Issue 30 (2010)
Hovhannes Galstyan: Bonded Parallels (Khchchvats Zugaherner, 2009)
reviewed by Margarit T. Ordukhanyan © 2010
Disentangling the Bonded Parallels
“Two women, two loves, two lives,” announces the tagline for Bonded Parallels, a 2009 film co-written by Hovhannes Galstyan, Marine Zakaryan and Thomas Schlesinger, and directed by Hovhannes Galstyan. The trailer describes the film as “the story of the strong parallels of the true lives, history, and fiction” (sic). One hardly expects a movie trailer to go beyond platitudes, but this one does a surprisingly efficient job of capturing the essence of this joint Armenian-Norwegian-French production. More accurately and appropriately translated into English as Entangled and not Bonded Parallels, a subtle but significant distinction, as the viewer comes to appreciate, the film hinges its plot on intriguing—and, if the scriptwriters are to be believed, true—parallels between the lives of two women: a widow named Hanna Knutsen (Siri Helene Müller) living in 1945 Norway and a reclusive single woman by the name of Laura Adabashian (Laurence Ritter) living in Yerevan in 1988.
Even when considered in a straight chronological progression, the plot of the film is captivating and unusual in its connections. Hanna Knutsen’s husband has gone off to war and she has not heard from him for three years. Her difficult and lonely routine is interrupted by a handsome, older stranger named Arakel (Serge Avedikian), an Armenian soldier of the Soviet Army hiding out in the Norwegian woods, who woos the beautiful young woman by leaving carved wooden figures at her door. Before long, she takes him in, initially moved by a desire to break her solitude and to nurture someone; however, upon receiving confirmation of her husband’s death, she consummates the relationship and finds herself pregnant and moving to Armenia after the war. Once back in his home village, Arakel is promptly arrested by the military commissariat and perishes in Siberia off screen, while Hanna herself dies after giving birth to a daughter.
This daughter is Laura, an idiosyncratic and stern mathematics teacher in her early 40s, living a decidedly spinsterish life in Yerevan. We meet Laura contending with two life-altering developments in her life: she discovers her parents’ true story, as her mother’s diaries finally make their way into her hands after forty-two years, and she becomes involved with a student named Narek (Sos Janibekyan), a go-cart racer, underachiever, and all-around lost soul desperately in need of nurture and a mother figure. (In a brief and poorly integrated digression from the main plot we find out that he’s the love child of an esteemed—and married—professor and a now-defunct much younger woman.) When Laura learns the final missing details of her mother’s sad life from her cousin, she leaves Yerevan and reclaims the rightful ownership of her Norwegian ancestors’ home. A leap forward of six years reveals that Laura has given birth to a daughter named Elli (the name her mother had intended for her) and, at the latter’s request, is preparing to travel to Yerevan to introduce her girl to Narek, the child’s father.
What complicates the film from a cinematographic point of view and makes the metaphor of entangled parallels so appropriate is Galstyan’s decision to arrange the plot not chronologically but in a series of segments that oscillate between the two parts and hinge on similarities in the lives of the mother and daughter. Thus, instead of simply leaving the viewer to anticipate the potential resolutions to Laura’s love story, one is invited to actively engage in finding the overlaps between the stories and contemplating the ways in which the two may possibly function together as part of a single, cohesive plot— long before the actual connections are revealed.
Not that all of these overlaps are very difficult to find. For one, the director links the two by using a diary-styled voiceover instead of dialogue through most of the film. This device is especially appropriate, considering the fact that the entire story reaches us through Hanna’s meticulously kept diary, in which she is seen scribbling furiously in the opening scene of the film. What’s more, the voiceover endows the two already strong-willed female characters with unprecedented authority over how they choose to tell their lives, largely limiting the perspective of the entire film to theirs (with a few minor exceptions in Laura’s case). While the film does not escape the occasional cliché in its representation of the female perspective (Hanna’s longing for a man’s company or Laura’s sudden fascination with fashion once she falls for a guy), its endorsement of an authoritative feminine narrative at two pivotal and traditionally male-dominated moments in history (war in Hanna’s case and civil unrest on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse in Laura’s, as overheard excerpts from radio broadcasts reveal) renders its story all the more original and compelling. The conceit of writing one’s own life plays out in a number of ways in this film: while Hanna records her life in a diary, Laura, by abruptly leaving Armenia and raising her daughter in her mother’s ancestral home, literally writes her own destiny instead of succumbing to her fate, the way her mother had done four decades earlier. Her return to Norway, in turn, is made possible only because of the proclamation of ownership that Hanna composes and posts on her house, staking it out for the Knutsen heirs in perpetuity. Laura appears to be endowed with a stronger voice because, unlike her mother, she is not hampered by the language barrier that confines Hanna to the complete silence haunting her from the moment of Arakel’s arrest until her own death.
