Issue 26 (2009)

Vasilii Sigarev: Wolfy (Volchok, 2009)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky © 2009

volchokThe Ekaterinburg playwright Vasilii Sigarev (b. 1977) became famous when his play Plasticine (Plastilin, 2000) received the Russian Anti-Booker prize and was almost immediately afterwards directed by Kirill Serebrennikov at Moscow’s Centre for Drama and Directing (Tsentr dramaturgii i rezhissury). This production played a decisive role in the formation of Serebrennikov’s theatrical style and became a genuine sensation of the theatrical season. In 2002 the play was staged by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in the framework of a festival of young authors. During the selection for the annual theatre award of the London Evening Standard the production was nominated in several categories, but the award went to Sigarev as “Most Promising Playwright.” Handing the award to Sigarev, Tom Stoppard excitedly compared the young playwright to Dostoevsky: “If Dostoyevsky were writing in the 21st century, no doubt he would have written Plasticine” (Weiss). On the whole, Plasticine has been met by critics as an outstanding dramaturgic event of European theatre comparable to the best plays of In-Yer-Face Theatre (see Sellar). During the following season the Royal Court staged two further plays, Black Milk (Chernoe moloko, 1999, published 2001) and Ladybird (full title: Ladybirds Return to Earth [Bozh’i korovki vozvrashchaiutsia na zemliu], 2002, published 2003).[1]

sigarevThe screenplay Wolfy was written by Sigarev in 2006 and published in the journal Ural, edited by Sigarev’s former drama teacher Nikolai Koliada a year later. A stage version was presented at the Real Theatre Festival in Nizhnii Novgorod in 2007. Back then, it was already known that Sigarev was making a film based on his screenplay, which he had refused to sell to production company CTB; his wife, Yana Troianova, was set to play the main part. This film is Sigarev’s debut as filmmaker and has already won the Grand Prix at Kinotavr Film Festival and screened in competition in Karlovy Vary before its theatrical release in Russia in September 2009.

Sigarev's screenplay presents a hard task for Sigarev as director, since it contains more narrative than dramatic action. The screenplay is written in the form of monologue by a teenage girl (or at least that is what we think of her at first) about her unrequited love for her mother—a dazzling, beautiful, sharp-tongued, decisive, merry, irresponsible, cruel whore and a thief with sadistic tendencies. In the screenplay the mother is locked up for five years for beating up a hospital nurse immediately after her daughter's birth. The film opens with a chase of two cops after a blood-covered woman across the showy field; when they finally catch her she says that she is about to give a birth—her daughter is born with pneumonia, while the mother is arrested for five years killing a friend out of sheer jealousy. After release from the prison she sees her daughter from time to time, mostly teasing and humiliating the child. The mother is the quintessence of a carnival of violence: “she was beautiful, cheerful and smelt nicely of a restaurant car,” the daughter says about her. With her bright make-up she stands out amidst the poor and dilapidated world of a workers' poselok, a small settlement, somewhere in the Urals. A line of drunken lovers, open sexual scenes with men and women—all this happens in the presence of the small child; fights where blood is mixed with milk, flights with returns—all this makes the mother an extremely corporeal figure, almost impregnable in her vitality and at the same time extremely harsh. Yana Troianova, who plays the mother, has won the Best Actress award at Kinotavr for a very good reason: her performance is nothing short of sensational. The image that she creates manages to bring together glaring contradictions in an organic way: she is attractive and repulsive, charming and monstrous at the same time. 

volchokThe mother abandons her daughter after the death of the grandmother, who had looked after the child: she literally leaves the seven-year-old at a railway station. At first the girl is sent to an orphanage, then she is taken in by her crippled aunt where she stays for the next seven years, without hearing a word from the mother (who is presumed dead). However, the mother returns again—not as beautiful as she used to be, but beaten and humiliated; yet, as if nothing had happened, she continues to offend her daughter, now grown to a 14-year-old girl. In the end, the girl is stripped of any illusions about her mother. But when the mother leaves again, the girl runs after her. In this chase she is knocked down by a car and dies on the spot.

