Issue 27 (2010)

Pavel Ruminov: Circumstances (Obstoiatel’stva 2008)

reviewed by Lucy Fischer © 2010

When you look at the entry for Pavel Ruminov’s most recent film, Circumstances, on the Internet Movie Data Base, you find this plot summary (signed by the director himself):

Two married couples planned to dine together. However, only three of them appear on the spot at the planned hour. Besides, there is an uninvited guest, a shrewd detective who suspects that these people have something to conceal. He grows even more suspicious when the missing wife appears - walking in a strange manner and wearing a bizarre hat. She shows a beastly appetite and a purely human hunger for love. What can these faithful husbands and wives conceal from each other? How far can your closest friends go for the sake of family happiness? What can happen to a friendly dinner made of grievances and suspicions, dangers and fears, tenderness and true love.

What one expects from this description is a cross between a film like The Celebration (Festen, dir. Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) in which shocking family secrets are revealed at a family dinner and Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001) in which a weekend party at an English country home is interrupted by a murder. What one gets, however, in Circumstances is something very different—a bizarre cross between Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968), Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap, dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1973), and Pee-wee’s Playhouse (dir. S. Johnson, G. Louthan, TV, 1986). The chance of creating a successful hybrid of such diverse genres is extremely unlikely and, unfortunately, Ruminov does not beat the odds. Interestingly, a trailer for the film seems to recognize its stylistic pastiche but points (with no sense of modesty) to directors like Sergei Eisenstein, Jacques Tati, Billy Wilder, and Alexander Mackenrick and to theatrical figures like Anton Chekhov and Konstantin Stanislavskii—as though eclectic name-dropping could make up for incoherence.

circumstancesThe trailer also represents Circumstances as “the most unusual motion picture in many years”—and this description rings true. The film begins with a montage of shots in which Artur, a chef (Mikhail Krylov) virtually makes love to the ingredients of a meal he is preparing at home (which is to be “A Night of Love” to “awaken [his guests’] feelings”: He kisses a fish (saying “Come to me, baby”) and lies sensuously on top of a counter full of vegetables. Here, we begin to think that we are in for a “foodie” film like Bella Martha (Sandra Nettelbeck, 2001), Eat Drink Man Woman, (Yin shin an nu, dir. Ang Lee, 1994), or Babette’s Feast (Babettes gæstebud, dir. Gabriel Axel, 1987), in which cuisine plays the central role. Already, however, the film’s broadly, wildly comic tone hints at another type of movie. This narrative begins in earnest with a thunderous and disturbing knock at Artur’s door and the entrance of his friend Tikhon (Il’ia Liubimov) who is early for the dinner party and behaving very strangely, indicating mysteriously that he won’t stay for dinner and must go away. Within short order he confesses that he has killed his wife (an actress) after seeing her at the theater with another man. From the plot summary thus far, one would assume that the narrative presents itself as a thriller, but it does not. The outrageousness of its style (hyper-dramatic music and over-wrought actor behavior) alerts us to the fact that we are watching some kind of self-reflexive, comedic, or even parodic drama. In line with this, the characters of Artur and Tikhon are performed in a clownish fashion. They are more puppet-like than human, more commedia dell’arte or biomechanical than Stanislavskian. The men are often bug-eyed and unable to speak, and their oft-aggressive behavior toward one another smacks of a Punch and Judy show. This action is accompanied by over-the-top music and bizarre noises emanating from a television that plays in the background.

circumstancesTo make a long (and entirely improbable) story short, Tikhon asks Artur to return to the scene of the crime in order to get his toothbrush, which he deems essential for his upcoming prison experience. After Artur wanders off hypnotically, Tikhon prepares himself a fizzing overdose of medicine (accompanied by the strains of “Tea for Two”) and says to his dead wife Agnessa “We’ll soon be together.” Within short order Artur’s spouse Liza (Polina Kutepova), who is a midwife, enters the apartment and a struggle ensues, in which she tries to take a sip of Tikhon’s poisonous concoction. In preventing her from so doing, the drink spills; so he reaches for a knife, disappears into the bathroom, and comically attempts to slit his throat with the wrong side of the blade. Another bizarre sequence follows, in which he flails the knife around with the sound of the vibrating blade filling the air like a “Jew’s harp” as the strains of the song “My Generation” play on the soundtrack. Meanwhile, a zombie movie (ironically titled The Dead, The Dead and The Dead) plays on TV with its scenes frequently intercut into those in Artur and Liza’s apartment. A host of the movie program (aptly named Vitali Beovul’f-Bobrov, played by Nikolai Kulikov) interviews a zombie “scholar” who claims the creatures truly exist.

