Stanislav Govorukhin: The Actress (Artistka, 2007)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2008

The Actress is the comic tale of an actress languishing in bit parts who meets a mommy's boy genius entomologist, falls in love, and, instead of following him to Spain, stays to further her career having finally landed the part of Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare's Hamlet. While it has its comic moments and creditable acting performances, The Actress is an old-fashioned and unambitious film, the most interesting aspect of which are the quotations from Shakespeare. The credit for this, though, is due largely to the bard.

Most of the film is devoted to the relationship between two women, Anna (Evgeniia Dobrovol'skaia) and her neighbor and friend Musia (Mariia Aronova), a successful businesswoman with a dog-grooming salon, who is already on her fourth “successful marriage” to a man who is younger and better looking than she is, who sees other women, and whom she openly insults. As Iuliia Belozubkina has commented (46), the repartee between Anna and Musia, as well as the former's search for love, is reminiscent of Vladimir Men'shov's Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1979). The interplay between the two women provides the film with many of its comic moments, as their dialogue is fast-paced and presumably the fruit of many improvisations. Further comic bit parts are added by Basiakin (Aleksandr Abdullov), a theater electrician and Anna's neighbor in the communal flat, who makes no secret of his feelings for her. The comic centerpiece of the film, however, is provided by the parasitologist, Vikentii (Iurii Stepanov), who drops by looking for Musia's husband, Arkadii, and is waylaid, ridiculed, and plied with booze by the two women just for fun. The humor here works, but it has much of Evgenii's drunken antics in El'dar Riazanov's Irony of Fate (Ironiia sud'by, 1975) as liquor alone proves capable of prizing the dithering intellectual from his doting mother (Irina Skobtseva). His passivity may be said to be Hamlet-like, especially in the traditional Russian interpretation of the figure as symbolizing the weakness of the intelligentsia. The analogy might be extended a little further as his father, also a scientist, is dead, and an important spectral presence in his life is symbolized by the portrait that dominates the flat he shares with his mother. Yet she, unlike Hamlet's mother Queen Gertrude, has not married again but rather is consumed by and consuming in her love for her son.

The irony is that Vikentii's liberation from his mother through falling in love with Anna is probably illusory since she assumes the role of Gertrude, and with the last words of the film literally speaks her lines as if to Vikentii moments before the premiere:

Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.

Is the suggestion that the father figure who is too overwhelming must now be left behind? Is it intimating that Vikentii is now free of the stifling Oedipal embrace of his mother? Probably not, since this is not really so thoughtful a film as that. While the intertext and the title underline the notion of identity, especially feminine identity, as a kind of performance, this theme, too, is not explored in depth. Instead, Shakespeare is not really there to be heard, understood, and thought about, but simply to stand as an emblem of culture so that Govorukhin can present himself as superior to contemporary popular culture, which has less need for the fig leaf of erudition.

In his time, of course, Govorukhin was himself a very popular director. Over the course of a directorial career spanning more than forty years and something like twenty films, Govorukhin has made films of various and different genres: action films, detectives, and documentaries, to name but a few. With his paramount commitment to the demands of genre, it is not really possible to detect a consistent thematic concern or stylistic approach, other than a general efficiency and skill at coaxing effective performances from actors.

Govorukhin has now turned his attention to women in this and other recent works, including his 2003 film Bless the Woman (Blagoslovite zhenshchinu), and plans further to target this audience. Certainly the key and most convincing relationship of this film is not the romantic one, but that between Anna and Musia. This female buddy trope, along with the happy ending of love and career success, are, again, a rather transparent attempt to repeat the formula of Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.

It is tempting to link this tendency towards a nostalgic and retro feel in his recent films to Govorukhin's growing concern to make films that appeal to women and to conclude that he is making films for people familiar with his work from the Soviet era. For people, for example, who remember his 1966 hit Vertical (Vertikal') or his 1979 series The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed (Mesto vstrechi izmenit' nel'zia), starring Vladimir Vysotskii, a group now in its fifties and sixties, it seems likely that the turn to women is informed by sheer demographics—by the fact that the average life expectancy of Russian men is 58, already below that of the average age of his audience. At the same time, average life expectancy for women is now 72 (World Health Organization) , which means there are simply far more women fans of his retro fare than men. And since this age group rarely goes to the cinema anymore, it will probably watch this film on TV, as this is the way in which his films are now primarily consumed, and with great pleasure. Russian cinemas, however, are filled with different audiences and films.

Jeremy Hicks
Queen Mary, University of London

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Works Cited

Belozubkina, Iuliia. “Prostoi parazitolog.” Iskusstvo kino 10 (2007): 44-46.

World Health Organization. “Life expectancy (LE) and healthy life expectancy” (23 October 2006).

 


The Actress, Russia, 2007
Color, 96 minutes
Director: Stanislav Govorukhin
Screenplay: Valerii Mukhar'iamov
Cinematography: Valerii Miul'gaut
Art Director: Valentin Gidulianov
Editing: Vera Kruglova
Costumes: Alla Oleneva
Composer: Evgenii Doga
Cast: Evgeniia Dobrovol'skaia, Mariia Aronova, Iurii Stepanov, Aleksandr Abdullov, Dmitrii Pevtsov, Fedor Bondarchuk, Irina Skobtseva, Svetlana Nemoliaeva, Kira Golovko, Varvara Shuliat'eva, Anzhelika Volchkova
Producer: Ekaterina Maskova
Production: Vertikal' Film Studios

Stanislav Govorukhin: The Actress (Artistka, 2007)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2008

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