Issue 32 (2011)
Kira Muratova’s Chekhovian Motifs (2002)
revisited by Maria Kisel © 2011
The title of Kira Muratova’s Chekhovian Motifs (2002), an imaginative black-and-white screen adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story “Difficult People” (1886) and the unfinished play Tatiana Repina (1889), broadly refers to Muratova’s cinematic exploration of themes encountered in Chekhov’s literary works. More specifically, Chekhovian Motifs can be understood as a reference to the film’s formal structure, organized around repeated visual and musical motifs. These elements establish the narrative authority of Muratova’s artistic vision. Rather than attempting to define the “Chekhovian” sensibility in her film, Muratova utilizes the idea of the “Chekhovian” as opportunity for variation. In his 2004 review of the film, José Alaniz notes Muratova’s visual augmentation of the text with her trademark absurdity and surrealist touches, and beautifully describes the ways in which Muratova has brought the dramatic form back to cinema through Chekhov. I will focus more closely on Muratova’s use of sound in the film and would like to take Alaniz’s observation that Muratova subverts Chekhov even further by pointing out instances where the director playfully taunts the writer.
Set in the post-Soviet countryside (the film was shot near Odessa) Chekhovian Motifs is divided into two halves corresponding to the transposed works. The first part of the film, based on Chekhov’s “Difficult People,” depicts a family fight. Muratova evokes Chekhov from the very beginning in the visual detail of the round glasses worn nearly by all the members of the family reminiscent in shape of the Chekhovian pince-nez. Incessant removal and readjustment of the glasses emphasizes the resemblance. The subtle appearance of the writer’s portrait on screen suggests that Chekhov himself might not be the co-author, but an unseen character in Muratova’s film, vulnerable to the director’s commentary.
Evgraf Ivanovich Shnyriaev, the well-to-do, temperamental father of eight stubbornly refuses to give his eldest son Petia money for university-related expenses, insisting that the building of a new barn must take precedence over his son’s needs. Evgraf’s wife, Fedosia, attempts to intervene on her son’s behalf, endlessly repeating an imploration to provide Petr with new clothes. To Fedosia’s (Nina Ruslanova who played Nadia in Muratova’s Brief Encounters (1967)) grating whine Evgraf Ivanovich (Sergei Popov, Nikolai in Asthenic Syndrome(1989)) reacts with an explosive tirade, equal parts rage and self pity, that culminates in animalistic roaring and tearing at his bathrobe. Petia (Fillip Panov), whose voice amazingly reaches even greater heights of high-pitched shrillness than his mother’s, screeches out a protest against his father’s tyranny and indignantly storms out.
Unlike in the original story where Petia dramatically imagines scenarios of terrible misfortunes befalling him en route to the city, Petia’s caustic twelve-year-old sister Varia mockingly suggests that he should seek revenge on their father by harming himself. The addition of Varia’s voice emphasizes the subtly comical pathos of the original, and her mention that Petia should take poison directly links to Tatiana Repina’s suicide in the second part of the film.
Along the road Petia encounters a man on his way to a wedding in a neighboring village who promises to give him a ride if he does not mind waiting out the ceremony. The poor student’s incongruous presence among the nouveaux riches provides a transition from one storyline to the next as he accompanies the car-owner to the wedding of Vera and Petr, characters from Chekhov’s play Tatiana Repina. As with “Difficult People,” Muratova remains, for the most part, faithful to the plot of the literary original. The bride (Natalia Buz’ko) and groom (Jean Daniel), affected “New Russians/Ukrainians,” have chosen a traditional Orthodox ceremony much to the annoyance of the gathered guests. As the monotonously delivered liturgy progresses in real time, the tortured expressions of the soon-to-be newlyweds reveal that pretentious post-Soviet fashion for religion, not piety, motivated their choice of service. The camera pans in and out to reveal a gallery of disruptive giggling, gossiping and complaining eccentrics.
