Aleksandr Petrov: My Love (Moia Liubov' , 2006)
reviewed by Laura Pontieri Hlavacek© 2008
This year, with My Love, Aleksandr Petrov received his fourth nomination for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. The story, drawn from Ivan Sergeevich Shmelev's novel A Love Story (Istoriia liubovnaia), revolves around its main character, Anton's, first tumultuous experiences with two different kinds of love: the naïve and pure love the young boy feels for Pasha, a maid who works in his house, and an idolized and passionate attraction provoked by Serafima, an older and mysterious lady who lives next door. More than the story itself, what makes this film (and Petrov's other films) so appealing is the rare technique used: animated oil paintings. Petrov paints directly on glass, primarily using his fingers, and only at times employing paintbrushes for small and precise details. The effect is a poetry of shades, tones, and light that imbues each of Petrov's films with a lyrical atmosphere. Every single frame is a work of art that seems to allow the canvas to come alive and move in a dimension made of patches and nuances of color.
Petrov has both an artistic education and a specialization in animation. After graduating from the Artistic Institute in Iaroslavl' in 1976, he studied at the art faculty of the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK), and later, in 1987-1988, he participated in courses organized for animation directors led by Fedor Khitruk, Iurii Norshtein, and Eduard Nazarov. He worked for ten years (1982-1992) at the prestigious studio in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg), not only as artistic director for films by such famous and original personalities such as Vladimir Petkevich and Aleksei. Karaev, but also as director of his own films: The Cow ( Korova , 1989), which was nominated for the Academy Award in 1989, and The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (Son smeshnogo cheloveka, 1992). In 1992 he opened his own studio, Panorama, in Iaroslavl', where he created another Academy Award-nominated film, Mermaid (Rusalka, 1996), and where he spent three years making My Love . Only one film of Petrov's was made outside of Russia, The Old Man and the Sea (Starik i more, 1999), which was produced in Montreal and won the Oscar for Best Short Animated Film in 2000.
While for his previous films Petrov relied only on a trustworthy cameraman (primarly Sergei Reshetnikov) and at times on the help of an assistant (his favorite being his son, Dmitrii), several people took part in the creation of My Love. Some artists helped in animating the paintings on glass (Dmitrii Petrov, Iulia Kuznetsova, Elena Petrova, Svetlana Shukhaeva, Elena Pisarenko, Tat'iana Murysova), and the gifted animator and director Mikhail Tumelia directed each episode and prepared (with the help of Dmitrii Ivanov and Izol'da Solodova) sketches and animation graphics that served as references to the scenes eventually painted on glass. However, while teamwork was undoubtedly important in the making of this film, Petrov's final decisions and unique style still gave the final imprint that marks all of his films.
In a brief documentary made in Petrov's Panorama studio on the making of The Old Man and the Sea, the director claims that what appeals to him most in a film made with animated paintings on glass is a sense of uniqueness (nepovtorimost' and organic unity (organichnost') that is difficult to obtain with other techniques. This comment recalls Eisenstein's late theory of organic unity as the "principle of the unity and inseparability of the whole and of all its merging parts " (16; emphasis in original), which rises in the composition of the work according to "the laws of the structure of organic phenomena of nature" (11). Indeed, each frame in Petrov's films evolves into the following one like a living being in constant transformation.
This harmonious flow, on the one hand, properly represents the blooming of spring that appears not only in the film's landscape but also functions as a metaphor for the main character's stage of life. Incidentally, while the style of Petrov's drawings recalls a few Russian painters of the late 19th century (such as Viktor Borisov-Musatov, Zinaida Serebriakova, Petr Konchalovskii, and Valentin Serov), it is Borisov-Musatov in particular who influences this film, specifically his Spring (1901), whose atmosphere reappears in the form of moving images in My Love. On the other hand, images follow each other, creating a pictorial dimension free from a clear distinction between reality and dreams. The most interesting aspect of this film is the way in which, although it strives towards realism with the aid of plenty of details in the description of the environment and the accurate movements of the characters, images easily pass between the worlds of imagination and reality as though there were no boundaries. A subtle contrast of shades of colors and indefinite contours, characterized by soft lines permit, smooth dissolves and overlaps, producing transitions between scenes that are never abrupt. Twirling images occasionally mark a passage from a state of daydreaming to daily life, but most of the time the change of scene is hardly perceptible and overlapping sounds help to create an uninterrupted flow.