circumstancesEventually, Artur returns, telling Tikhon (who is now attempting to electrocute himself) that there is no body in his house and that, therefore, Agnessa must be alive. Soon we hear another ungodly knock at the door and a deathly pale, quasi-comatose woman (wearing a strange cap and a long flowing dress) enters the room—her eyes darkened by excessive makeup (and looking like Maria in Metropolis [Lang, 1927]). We learn that this is Agnessa (Elena Morozova) but presume her appearance to be drastically changed.  While Artur and Tikhon are alarmed, Liza seems to notice nothing untoward. Agnessa emits animalistic growls and her neck makes mechanical noises each time she turns her head. At the meal, though we are told she is a vegetarian, she stuffs huge pieces of meat into her mouth, letting the juices run down her face. Given the zombie movie on television, the men soon believe that Agnessa is un-dead and her behavior conforms to such a conclusion.

circumstancesBut there is another aspect of Circumstances that vies with its burlesque and supernatural overtones. When Liza comes on the scene, she begins to discourse on the state of gender relations. She comments how both Artur and Tikhon are scared to have children and makes several remarks that reek of double entendre given Agnessa’s mode of being.  For instance, Liza says that women get hungry for compliments and turn into “monsters” when men pay them no attention—leading us to read Agnessa’s creature-hood as metaphorical. This sense is validated when she growls most intensely when Tikhon, a businessman, answers his ever-ringing cell phone to take a work-related call. During the evening, as Liza talks about delivering babies, Agnessa asks: “When will I be nursing your baby?” to which Liza replies that Artur is married to his frying pans which will bear him children. On a similar sociological note, the zombie scholar on television compares the undead to the average person at the end of a typical day. Like many people, zombies are deprived of the “joys of life.”

When Liza leaves the dinner party to deliver a baby and Artur must drive and assist her (something he has never done before and is anxious about doing), the other couple is left alone. Agnessa continues to terrorize Tikhon, now claiming that she is not a zombie but a space alien who was sent to earth to study humans. Damaging his masculine ego, she asserts that she can feel no pleasure and has been pretending in bed for many years. Moreover, she notes how, on her planet, all eight sexes get along while on earth the two sexes remain clueless about one another. While this discourse is proceeding, she is hurling food at Tikhon and grotesquely squashing tomatoes in her hand. 

circumstancesWhen Tikhon confesses that he still loves her (despite her inhuman metamorphosis), Agnessa reveals that she is still human and only acting the part of an alien (taking out a red contact lens from her eye). She claims that Tikhon has never believed her to be a good actress and now must acknowledge her talent. On some level, she is pleased that he attempted to kill her out of jealousy, because it proved that he actually valued her.  As penance for his sin (and protection against her reporting him to the police), Agnessa now lists numerous things that Tikhon must provide her (all the time watching him as he cleans up the mess that she has made in the kitchen): a new washing machine, a fur coat, a vacation for her parents, financial support for her theater, etc.

Soon, Artur and Liza return, and the former is euphoric about his experience assisting in childbirth.  Suddenly he realizes how much his wife wants a baby and now he wants one too, so that he has someone to whom he can pass down his recipes. The film ends with a coda (identified as “six months later”) in which both men are seen caressing the fertile bellies of their now-pregnant wives.

circumstancesEvidently, at the premiere of the film, Ruminov admitted that the film was largely improvised and the final product bears uneasy traces of that methodology. While a rigorous editorial eye can separate the best of invention from the worst, without such an eye this kind of film can end up confused, and this is what happens to Circumstances. Is it a parody of a zombie movie? Is it a burlesque of science fiction (with particular reference to Aelita,whose narrative also involves the theme of jealousy)? Is it a social commentary on the state of male/female relations in Russia? Is it a critique of the nation’s new business culture? Does it mean to be an eccentric/whimsical comedy or a social satire? To make matters worse, these disjunctions are then sutured together with a constant audio stream of popular music (French, Russian, American etc.) as though it can “put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

Beyond incoherence, to the extent that the film does “make sense” as metaphorical and satiric discourse, it is cliché and even retrograde. Women want babies, male attention, and consumer goods and, without them, turn into harpies. Men work too much but can save the day if (to quote another song) they only “try a little tenderness.”

Lucy Fischer (Distinguished Professor)
University of Pittsburgh

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Circumstances, Russia 2008
89 minutes, Color, 35mm
Director: Pavel Ruminov
Scriptwriters: Pavel Ruminov, Nikolai Kulikov
Cinematography: Fedor Liass
Production Design: Sergei Protkin, Ekaterina Shcheglova
Composer: Oleg Cubykin
Sound: Dmitrii Vasil’ev, Andrei Vnukov
Cast: Elena Morozova, Polina Kutepova, Il’ia Liubimov, Mikhail Krylov, Nikolai Kulikov
Production: Urom Union Cinema
Producers: Iurii Chechikhin, Roman Zolotov

Pavel Ruminov: Circumstances (Obstoiatel’stva 2008)

reviewed by Lucy Fischer © 2010

Updated: 10 Jan 10