volchokThis is a psychological drama shaped by (post)-Soviet communality; it is a drama within the communal body constructed by the claustrophobic everyday existence, the lack of perspectives, the habitual despair and the atmosphere of violence that serves as language of communication. Curiously, except for the cops, there are almost no men around the central female characters. Only once in the film do we see a lover whom the mother picked up on the train returning from prison. At first treated as a potential partner, he is literally pulled away by mother and grandmother after a most impressive scene in the film when, defending the mother from being beaten, the girl—propped up on the wardrobe—knocks the man out with a milk jug. Later she sits on the floor and draws patterns with the droplets of blood in the puddle of milk. What seems like chernukha, this scene— emblematic of the entire film—stands effectively in contrast to the neo-naturalist attention that chernukha pays to everyday violence. Tellingly, Sigarev removes from the film the most brutal scenes (present in the screenplay); if they remain (as, for instance, the scene when the drunken mother mockingly urinates on the floor in front of the child and the girl obediently wipes the floor before being forced to wash the mother’s genitals too) are shot from a distance so they do not shock the viewer. On the whole, the position of the camera is quite paradoxical. A few scenes are shot from floor level, which is explained by the child’s point of view as she hides under the table. But at the same time, the camera often takes a position at “ceiling level,” above the characters’ heads. The explanation for this may be found in the film's narrative structure. The finale implies that the daughter’s voice tells the story of her life and love, but then is comes from the space of death. Sigarev enhances this paradox by the fact that the voice-over (belonging to the daughter) is in fact spoken by Troianova (who plays the mother). Yet this voice carries no markers of the vulgarity that is intrinsic in the mother’s speech: in fact, it hardly reminds of the mother. This device—when the same actress plays the mother and voices the daughter's narrative—suggests that the two protagonists actually represent two facets of the same character: two sides of  Russian femininity—meek and tender vs. cynical and destructive vitality; life vs. death; body vs. soul; carnival vs. tragedy; violence vs. love; freedom vs. dependence. All these binaries are applicable to the film, and they all remain unresolved. This unresolved duality is also emphasized by the film's palette, carefully constructed by Aleksei Arsen’ev (camera) and Liudmila Diupina (art-director): frequently white contrasts red, or blue is juxtaposed to its contrary color, orange. The daughter's devout love for her unworthy mother, which is the focus of Wolfy's plot, emphasizes the connection between these binaries rather than their incompatibility. The mother does not seem to notice this devotion, and if she does, she coarsely ignores the piercing love of her daughter. Moreover, she sadistically makes fun of the child, telling her that she found her on a cemetery, and that she was a wolf cub; or she tells the girl that because of her walks to the cemetery the grandmother died.

volchokThe daughter, on the contrary, appears as an embodiment of love for the mother: a devoted, blind and unrequited, tragic love. Sigarev finds strong emotional details which render the tension of this love. For instance, the girl imitates the mother’s mistress and tries to caress the mother’s body, but the mother is bewildered and pushes the child away in disgust. In the finale, when the mother’s corporeal, carnival relaxedness ceases, the daughter suddenly sees the callousness of the person she loved so selflessly: ‘What did we talk about? I couldn’t remember anything. We never spoke. All our conversations were empty and useless. Or we were simply silent. I wanted to tell her so much, but I could not. For some reason. What will we talk about now? How shall we live?’ 