The segments work together harmoniously in terms of their plot development as well. Each major event in Hanna’s life finds a counterpart in Laura’s: their respective encounters with their love interests, their increasing attention to dress, the internal crises that compel them to momentarily pull back from their partners and even their relationship with the external world: Hanna’s and Laura’s disgruntled neighbors grumble in practically identical language about the two women’s inability to say thank you. Well-chosen camera shots zoom in on the physical resemblances between the two women: the tightly pursed lips, the stern-looking bun, the incredibly expressive eyes on an otherwise morose-looking face hint at the relationship between from the two from the very beginning. These combine with the cleverly and unintrusively planted transitional objects and phrases that add an even greater degree of narrative unity to the film. So, for example, as Hanna pores over the list of the war dead at the end of one segment, the film moves back to Laura’s apartment, using as its focal point a typed list that rests on her desk and turns out to be a student roster in which she looks up Narek’s name.
What Bonded Parallels does especially well is broach the potentially boggy and hopelessly overdone subject of love across divides (national, linguistic, professional, or age-related) without lapsing into predictable sentimentality. Our protagonists do not sigh, wring their hands, sit by and wait, nor do they engage in any visible inner debates. Whatever compunctions, moral struggles and indecision they experience, they do so stoically, with nothing but a slant of the eye or a flare of the nostril betraying emotion. This is not to say that they have no feelings; in fact, when Laura says towards the end that the midwife was wrong to suggest that her mother didn’t know how to handle pain, she delivers perhaps her most profoundly accurate pronouncement on human character in the film.
However compelling the defiance of emotion as the feminine realm, in Bonded Parallels the concept periodically stumbles over decidedly poor acting. While Müller’s Hanna, despite all of her reserve, radiates warmth, Ritter’s Laura comes off as stilted, unnaturally severe, and, at times, with her eyes wide open, bordering on insanity, while her interpretation of reserve often looks uninvitingly misanthropic and miserable. Others do not fare much better: Janibekyan’s inability to convey emotions through his face is only paralleled by his failure to do so through his voice. As a result—and further dampened by its amusingly sterile representation on screen—, the potentially explosive forbidden passion between a rebellious student and an unapproachable older teacher looks like an undesired and practically forced encounter between a completely indifferent handsome youth and a very angry woman past her prime—uncomfortable to the point of making the viewer cringe.
Another directorial shortcoming that handicaps this potentially excellent feature film is the heavy-handedness of, well, everything. As if the metaphor of the parallel were not pervasive enough in the idiosyncratically constructed narrative and the neatness with which the segments work together, we first see Laura in her capacity of a mathematics teacher speaking of parallels, which, she insists, never intersect. Narek challenges this notion by asking why the lines of the road dividers look like they get closer to each other and will inevitably cross at some point in the future. Laura, annoyed that Narek has deflected her other question regarding his behavior, is forced to go into a long explanation about Euclidian geometry and its alternatives. No device short of a pointing arrow and a flashing sign-post is spared to alert the viewer that this scene is about to change Laura’s life and put it on an intersecting parallel track with her mother’s. Laura’s typecasting as a mathematics teacher is also jarringly inelegant in its heavy-handedness. Her shabby, outdated clothes, her discussion of events in terms of known and unknown variables, her life guided by ruler-made grids and tables of to-do lists do no justice either to the unrealized potential complexities of her character or to the profession. Are we invited to participate in a cheap laugh? Are we encouraged to feel a drop of compassion? Is the director poking gentle fun at his protagonist, cruelly criticizing her, or is he oblivious to the crudeness of the stereotype he has created? Her drab-to-glam transformation, too, seems overdone and not very believable. Not that the film’s primary goal is verisimilitude, as it creates a pre-1988 life in Armenia bearing practically nothing in common with reality. However, while historic inaccuracies do not hamper our enjoyment of the film, the discrepancies in Laura’s character imbue it with a hint of disingenuousness that is hard to overlook.
Despite these shortcomings, Bonded Parallels still offers a refreshing story, replete with beautiful scenery and accompanied by an original score (by Vahagn Hayrapetyan & Katuner Band) that enhances the dramatic lines of the film and, much like the plot itself, combines the right balance of Armenian and Norwegian elements to render it absolutely unique.
Margarit T. Ordukhanyan
Hunter College, CUNY
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Bonded Parallels / Khchchvats Zugaherner, Armenia, Norway, 2009
Color, 89 min
Director: Hovhannes Galstyan
Producers: Hovhannes Galstyan, Gevorg Gevorgyan, Mona Steffensen, Olivier Oursel, Trond Brede Andersen
Script: Hovhannes Glastyan, Marine Zakaryan, Thomas Schlesinger
Director of Photography: Rouben Gasparyan
Production Designer: Armen Ghazaryan, Runar W. Johnsen
Music: Vahagn Hayrapetyan, Katuner Band
Costume and Make-up: Madlen Khachatryan
Sound: Garen Tsaturyan, Genady Beknazarov, Rune Hansen
Cast: Helene Müller, Laurence Ritter, Sos Janibekyan, Serge Avedikian, Ellen Makvetsyan
Production: Parallel Films, Armenian National Cinema Centre, Original Film, Norway, Quasar Pictures, France
Hovhannes Galstyan: Bonded Parallels (Khchchvats Zugaherner, 2009)
reviewed by Margarit T. Ordukhanyan © 2010