Issue 23 (2009)

Andrei Eshpai: The Event (Sobytie, 2007)

reviewed by Christine Engel © 2009

Eshpai's film takes us into the temporally amorphous ambience of somewhere in the sticks, be it a Russian provincial town or a European small town, which creates a rather generalized sense of time and space. In a house full of old equipment and furniture lives the painter Aleksei (Lesha) Troshcheikin, a man in his mid-thirties, with his young wife Liubov' (Liuba) and her mother Antonina Pavlovna. He scrapes a living by painting portraits of the local dignitaries, which he paints in a flattering fashion and to whom he provides a vision of themselves which they enjoy seeing. He has long since abandoned more ambitious ideas of art. On Antonina Pavlovna's birthday, the provincial monotony is interrupted by unexpected news: Leonid (Lenia) Barbashin has been released from prison early. Out of disappointed love he had shot at the young couple, and swore revenge when still in court. So the whole day and the birthday reception are overshadowed by thickening rumours of approaching danger and burgeoning fears. The people involved react each in their own way: Troshcheikin responds with keeping himself constantly busy and thinks of running away, obtaining money from somewhere and hires an incompetent private investigator for protection. Liuba appears more relaxed, is curious about Barbashin and is convinced that their old bands of love are still strong enough for her to have a pacifying influence on him. Antonina Pavlovna, a writer with a penchant for kitsch, considers all this good subject matter which she could—with a bit of summarizing and structuring—turn into a successful story. The arriving guests can in turn indulge in sensationalism and fuel the rumours. In the early hours it is reported that Barbashin has already left town again. Thus the whole web of suspense falls flat and the ‘event' announced in the film's title becomes a blatant non-event. [1]

The dialogues of the adaptation remain close to the text of the original, Nabokov's drama of the same title which was written in Paris in 1938. The author's financial situation at the time was precarious and he hoped for his play to be successful (see Boyd, 480). The production at the Russian Theatre (in the journal room of the National Library in Paris), directed by Iurii Annenkov, became a celebrated event in Russian émigré society.[2] The play received deserved recognition only after the second performance, when it was reviewed by Vladislav Khodasevich. The first reviews, however, published immediately after the premiere, were more than critical; it was deemed inappropriate to blend characteristics of different genres: tragedy with comedy, exaggerated into the grotesque and a farce (see Pulia). Moreover, the non-adherence to conventional dramaturgical promises was seen as negative: the infamous gun hanging on the wall is—according to Chekhov—expected to go off sometime, but it doesn't do so in Nabokov's play.[3] Even more irritation was caused at the time by another refusal by Nabokov: Instead of a psychological drama in the tradition of Chekhov and Konstantin Stanislavskii, Nabokov confronts the audience almost as in a parody with a pronounced anti-psychologism,[4] as the dramaturgical motivation of the action does not result from psychological considerations, but from the incorrect assessment of the thickening rumours by the characters and the resulting sensationalism.

Reactions of disapproval in this respect can hardly be expected from today's audience, which has gained experience from crossover and post-modernism, both of which have long unsettled the former pseudo-security of genre conventions. The audience is now used to being shown the construction principles of reality on a meta level. In addition, film can handle a mixed genre situation much more easily than the theatre, whose traditions tie it much more closely to genre conventions (see Tarasova's interview with Eshpai). Eshpai intends to bring the play up to date and hence emphasises the potential of the text which can cause irritation even today when adapted to film. He sees such a potential in shaping memory visually and in experiencing the present as a simultaneousness of the non-simultaneous—as a symbiotic relationship in which cause and effect cannot be determined. This upsets the distinction into different levels of reality, which is still rooted in common consciousness: Memories and the present do not represent a hierarchy of ‘before' and ‘after' and the realms of dream, reflection and interpretation are inextricably connected with experience and action. This conception is realised e. g. in the scene in which Troshcheikin covers Liuba's shoulder and chest with kisses and makes sexual advances, while at the same time images of her husband recently seducing their maid Marfa in the same way are floating through her mind. As it turns out subsequently, both seduction scenes are remembered by Liuba lying in a hammock. Thus we have three time levels interacting with each other.

For such a complex task of representation, a linear narrative is out of the question in the first place. Equally, conventional means of cinematography are excluded, such as clearly defined flashbacks or the explicit marking of different levels of reality by different colour schemes or filters, fade-in and fade-out or similar techniques. As a solution Eshpai uses kaleidoscope-like images and visual metaphors. One of these metaphors is the recurring theme of the white clown who is juggling a lot of colourful balls that are flying through the air. Another metaphor is the big ball on which the white clown skilfully balances while demonstrating his juggling skills.

The white clown as a competent juggler of memories is contrasted with Liuba, who does not show such ease when dealing with memories. Her balancing act on the ball is not very stable and leads to her falling off, which is additionally visualised through an upside-down image of the world. In her context the torturing quality of memories plays a much greater role than their moments of elation. She is still suffering from her infant son's death and tries to numb these memories with alcohol. Her excessive alcohol consumption adds another potential level of interpretation to the film: considering that Liuba's perspective is dominant in the film, the depiction of blurred levels of reality could be accounted for by alcohol. This means it cannot be excluded that some of the grotesque scenes are to be ascribed to her state of intoxication. It thus remains uncertain which function the characters' costumes have, such as Marfa's rococo wig or Antonina Pavlovna's disguise as a geisha. They could be ascribed to Liuba's ‘mad' imagination, but they also fulfil a formal function in that they expand the dimension of memory to different epochs and geographic spaces.

