in this episode for the first time. Unlike Vadim, who never shares the same frame with Kira in her dream world except for the sterile scene with the striped cot, Nikolai Ivanovich shares Kira's bed with her. His entry into her imaginary world prepares the viewer for Kira's eventual reconciliation with her existence prior to Vadim's return.

Waking in the middle of the night, Kira asks Nikolai Ivanovich to go to Kiev with her. Nikolai Ivanovich is watching his documentary film and during their conversation Kira steps into the field of the projection, as if entering the diegesis of her husband's cine-dream. This association between her and the young woman of the movie will be later reinforced when, during one of her walks, Kira twirls her glasses in the same independent manner as her documentary counterpart. Although Nikolai Ivanovich cannot go to Kiev because of work, he encourages Kira to go there alone. Back in Kira's dream space, the field is empty and Vadim is no longer there. Instead, we see him lighting up a cigarette in the darkness of Kira's workshop at night. While the two lovers will make several more trips to Kira's dacha in the second half of the film, in Kira's imaginary world Vadim moves away from the idyllic location at the foot of Kira's tree or in the grassy field to the socialist realist space of her workshop. Even though next morning Kira announces to Vadim her plan to go back to Kiev with him, the momentum of their relationship starts waning as ever more obstacles appear on the path to their reunion. As in Chekhov's The Three Sisters , Kira's appeal “To Kiev!” symbolizes her desperate attempt at saving her dream. In the episodes that follow, Vadim gives up his job as a scriptwriter, thus resigning from participation in the official culture and its pursuit of a bright future; his mother and sister, who meet Kira for the first time, treat her as a phantom from the distant past; and Vadim's wife and Vovka's arrival reminds Vadim of his responsibilities to his son.

As Vadim gradually moves out of Kira's world, Nikolai Ivanovich and Kira start to cross over into each other's previously disjointed dream spaces. Just after Vadim leaves with his family to help them settle at their new home in Ukraine, Nikolai Ivanovich comes looking for Kira at her country retreat. He is excited because the Italian lad in the movie finally followed the woman in gray, a longed-for development that might have triggered his own decision to “follow” Kira. It is Kira's birthday and he brings her a gift of a Saryan landscape painting with a beautiful tree at its compositional center. Unlike the picture hanging over Kira's bed, this painting (Nochnoi peizazh, 1911) features a peaceful nocturnal scene that brings together Kira's love of nature and Nikolai Ivanovich's predilection for night vigils.

The prospect for Nikolai Ivanovich and Kira's relationship, however, appears quite ambivalent. Nearly as many years that separated Kira and Vadim in life separate Nikolai Ivanovich and Kira in age, and the anxiety of this realization weighs heavily upon him. Finding the cottage locked and Kira gone, Nikolai Ivanovich throws a mini-party for residents at a neighboring dacha. Inebriation facilitates an emotional release and in a fit of desperation Nikolai Ivanovich tries to exchange places with the younger and less circumscribed Iurochka by swapping his cap, riding gear, and vehicles with him. But Iurochka's riding goggles have prescription lenses in them, and, as one of the neighbors points out, Nikolai Ivanovich cannot wear them safely, nor can he live out someone else's life. When Kira finally returns to the cottage from her meditation under the beech, Nikolai Ivanovich announces the good news about the Italian pair to her. He then grabs the painting and heads for the river “to take a swim with Saryan” in a gesture recalling an earlier scene in which Kira took her best creation, the clay-smeared Iurochka, for a swim.

Kira's crossover into Nikolai Ivanovich's world through her growing association with the Italian woman of the documentary film is equally ambiguous. Nekrasov's “A Really Most Extraordinary Story” tells of a scriptwriter who, while penning a fictional soundtrack to a documentary about Italy, loses control over his independently minded characters. Having to watch the movie many times over, the writer finds himself involved in the fate of the same pair of characters as Nikolai Ivanovich. [8] When, after a few drinks, he watches the film one last time, the young man in the film follows the woman in gray. The writer avoids watching the documentary again until one day he goes to see Sergei Bondarchuk's Anna Karenina (1967) and the film is unexpectedly shown as a pre-feature presentation. In this screening, the two characters in question are actually missing from their place in the narrative and the writer leaves his seat in anxiety before the documentary is over. He wonders if the free-spirited pair has migrated somewhere else within the film space, and is not quite sure what they “might get up to next.” In a panic, he asks his readers, who have been brought up on predictable socialist realist plots: “What would happen if the others followed their example?” (201). Eshpai's characters certainly try to transcend the rules set out for them by the socialist realist narrative but, unlike Nekrasov's youthful and unrestrained Italians, they fail to break free of their ideological and personal constraints. Eshpai's Nikolai Ivanovich lives vicariously through the characters in his movie, and the intensity of his emotions that cannot find an adequate outlet in real life compounds to burn a hole in the film just before the critical moment in the life of the cine-couple. The breakage of the film, accompanied by Nikolai Ivanovich's heart attack, symbolizes not only the character's shattered aspiration at achieving the artistic and inner freedom he seeks, but also his grave concern about the possibility of losing Kira. The dedication and caring with which Kira responds to Nikolai Ivanovich's emotional and physical crisis attest to her immense commitment to him, her feelings for Vadim notwithstanding.

