Issue 26 (2009)
Nikolai Khomeriki: A Tale in the Darkness (Skazka pro temnotu, 2009)
reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2009
Tale in the Darkness is Nikolai Khomeriki’s second feature film, following his debut 977, which was shown in the “Certain Regard” program at Cannes IFF in 2006. The film subsequently received the “Golden Boat” award in Vyborg (“Window on Europe”) and the Yul Brunner Prize in Vladivostok, as well as a Special Jury Prize in Angers. A graduate from Moscow State University and from the Higher Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors, Khomeriki studied at the National Film School “La FEMIS” in France from 2001-2005, he also worked as assistant for Philippe Garrel on Regular Lovers (Les Amants Réguliers, 2005 ) and for Leos Carax on Scars, 2006. This French connection would seem to have also helped his new film to be selected once again for the “Certain Regard” in 2009.
Shown at Kinotavr in the competition program, Tale in the Darkness competed with a number of films (eight films out of twelve) by young directors, all born in the 1970s––as opposed to the Russian entries into the 31st Moscow International Film Festival, which showed three films by veteran directors. Drawing generational lines in a corpus of works is usually a sign of either unique achievements of the young generation (like the on-going success of the Young Romanian Cinema), or a sign of crisis, and even worse—of a bitter struggle for survival in an industry adversely affected by ever-diminishing resources. The case with the somewhat artificial positioning of young vs. old filmmakers in contemporary Russian cinema seems to fall into the latter category. Judging by Kinotavr’s competition, the young filmmakers seem to be extremely hard pushed to come up with anything really original, while variations on the old chernukha themes from the late 1980s and 90s. Moreover, their films betray an acute lack of first-hand observations and social experience and, at their best, look (and sound) mostly like a recycling of anecdotal stories (Minnesota by Andrei Proshkin) or bleak urban myths (Wolfy [Volchok] by Vasilii Sigarev). However, young filmmakers overwhelmingly shun away from a straightforward narrative, and a more appropriate characterization of their oeuvre would be not “story telling,” but an episodic rendition of charged, even hysterical, emotional states, which—while skillfully harnessed in my favorite competition films, Aleksei Mizgirev’s Buben Baraban and Boris Khlebnikov’s Help Gone Mad (Sumasshedshaia pomoshch’)—take a rather uncontrollable turn in Igor’ Voloshin’s Me (Ia) and Klim Shipenko’s The Unforgiven (Neproshchennye), turning into an undesirable parody of the filmmakers' otherwise noble intentions.
Tale in the Darkness breaks new ground both thematically and visually: it is not that often we are allowed a glimpse into the day-to-day life of a Russian police-woman, nor to see a film set in the remote town of Vladivostok. Angelina, or Gela, the main character, works at a nondescript police station where, along with her other female colleague, she is in charge mostly of taking care of young children, victims of neglect and home abuse, usually by alcoholic single mothers and their good-for-nothing partners. At the police station, Gela is subjected to sexual advances by her colleague Dymich (Boris Kamorzin), who unceremoniously unbuttons her uniform shirt and massages her breasts in front of everyone else in the dingy stairwell, used by the police officers as a smoking space. The only bright spot in Gela’s monotonous and cheerless life seems to be her evening ball-room dancing course, but even there she sticks out as the only person without a partner and has to sit out the sessions or dance on her own, with an imaginary partner. Throughout the film, Gela interacts emotionally with three men—an illegal worker from the Caucuses, a real charmer; a balding and obviously rich businessman, sporting an eccentric grey ponytail; and Dymich, who in spite of his stocky figure, unattractive face and outrageously rude attitude and language seems to be Gela’s man of choice after all. This impression is confirmed by the fact that toward the end of the film he finally yields to her relentless attempts to make him to her dancing class so she has a partner, and we see him stumbling along in an earnestly clumsy effort to lead her in dance.
However, it seems that neither Gela’s heart nor her mind is in anything she does as she sleepwalks through life with the air of someone who is clinically depressed—a notion reinforced by what is one of the most unconvincing episodes of the film: in what looks like her parents’ home, standing in medium close up amidst an empty whitewashed room and facing the camera, she implores almost tearfully her absent (and maybe dead) mother to wake her up only when this long nightmarish darkness is over for, as her mother knows too well, she is afraid of it. Apart from being a tastelessly redundant summary of the film’s message, this unwarranted remark also points to Gela’s mental instability, resulting in her slippage into a child-like regression.