With his kaleidoscopic style Eshpai emphasises on the one hand the non-coherence of memories, which do not adhere to a logical, causal and syntactically organised system. On the other hand he emphasises explicitly that memories are not a mimesis of reality. This is not only expressed by the recurring theme of broken mirrors, but also through numerous depictions of the act of taking photographs as a failed attempt at capturing images. None of the many photographs Liuba is constantly handling are able to fixate a static image. The photographs Liuba keeps looking at can only evoke memories, but are unable to portray the events themselves. In Liuba's darkroom an image slowly emerges out of the photographic developer, but the contextualisation of the image in the brain takes its own course.

With his style of film adaptation Eshpai succeeds in distilling relevant and current concepts of the play and in translating them into adequate cinematic language. The director already proved that a transformation of a literary text into film cannot be achieved by simply putting the plot into pictures when he adapted Dostoevskii's novel The Insulted and the Injured (Unizhennye i oskorblennye, 1991). In the past four years Eshpai completed another two adaptations, The Children of the Arbat (Deti Arbata, 2004) from Anatolii Rybakov's novel of the same title, and Ellipsis (Mnogotochie, 2006) from Viktor Nekrasov's short novel Kira Georgievna. In all his adaptations the focus lies not on contemporary problems then or the concrete subjects of the pre-text. Instead, a shift into the character's internal world of thought and a generalisation take place (see Eshpai, "Vyiti iz kruga"). The latter is achieved by Eshpai through the above mentioned generalization of the temporal and spatial setting—another means of avoiding an all too pronounced dependence on the pre-text.

Apart from his method of generalisation and actualisation it is the careful composition that matters to Eshpai. He follows principles of music and suggests that he structures the composition similar to a musical score (see Eshpai, "Vyiti iz kruga"). This approach might have found support within his own family, considering that his father Andrei Iakovlevich Eshpai is one of the most distinguished contemporary Russian composers, who contributed actively to the film The Event by adapting works of J.S. Bach.

Christine Engel
University of Innsbruck

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Notes

1] Eshpai utilizes the much more versatile means of cinematography and includes the outside world to build up the sense of perceived danger from Barbashin. Barbashin himself remains the looming invisible one, but repeated black-and white sequences show his legs moving with stamping steps along unidentified rows of houses.

2] Three years later the play was also produced in New York with the stage design by Mstislav Dobuzhinskii, who had formerly given drawing lessons to Nabokov. In Russia the play was not performed until recently, e.g. in 2003 in the Nabokov Museum in St Petersburg (see Kundysheva).

3] Literary criticism has repeatedly referred to the close intertextual correlation between Nikolai Gogol' and Nabokov's technique of not gratifying the expectations raised by literary conventions as experienced in The Event. From this viewpoint, the Barbashin action can be interpreted as a reversal of Gogol's play The Inspector General (see e.g. Pavlov, Guerra).

4] The name of Antonina Pavlovna is a mocking reference to Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. For further references to Chekhov see Shadurskii.

 


Works Cited

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov. The Russian Years. London: Chatto & Windus, 1990. Especially pp. 480-489.

Eshpai, Andrei: “Vyiti iz kruga“. Literaturnaia gazeta (July 2007).

Guerra, René. “Vladimir Nabokov v neprivychnoi ipostasi. Zametki o dvuch poslednikh p'esakh Nabokova-Sirina ‘Sobytie' i ‘Izobretenie Val'sa'“. Kontinent 45, 1985, pp. 367-379.

Kundysheva, Emiliia. “Sobytie v dome Nabokova“. Novaia gazeta 91 (December 2003).

Pavlov, A. M. “Printsip ‘nestrelaiushchego ruzh'ia' kak sposob organizatsii chitatel'skogo vospriatiia (‘Revizor' N.V. Gogol'ia i ‘Sobytie' V. Nabokova)“. Conference, Kemerovo State University.

Pulia, I.I. “'Sobytie' V. Nabokova kak novaia vidovaia forma dramy: ‘Koshmarnyi balagan'“. Booksite.ru.

Shadurskii, Vladimir. “Chekhovskoe v tvorchestve Vladimira Nabokova”. Literatura 28 (October 2004).

Tarasova, Aleksandra. “Dialog s Nabokovym“. Mosfil'm (29 June 2006).


The Event, Russia 2006
Color, 109 minutes,
Director: Andrei A. Eshpai
Scriptwriter: Andrei A. Eshpai, after the eponymous play by Vladimir Nabokov
Camera: Shandor Berkeshi
Music: Andrei Ledeniov
Cast: Chulpan Khamatova, Igor’ Gordin, Sergei Perelygin, Evgeniia Simonova, Zoia Kaidanovskaia, Sergei Dreiden, Evgenii Tsyganov, Ol’ga Prokof’eva, Elena Koreneva, Inga Oboldina
Producer: Andrei A. Eshpai
Production: Filmstudio “Demarsh”, Moscow

Andrei Eshpai: The Event (Sobytie, 2007)

reviewed by Christine Engel © 2009

Updated: 08 Jan 09