In the course of the film, Kira undergoes the most dramatic change, growing more estranged from her monstrous creation as she moves ever deeper into her personal world. After Vadim's departure and Nikolai Ivanovich's collapse, she spends more than a week away from her workshop. Upon her eventual return there, she looks disinterested and divorced from what is going on around her. Ursula's questions about Kira's life prompt a transition to the film's final, highly personal sequence. In direct contrast to the film's opening shots, in this sequence, Kira returns to the sunny landscape of her reveries. The same life-affirming piece by Grieg that sounded in the earlier scene of Kira's great expectations for her and Vadim's future accompanies the heroine's transition to a new stage in her life. In this episode, the river supersedes Kira's majestic beech that for the first time moves to a secondary plane in the heroine's daydreams. The symbolism of the deeply rooted, upward reaching, stationary tree situated in the timeless space of Kira's idyll gives way to the forever flowing, transient river imagery that symbolizes Kira's emotional maturation and coming to terms with the changes that have taken place in her life. As a closing gesture, Kira sets afloat her Italian umbrella, the last symbolic object connecting her with the youthful and free characters of the Italian documentary, as well as with her idyllic encounters with Vadim.

While the film's narrative fails to accommodate Kira and Vadim's relationship within the dominant socialist realist plot, melodrama's traditional return to the status quo takes an unusual turn in Eshpai's rendition: even though the characters suffer a defeat by the political system, they nonetheless prevail in the realm of the personal. In the end, when, in a brief and almost dream-like sequence, Vadim returns to Kira's workshop, Kira makes no attempt at stopping him; she watches him leave with a lonesome but determined expression on her face. The two lovers release each other after staging a courageous personal rebellion against their prescribed lot. The intense emotional experience they go through during the brief rekindling of their youthful feelings helps them realize not only the rigidity of the system that separated them, but also the importance and indispensability of their subsequent commitments and relationships. The heroes' high individual ethics raise them above the circumscribing system, even though the system itself lives on. In this respect, Eshpai's melodrama stands out from many of its contemporary counterparts, which avoid making references to contemporary state structures, let alone foregrounding them. [9]

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell
Bowdoin College


Notes

1] “I think our century is filled with these terrible ideas that seize our minds like monsters. And our entire life is then built in accordance with some idea that brings about rivers of blood and destroys everything. […] I want to believe that this happens everywhere. Due to the high level of emotionality I wanted to express, I want to believe that the film will somehow be understood and accepted both in Europe and in the world at large” (Andrei Eshpai, interviewed in Galitskaia and Plakhov).

2] The recent upsurge in Russian melodrama was the subject of The Ninth Russian Film Symposium, "Melodrama and Kino-Ideology," held at the University of Pittsburgh (30 April – 5 May 2007).

3] Anatolii Rybakov's (1911-1998) Arbat trilogy includes The Children of Arbat (written in the 1960s; published in 1987), Fear (Strakh, 1990), and Dust and Ashes (Prakh i pepel, 1996).

4] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha) appeared in print the year after Kira Georgievna 's publication in Novyi mir in 1961.

5] Viktor Nekrasov Kira Georgievna.

6] For a discussion of the socialist realist masterplot see Clark.

7] When discussing the transition from high tragedy to bourgeois art forms in Europe in the 18 th century, Nowell-Smith notes “the demarcation of forms” based on the kind of hero—active or passive—they feature: “Broadly speaking in the American movie, the active hero becomes protagonist of the Western, the passive, the impotent hero or heroine becomes protagonist of what has come to be known as melodrama” (192).

8] In the story, Nekrasov wrote about his own experience of writing a soundtrack to Il ' ia Gutman's documentary 38 Minutes in Italy (38 minut po Italii, 1965). In Ellipsis, Eshpai uses actual footage from Gutman's film (see Parsegova).

9] See, for example, Avdot ' ia Smirnova's Relations (Sviaz', 2006), Ivan Dykhovichnyi's Inhale-Exhale (Vdokh-vydokh, 2006), and Ivan Vyrypaev's Euphoria (Eiforiia, 2006).

 


Works Cited

Brooks, Peter. “The Melodramatic Imagination.” In Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film & Television Melodrama. Ed. Marcia Landy. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991. 50-67.

Clark, Katerina. The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual. Chicago: U of Chicago P,1981.

Galitskaia, Ol'ga and Andrei Plakhov. “Mnogotochie – novyi fil'm Andreia Eshpaia.” Radio Maiak (30 July 2006).

Nekrasov, Viktor. “A Really Most Extraordinary Story.” In Postscripts: Short Stories. Trans. Michael Falchikov and Dennis Ward. London: Quartet Books, 1991. 195-201.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. “Minnelli and Melodrama.” In Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Ed. Bill Nichols. Vol. II. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985. 190-194.

Parsegova, Galina. “Plach po liubvi: Interv'iu s Andreem Eshpaem k prem'ere ‘Mnogotochiia'.” (February 2007).

Tsyrkun, Nina. “Strannaia istoriia: ‘Mnogotochie'.” Iskusstvo kino (30 August 2006).


Ellipsis, Russia, 2006
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Andrei Eshpai
Scriptwriter: El'ga Lyndina, Andrei Eshpai
Cinematography: Maksim Trapo
Art Director: Ol'ga Kravchenia
Music: Andrei Ledenev
Cast: Evgeniia Simonova, Igor' Mirkurbanov, Sergei Dreiden, Evgenii Tsyganov, Inga Oboldina, Nikolai Chindiaikin, Chulpan Khamatova
Producer: Andrei Eshpai
Production: Studio “Demarsh,” with the support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Andrei Eshpai: Ellipsis (Mnogotochie, 2006)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell© 2007

Updated: 01 Jul 07