volchokThe girl—excellently played  by Polina Pluchek—is not presented as a sweet and tearful melodramatic victim. She smiles just once in the film, when mother sells their place and takes her to the South (only to abandon her later). On the whole, she is grim and serious. Her love for the mother is demanding and fanatical. Furthermore, the daughter does not know how to express her feelings other than through aggression in relation to others, who in her view take her mother’s love away from her. Having grown in the mother’s orbit, she does not know another language of self-expression except the language of violence. Very telling in this respect is the episode when the girl suffocates the little hedgehog the mother gives her before leaving with yet another lover. Having forced a cushion over the hedgehog, the girl throws the corpse under a train, as if to allege that not she killed the hedgehog but the train. Subsequently she throws stones at the passing train, the substitute culprit for her own actions. She methodically fights with her mother’s lovers—her rivals for attention, and she desecrates the tomb of a boy onto whom she transferred her love for her mother. On the cemetery the girl finds her only friend: a dead boy, to whose monument she tells everything about her love for her mother; she shares her dreams, gives him gifts (stolen from neighboring graves), sings songs etc. But when the mother tells the girl that the boy ‘took away her grandmother’, she soils his tomb. This episode is indicative of the film's general logic by which love (Eros) is not only inseparable from death (Thanatos), but inevitably transforms into violence, aggression and eventually death. By the same token, the daughter's devoted love only feeds the mother's sadism towards her, and the mother's (self)-destructive freedom enslaves the daughter, depriving her even of the ability to express herself: notably, the grown-up girl (Veronika Lysakova) is much more withdrawn and almost voiceless in comparison to her outspoken five- to seven-year-old counterpart.

However, Wolfy at first invokes and then subverts the melodramatic expectations according to which “a bad mother” should return to her daughter, seeking forgiveness from the abused and abandoned child. Nothing like this happens in the film. Furthermore, when the daughter is hit by the car, the drunken mother laughs happily: she has stolen her sister's money and clothes, she has run away from her “boring” daughter—she is free. Again. Finally.

volchokIt might seem that freedom—personified by the mother—is methodically compromised by Sigarev. Freedom as represented by the mother acquires thecharacteristics of the uncanny, which are enhanced by motifs of the cemetery, the girl's communication with the dead, and especially by the visually rendered horror story about the transformation of an abandoned wolf cub (volchok) into the child. The mother fits Freud's concept of the uncanny as something very close and familiar that keeps returning as unfamiliar and monstrous, each time more horrifying and destructive, and eventually bringing death.It is indeed a scary image, but Sigarev's attitude to the newly-obtained freedom is indicative of the generation he belongs to: those for whom the taste of freedom turned out to be bitter, whose memories of the Soviet time are vague, and whose experience of coming-of-age during the stormy 1990s is invariably painful and traumatic.

Russian cultural traditions strongly emphasize the identification of the mother with the native land (see Hubbs), which also allows a reading of the film as an allegory of the relations between the new, post-Soviet generation and a country which has abandoned its children, having wasted their love, eventually killing them, in spite of their continued love for a repulsive “mother Russia”. In this context, the semi-animalistic existence of the “body of the Native land’’ as manifested by the mother, possessing—especially at the beginning—a charming energy, turns into habitus, gradually and steadily killing the soul of her child, the daughter of the destructive freedom. 

Mark Lipovetsky
University of Colorado at Boulder

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Notes

1] All three plays have been translated into English by Sasha Dugdale and published by Nick Hern Books.


Works Cited

Hubbs, Joanna,  Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1988.

Sellar, Tom (2004), ‘Molded Men: Vassily Sigarev’s Plasticine,’ Theater, 34.2, pp. 68-71.

Weiss, Hedy, (2003) ‘A Voice from Mother Russia,’ Chicago Sunday Times, 21 November, 2003


Wolfy, Russia, 2009
Color, 88 minutes
Scriptwriter and Director Vasilii Sigarev
Director of Photography Aleksei Arsent’ev
Cast: Polina Pluchek, Yana Troianova, Natalia Bakhareva, Irina Simanova, Svetlana Lapteva, Ivan Seliugin, Larissa Komalenkova, Viacheslav Solovichenko
Producer Roman Borisevich
Production “Koktebel”

Vasilii Sigarev: Wolfy (Volchok, 2009)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky © 2009

Updated: 03 Oct 09