Issue 28 (2010)
Sergei Tkachev: Morning (Utro, 2009)
reviewed by Sasha Razor © 2010
Morning is a low-budget auteur film produced by TATA STUDIO, a small film production company run by the Tkachev family. Besides Morning, Sergei Tkachev co-produced, directed and wrote scripts for The Shield of Minerva (Shchit Minervy, 2003), Masha (2004), Dream No. 5 (Son No. 5, 2010) and Narrow Gates (Tesnye vrata, 2009). He is also known for his theater work as playwright, director and actor. This influence manifests itself in his choice of Galina Tiunina and Iurii Stepanov, two well-known actors of the Petr Fomenko Theater, for whom Tkachev wrote the script of Morning (Smirnov). This melodrama tells the story of an encounter between a prostitute and a film producer. The action takes place in a time span of one night, ending the next morning. The film combines lyrical fragments with Pinteresque dialogues and references to filmmaking and film history, especially Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). All these elements introduce an additional referential layer to the reading of the film.
Morning opens with scenes shot on location in present day Moscow. We see the protagonists immersed in the urban environment, where each shot conveys a sense of anonymity and alienation, featuring human figures juxtaposed with the stream of traffic or commercial advertisement. Tkachev used a similar cinematic technique in Masha, a film about a tourist in Paris,in which he “tried to achieve the quality of an image as approximated to the reality as possible” (Bekker). But, unlike Masha, Morning avoids famous Moscow landmarks: its urban topography is limited to a street corner of Novyi Arbat, where Eve (Tiunina) usually picks up her clients. Ferdinand (Stepanov), a resident of the neighborhood, often observes her from a distance. When one of Eve’s appointments is cancelled, he spontaneously invites her to his apartment. At first glance, the two main characters have nothing in common. Ferdinand is a film producer and a cuckolded husband. Eve’s husband died long ago and she lives with her mother-in-law, Vera Pavlovna, who is paralyzed and needs constant care. These differences, however, do not hinder the development of the love intrigue, and create a kaleidoscopic, complex depiction of human relationships.
Like the dreams of the famous Vera Pavlovna in Chernyshevskii’s novel What is to be done? (Chto delat’, 1863), the film is stitched together in a series of non-linear episodes. The conversations between Ferdinand and Eve take place in enclosed apartment space. Staged in an absurdist manner, they are witty, unexpected and—due to the extraordinary talent of both actors—devoid of any pretense or artificiality. Chance contributes as much to the narrative development as more conventional melodramatic elements. For example, after Eve hurts her tooth biting on an apple, Ferdinand gives her the so-called “Tai pill” to assuage her pain. The drug-induced sequences that follow include dancing with maracas and hallucinating together while staring at a blank TV screen. In addition, they share their oddest dreams with each other: she dreamt that she fell in love with a globe and was kissing Australia, and he dreamt that he was a plastic bear dismembered by his wife. Thus, in a series of episodes the director foregrounds a most unlikely exchange between a prostitute and her client by adding comic overtones to the melodramatic plot.
The sense of melodrama is further distorted by additional referential layers buttressing the film’s structure. Like Masha, Morning inevitably evokes Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. Even though Eve expresses a desire to remain anonymous, touting Bertolucci as a suitable example, Ferdinand explains to her that the image on screen rarely coincides with actual lived experiences:
Sometimes actors demonstrate such love on screen, but hate each other in real life. Their love story is written by a small and unattractive scriptwriter whose wife left him for a rich Jew. The director would talk to the actress about the soul simply because he wants to sleep with her. […] and the producer is an idiot who believed in this circus because he used to admire cinema when he was a kid. Everything on screen is nothing but a stupid fairy tale for adults.