Consistent with passive-aggressive depressive states is also her desire to sabotage any and all efforts made by friends, lovers and fate to brighten up her life, masochistically indulging in the negative aspects of it all, which—if not existent—she creates herself. Gela’s sense of being an outsider and unable to fit in becomes particularly acute in her sexual bonding with her partners. It is true that a single young woman in general, and a police woman in particular stands very limited chances to find a dream partner in the Far East, in a town that offers little scope for romantic situations, but somehow one feels inclined to blame her impossible standards and not the dismal environment, as seems to be the intention of the filmmaker. Take for example her brief encounter with the handsome man from the Caucasus, Bagrat, with all of its dramatic and narrative potential for an intriguing bonding of a police woman with an illegal migrant worker in the late autumn sun. The script-writer Aleksandr Rodionov, however, rejects this possibility and, when the relationship reaches its intimate culmination in her bedroom, he has Gela excusing herself and a minute later reappearing fully clad in her uniform. An act obviously designed to test Bagrat’s emotional resilience vis-à-vis his new girlfriend—he has so far only seen her in “civilian” clothes—but actually (and quite predictably) her public image scares him away. Although it becomes clear the first time around, the filmmakers keep driving home her inability to reconcile the incongruity of her “civilian” and her “uniform” existence over and over again. A case in point is Gela’s maladroit appearance in uniform at the beach birthday party of an old friend that leads to an untactful practical joke—let us swim the cop—offending her and driving her away from the party. The subjective camera, focusing on the handsome and cheerful faces of this well-dressed crowd of upscale professionals, forcibly emphasizes her almost palpable inadequacy and emphasizes her alienation from the surrounding world, or more specifically, from the world of those who feel at home in it. In this line of thought, her literal balancing act as the nude on the beach – with the flickers of the camp fire reflected on her bared back for the pure visual pleasure of the romantic businessmen and his joyful company – remains a pure enigma, narratively attributable maybe to the perennial “woman’s mystique.” Or, which is more likely, to the need of the Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, the cameraman, to briefly abandon the objective long to medium shots and the subjective tight framing, and indulge in a voyeuristic angle, as beautiful as it is expressive of the masochistic, self- objectification of the main character.
If the message of all these episodes is that society has difficulties accepting cops as its equal members, then it is a very thin one indeed. And if the point is to dig into the existential drama of a noble police-woman who identifies with law and order, held in very low esteem in a lawless country, then the film’s arguments fall quite short as we hardly see Gela undertaking any serious actions or challenging the status quo in the name of law and order, but take brief care of an unruly, fowl-mouthed, albeit angelic-looking little boy. Even her persistent questioning of the kid in her custody whether he loves her and why he has called her “an old cunt” sounds more like her wounded ego talking than a pedagogical act. Again, the episodic and somewhat fractured structure of the film—typically for an art-house film, the causal chain here is reversed, with causes leading not neatly to their specific effects but, as Bordwell has argued, with the “psychological effects looking for their causes” (Bordwell 81)—points to serious psychological issues of a person who feels as a perennial misfit. Our active participation in piecing together the events evolving on screen is intensified by the sparse and seemingly accidental dialogue, which is one of the artistic trade-marks of the versatile scriptwriter and playwright Rodionov.
But while in the films, directed by Boris Khlebnikov—Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006) and Help Gone Mad (Sumashchedshaia pomoshch’, 2009), the characters’ verbal impediments and the deliberately loose filmic structure are beautifully sustained by ingenuous selection of actors with very eloquent non-verbal presence, Alisa Khazanova as Gela leaves a lot to be desired. All the more that she is the pivotal character and, in spite of the rather dubious choice of Boris Kamorzin as Best Actor by the Kinotavr jury—whose presence was satisfactory but far from sufficient to warrant such an award from either dramaturgical or professional point of view—it was on her slender shoulders that the whole film was squarely placed. Rodionov feels more comfortable nuancing male personages and tends to paint the female ones with rather broad strokes as either hysterically unpredictable as the three teenage girls in Everybody Dies But Me (Vse umrut a ia ostanus’, 2008, feature debut of Valeriia Gai Germanika), or as repressed, like the passive-aggressive Gela. What is more, the direction of Nikolai Khomerikilacks the redeeming arrogance of Gai Germanika—who takes both the narrative and the style of her film to a breaking point with having a mobile camera follow a girl in a drunken rage, while the audio blasts her obscene rant—and relies on serene moments with tight camera frames, mostly focusing on Khazanova’s rather inexpressive face and fixed gaze somewhere above and away from the camera.
With another actor in the role of Dymich, the film might have evolved in a more fruitful direction, strongly implied by the script—Gela as a discoverer and savior of the sensitive soul of a man, barricaded behind a rough outer shell. However, the very fact that she pursues—and eventually achieves—a relationship with Kamorzin’s bully, who does not show any signs of positive changes and remains consistently unsympathetic, abominably rude and without any redeeming qualities—could now be only be qualified as yet another sign of her depression and masochism. Thus Gela’s problems remain universally existential, confined to her own hermetic world, related in a rather obscure manner to the world around her, in spite of the director’s attempt to present her as a victim of unbearable (social) circumstances and his film as an eventual critique of these circumstances.
University of Regina
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Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 2006.
Stojanova, Christina, “A Gaze From Hell: Eastern European Horror Cinema Revisited” in European Nightmares, edited by P. Allmer, D. Huxley and E. Brick, (forthcoming)
Tale in the Darkness, Russia 2009
Color, 77 minutes
Director Nikolai Khomeriki
Scriptwriters Alexander Rodionov, Nikolai Khomeriki
Director of Photography Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Cast: Alisa Khazanova, Dmitri Podnozov, Boris Kamorzin
Producer Roman Borisevich
Nikolai Khomeriki: A Tale in the Darkness (Skazka pro temnotu, 2009)
reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2009