Issue 24 (2009)

Elina Suni: Veronika Isn’t Coming (Veronika ne pridet, 2008)

reviewed by Emily Hillhouse © 2009

veronikaIn Elina Suni’s latest cinematic endeavor after her debut Man in a Case (Chelovek v futliare, 2006), Veronika Isn’t Coming, first impressions can be misleading, love overcomes personal tragedy, and happiness can arrive when you least expect it: “on a dashing horse, sitting on a broom.” All in all, there are few narrative surprises in this whimsical film. The story opens on the day when Veronika Pavolvna Sorokina, a famous journalist, deputy of the Supreme Council, and Hero of Socialist Labor, hits rock bottom.

A miserable old woman, Veronika staggers drunkenly through an empty Moscow morning. The only signs of her former glory are the honorific medal pinned on the breast of her soiled blouse, and her ability to terrorize all who cross her path. Flocks of birds scatter, car alarms sound, and a hapless door attendant cringes away in fear. Like some terrible witch, she stomps through her son Andrei’s apartment, frightening his wife and children and tearing apart his kitchen. As she leaves, she hears him shout through the padded apartment door that he hates her and never wants her to return.

Thirty years before, in 1968, Veronika is an ambitious, attractive, talented, and charming woman, using all of her wiles to secure a better life for her son. She convinces her powerful lover to intercede on Andrei’s behalf to get him onto the Olympic bicycling team. When Andrei discovers her interference, he refuses to join the team and runs away to the “North”.

veronikaThe action deftly weaves between these two time frames. In the present, Veronika has nothing left to live for. She decides to go to a retirement home for Party officials, where she plans to last for two months before dying peacefully in her sleep.  Her arrival at the home is paralleled by her first day on the job as editor-in-chief of a newspaper. In both past and present, she is followed by whispers of her scandalous rise to prominence and she pursues her own goals without recourse to the opinions of others. In the present, she embraces her despair with an almost comical single-mindedness. For example, she shows up in her bathrobe to a formal dinner given in her honor. In 1968, however, it is love which she pursues without thinking of the consequences.

veronikaAt the newspaper, Veronika’s eye is caught by a handsome young journalist and poet, Sergei. Tall, slender, dressed in black with converse sneakers, and an interesting air of preoccupation, he stands out from the petty bureaucrats that surround him. The fact that he has a pretty young wife who also works at the paper is no deterrent to Veronika. And it is soon apparent that the attraction is mutual. Their flirtatious encounters soon  become the food of office gossip. Veronika’s secretary, Liuba, begs her to leave Sergei and Lara alone, since she believes that it is all just a game to Veronika.

However, over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Veronika is not the heartless woman that everybody takes her to be. Not only does she feel pain, but more importantly, she has the capacity to love. Indeed, Liuba’s assumption that Veronika was just playing with Sergei for her own amusement is soon revealed to be incorrect. Her feelings are deeply engaged. After a sexually charged argument, nominally about Lara’s appalling writing, Veronika sits under her desk and cries, her usual confident exterior crumbling as mascara runs down her cheeks.

veronikaWhile mischance and rumor cause Lara to become convinced that Veronika and Sergei are having a full-blown affair under her nose, the reality is different and yet perhaps more shattering. In a sweetly hesitant phone call, it becomes clear that they are falling in love. Sergei tells Veronika that everything he writes turns out to be about her. Veronika, for her part, starts to use her connections with her powerful lover to attempt to get Sergei’s poems published. 

Back at the retirement home, Veronika is once again reunited with the faithful Liuba, who with the help of two other retirees, tries in vain to bring Veronika out of her despair. From political meetings and outdoor exercise to an attempt at bribing the head doctor to seduce Veronika, the three conspirators are relentless and rather funny in their mission to save Veronika.

veronikaBut all is not well at the retirement home. A dowdy nurse, Nina, rifles through the retirees’ belongings, pocketing whatever takes her fancy. When she finds the stash of money that Liuba had gathered to use in the bribery scheme, Nina is unable to resist. It turns out that Nina is the daughter of Sergei and Lara. And she soon reveals the reason for Veronika’s despair. Standing in an empty room, with her back to the cold autumnal light, Nina recalls the day when the romance came to its terrible conclusion.

After receiving a note telling her that Lara is perched on a windowsill preparing to jump, Veronika rushes out of a meeting to try to talk Lara away from the brink. In their apartment, Sergei lies drunkenly on the floor, playing with matches, while toddler-Nina watches from the doorway. As Veronika enters the room, Lara’s foot slips and she starts to fall out of the window. Veronika lunges to save her, but in a freak accident, one of Sergei’s matches catches Veronika’s leg on fire. She tries to hold onto Lara but passes out, letting Lara fall to her death.

veronikaNina explains that they amputated Veronika’s leg then, and Sergei went mad with the guilt, turned to drink and had to be hospitalized. Nina was sent to an orphanage. She blames her own problem with stealing on the events of that day, when she lost everything that mattered to her.