To this clear divide between illusion and reality, we can add cinematic references embedded in the film’s structure. When Eve mentions that she likes Marlene Dietrich, Ferdinand tells her that the famous actress spent the last ten years of her life paralyzed. This image acts as a shifter to a stylized episode with Eve’s mother-in-law. We see a stern woman in thick glasses reading a book and refusing to eat her breakfast. The silent exchange between the two women is hilarious: in a sign of protest, Vera Pavlovna writes “whore” on a piece of paper and hands it to Eve, who quickly reverses the situation by sticking this paper on her mother-in-law’s portrait, but the latter removes it with a stick, thus restoring the status quo. The humor of this situation lies in its theatrical nature as the viewer realizes that this performance might be, in fact, their quotidian ritual. This complex gestural interplay between life and its cinematic treatment, the presence of a producer commenting on the filmmaking process, and scattered film history references genealogically link Morning to auteur cinema and contribute to its melodramatic plot in a slightly parodic key.
Tkachev transposes the same narrative shift from cinematic representation to reality onto his protagonists, whose identities are revealed in the denouement. Ferdinand confesses to Eve that he has been in love with her since high school, hopelessly stalking her after graduation. He has become a film producer only to prove himself worthy of her. Moreover, his wife’s love affair is also orchestrated by Ferdinand: hoping for a divorce, he hired a gigolo to seduce her. When Eve protests against this encroachment on her privacy, he violently rapes her, as if continuing with the Bertolucci motif. But unlike Last Tango in Paris, Morning offers a happy ending, not a murder: all differences reconciled, true identities revealed and life stories shared, Eve and Ferdinand kiss each other on the bank of the Moscow River where they take their morning stroll. Thus, the film’s finale emphasizes the vitality of adolescent emotional experiences over possible melodramatic narrative drives. Summing up his position on love and cinema, Ferdinand explains: “Love, it is either there or it isn’t.”
However, this desirable triumph of true love collides with the fictional treatment of prostitution in the film. Relegated to a lower socio-economic status after her husband’s death, Eve dropped out of the university and began working as a secretary. However, sexual harassment at each successive workplace supposedly led her to her present occupation. Unlike the famous Petr Todorovskii Intergirl (Interdevochka 1989), a cornerstone perestroika film about a prostitute, Morning does not link Eve’s fate to that of Russia. Although it offers a plot of marital migration—people tell Ferdinand that Eve married an Italian and left Russia—Eve’s trajectory, at best, encompasses foreign clients in Moscow. Unlike Intergirl, Morning neither stigmatizes nor glamorizes the profession, nor does it ground Eve’s representation in any firm reality beyond the feminine condition. Instead, this classy middle-aged woman works alone as a private entrepreneur with the help of an unthreatening female assistant booking her appointments. While Eve shares with Ferdinand some concerns about her professional hazards, we never see her in a group with other prostitutes or in any conflict with the police. Instead, Eve is an equal participant in the dialogue which, despite the violation of her privacy and the literal violation of her body, reflects a balanced masculine and feminine perspective, paradoxically resulting in a love relationship. If there is a message to be extracted from the film’s ending, it is a rather alarming one: would the Russian audience en masse question the abrupt fairy tale ending and distinguish between real and fictional conditions that entail an encroachment on privacy and the violation of human rights?
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Smirnov, Aleksandr, “Interv’iu s rezhisserom fil’ma “Utro” Sergeem Tkachevym”. Blog TATA STUDIO.
Bekker, Mariia. “Interv’iu s Sergeem Tkachevym. MASHA ili parizhskaia dogma Sergeia Tkacheva.” Tata Studio 24 November 2004
Morning, Russia, 2009
Color, 77 min.
Director: Sergei Tkachev
Scriptwriter: Sergei Tkachev
Cinematography: Sergei Tkachev
Production design: Sergei Tkachev
Music: Sergei Tkachev
Cast: Galina Tiunina, Iurii Stepanov, Natalia Tkacheva, Vladislav Sych, Klavdia Lapshina, Elena Karpenko, Gennadii Karpenko, Kirill Pirogov
Producers: Sergei Tkachev, Natalia Tkacheva
Production: Tata Studio
Sergei Tkachev: Morning (Utro, 2009)
reviewed by Sasha Razor © 2010