Scenes of daily life are interlaced with dreams in an attempt to represent the young boy's confused and contrasting feelings that are typical of his adolescent age: his attempts to reconcile his ideal pure love with passion and more carnal instincts; his flights of fancy, in which he puts his idolized images of Serafima into verses; and his returns to reality, where he finds himself with Pasha. The continuous battle of contrasting feelings in Anton's soul takes shape in various forms in the film. While the love Anton feels for Pasha brings him back to daily life or to idyllic pastoral scenery (such as an image of the pair sitting in a field or next to a fireplace with a baby next to them; or by a lake where swans form a heart with their necks), the attraction he feels for Serafima brings him to another world, which is represented by the filmmaker not without a hint of irony: scenes in which the young boy writes verses in honor of his idolized love are accompanied by images of the boy dressed as a poet, with a laurel crown and a lyre in his hands, and Serafima as a goddess high above the sky; these are followed by moments in which gusts of wind carry the poet and the "empress of his soul" into dangerous, romantic storms, which they survive to float gently in a peaceful landscape. The boy's feelings for Serafima, however, are more complex than those expressed by his self-made idealized images; there is a more concrete and carnal passion that Anton himself has difficulties admitting, and against which he vehemently struggles. It is worth noticing how the director creates explicit associations with the help of correlated images in order to suggest Anton's inner feelings, those he has not confessed to himself. For instance, in one scene, an image of Serafima transforms into a sepia color slide, followed by other slides of naked women seen by some men at a market; or in another, Anton, while in church, talks to God about his desire for a pure love and the camera pans to a fresco of the Final Judgment-from Paradise down to hell, next to which Serafima appears. Here, the turbulent movements of the boy's soul coincide with the passage from heaven to hell, from an idyllic and pure love to the passionate and lustful attraction for Serafima. The underlying theme of sensual love also shines through the symbolic images of the bull and the snake, and through violent red hues in scenes of lust and crime; once again these scenes dissolve into quieter and peaceful instants, mostly moments of prayer, leading the focus back to Anton's striving for a pure love.
In this film, an adolescent's inner struggle with his instincts and first confused feelings is better depicted through images, symbols, and editing than by the main character's narrative voice. A focus on the teenage years is also successfully achieved through comparison to spring, which is both represented visually and evoked through the soundtrack composed by Norman Roger. Through all these devices, the story results less anchored to a specific time and place; nevertheless, the spectator might still wonder why Petrov's remarkable talent and powerful technique are put to the use of a story that does not seem particularly appealing to a modern viewer. This disappointment, of course, can be due to the spectator's personal taste, but it can also be the result of directorial choices: although one might understand the struggle of feelings that adolescents experience, the character himself does not arouse sympathy, and the spectator is more inclined to identify with Pasha and respect her unselfish love than to take Anton's side. My Love is a purely visual attraction: it leaves you with striking pictures that are certainly true works of art. If one returns to the film, it may not be for the sake of the story, but only in order to experience the magic sensation of seeing paintings come alive.
Laura Pontieri Hlavacek
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Eisenstein, Sergei. Non-indifferent Nature. Trans. Herbert Marshall. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.
My Love, Russia, 2006
Color, 35 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Petrov
Screenplay: Aleksandr Petrov
Cinematography: Sergei Reshetnikov
Animators: Dmitrii Petrov, Iulia Kuznetsova, Elena Petrova, Svetlana Shukhaeva, Elena Pisarenko, Tat'iana Murysova, Mikhail Tumelia; with the assistance of Izol'da Solodova and Dmitrii Ivanov
Sound: Viktor Duritsyn
Producer: Liubov' Kuznetsova
Production: Dago Company
Aleksandr Petrov: My Love (Moia Liubov' , 2006)
reviewed by Laura Pontieri Hlavacek© 2008