One final flashback shows us Veronika and Sergei several years after the tragedy. Veronika has lost all of the sparkle and vivacity that once made her so appealing. Now graying, limping, her face devoid of color, she visits the hospital where Sergei is staying. Upon being told that he had died two years previously, she hysterically tries to push her way upstairs to see him. But her false leg fails her and she crumbles to the ground.

Sergei watches from the window as a nurse forcefully evicts her from the premises. In a frenzy of guilt, he dashes through the hospital and throws all of his writing out of a window. That night, a nurse finds him rocking back and forth, sobbing. She tells him that they should not have lied to Veronika, and returns his notebooks to him.

veronikaMeanwhile, in the present, Nina goes on a shopping spree with Liuba’s money. Not to buy herself a new wardrobe, but rather to make it possible for her to bring her father home. At the same time, Veronika has decided to leave the retirement home. Liuba, fearing for Veronika, begs to come along. Veronika refuses. She feels she should have died 30 years ago, and does not understand why she is still alive. Sergei’s homecoming is similarly barren. Nina has provided a feast for him, but he is practically comatose in his despair.

As Veronika makes her way to the embankment, presumably to kill herself, Nina has decided to take Sergei out for a stroll. Back at the retirement home, Liuba and her two conspirators pound a table angrily, seemingly at their failure to save Veronika. It is as if this pounding joggles the balance of fate, for while Nina briefly steps into a store, the brakes on Sergei’s wheelchair are accidentally released and he goes careening down the street. Making improbable turns, and fortuitously avoiding cars and children, Sergei wends his way to the river, where he suddenly stops beside Veronika.

Their reunion returns them both to life. We briefly watch them laughing and working together. As the film closes, we return once again to the forest around the retirement home where there is a wedding. Sergei has published his poems, and Liuba discovers the remnants of the money that Nina had stolen. Andrei approaches, suggesting a happy reunion. Only Nina sits alone in a swing reading her father’s poetry.  

veronikaElina Suni’s film is neither a vilification of nor a naïve homage to a lost Soviet past. Soviet politics and political values are portrayed as corrupt, empty and farcical. For example, when Veronika has sex with her powerful lover in his office, the only sign of this encounter is the shaking of the medals on her blouse. When she emerges from the office, she exclaims that she must get back to the newspaper, as she can’t work all day. Her lover’s secretary retorts, “We just can’t keep up with you Heroes of Socialist Labor!”

However, the present is not portrayed as hugely different from the past. The same meaningless pomp continues with political meetings and bureaucratic bickering. The parallels between the past and present are reinforced both in the narrative and visually in the color pallet. The Soviet past is not portrayed as some brighter, more colorful time. Rather, past and present are both characterized by the same neutral tones relieved by vibrant touches of red.

The forest around the retirement home alone is exempt from the washed out tones which characterize the other scenes. It is a kind of timeless, magical space within the film. It exists in a perpetual twilight. Golden leaves carpet the forest floor, and the inhabitants seem locked in a surreal kind of childhood. There is even an ostrich randomly roaming the grounds. The whimsy of this place sits awkwardly with the rest of the film. The dancing, playful antics of Liuba and her friends are jarring when juxtaposed with the tragedy of Veronika’s past.

Undoubtedly, Elina Suni’s film is skillfully realized in many ways. The acting performances of the young and old Veronika (Rimma Markova and Maria Skosireva) and Sergei (Vitalii Emashov and Vladimir Shulga) are surprisingly moving. But the whimsical world of the retirement home, which attempts to “fix” their tragic story, is shallow and unbelievable. How could so much pain be so easily healed? Ultimately, Veronika Isn’t Coming is neither magical nor real enough to be satisfying. Although always beautiful, at times amusing and touching, it adds little to our understanding of the past or of the human heart.

Emily Hillhouse
University of Texas, Austin

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Veronika Isn’t Coming, Russia 2008
Color, 112 min
Director, Scriptwriter: Elina Suni
Cinematography: Peter Doerfler
Music: Aleksandr Grigoriev, Scheidenbach
Art Director: Ilia Mandrichenko
Cast: Rimma Markova, Maria Skosyreva, Marina Churakova, Sergei Varchuk, Alisa Grebenshchikova, Dmitri Ratomskii, Natalia Zashchipina, Valerii Prokhorov, Petr Merkur’ev-Meierhol’d, Vitalii Emashov, Igor’ Zotov, Vera Aleksandrova, Vladimir Shul’ga
Producer: Iakov Arsenov
Production: Studio Belyi Svet

Elina Suni: Veronika Isn’t Coming (Veronika ne pridet, 2008)

reviewed by Emily Hillhouse © 2009

Updated: 31 Mar 09