A mysterious woman cloaked in a black shawl suddenly appears, moans scornfully and staggers through the crowd. The discussions among the guests turn to the woman and they conjecture that she must be a friend of Tatiana Repina, the groom’s former flame who took her own life by poisoning herself. This development elevates the hysteria and, in some cases, the merriment of those present. Upon noticing the figure in black the plump dandy of a groom panics, convinced that Tatiana has come back to avenge herself. Muratova alters the ending of Chekhov’s Repina with a surprise twist (not to be spoiled by a review) that adds an element of absurdity and lightness to the original.
Muratova shares Chekhov’s fascination with the problem of communication, or the lack of it. The importance of listening and hearing is not only a recurring topic in character dialogue, but appears as a visual detail in Chekhovian Motifs. In the beginning of the film, as the family sits down to a quarrelsome meal, embroidered towels (indicative of a post-Soviet trend for folk culture) adorn the walls behind them. The towels feature Russian proverbs proselytizing the importance of love and family: “With a loved one, you will find paradise even in a tent,” “Even without gold you can live in happiness.” One towel is emblazoned with a large ear, silently reminding the family members to listen to one another. The discrepancy between the ideals of folk wisdom and the family’s ability to fulfill them heightens the tragicomic mood of the scene, but does not overwhelm the viewer with any particular didactic message. After all, the clichéd adages written on a decorative towel—the bumper sticker of rural Russia, are unconvincing as moral guides.
In the family fight that follows speech functions as a weapon—not a sharp instrument of scathing wit, but a blunt object. Each speaker insists on his or her truth by bearing down on the opponent with exhausting repetition, delivered with such unrelenting insistence that the utterances seem to acquire physical weight. This communicative impasse, commonplace between characters in Chekhov’s works, alternates with moments of escape into speechlessness, akin to the Chekhovian dramatic pause. In Muratova’s film the pause is prolonged and often takes musical form.
At the peak of the seemingly interminable fight at the dinner table, Fedosia suddenly gets up. Her daughter has turned on the television set and the sounds of Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” fill the house. Like a sleepwalker in a trance Fedosia fixes her gaze on a televised performance of “The Dying Swan,” repeating in a soft, ecstatic voice: “Ballet. It is beautiful. I love it.” The hypnotic effect of Natalia Makarova’s dancing, which for several minutes constitutes the sole visual focus of the film, can be interpreted as commentary on the transformative power of art or alternatively seen as subtle derision of philistine utilization of the arts. After all, this particular performance was a perennial fixture on Soviet television, aired ad nauseam to inject a dose of kul’turnost’ into the lives of average citizens. Fedosia’s Pavlovian response to the ballet seems to confirm the latter.
The sequence that shortly follows takes us outside, away from the Shnyriaev family and features another musical interlude—Valentin Sil’vestrov’s theme from an early Muratova film Getting to Know the Big Wide World (1978). The saccharine, yet beautiful song (performed by the multi-talented tenor Jean Daniel who sings the song again at the end of the film) first accompanies the synchronized movements of the laborers, then the camera cuts to the daily activities of the farm animals. The non-diegetic music aestheticizes the geese’s craning necks, the wobbling snood of the turkey, and the penned pigs, poeticizing their gestures, as though the animals are responding to the song about the rejuvenating powers of music, silence and spring. As soon as the song ends, however, we hear the gobbling, honking, squealing cacophony of the barnyard. The viewer suddenly realizes that “pearls have been cast before swine”—the perceived connection between the animals and the music was just a temporary cinematic illusion.
Animals constitute a special interest for Muratova, as seen in the lovingly shot, long sequences of running horses in her film about equestrians called Passions (Uvlechen’ia, 1994). Comparing the animalistic and the human does not constitute an insult to humanity. Rather, the appearance of animals alongside humans emphasizes human vulnerability and limited knowledge. We recognize Fedosia in the long-necked geese, and the barnyard fowl, beautified by music, recall Makarova’s graceful depiction of a swan. In these repeated bird motifs Muratova evokes Chekhov’s Seagull (1895), a dramatic work that calls into question humanity’s capacity to create and appreciate art. Can art provide a meaningful spiritual experience or is it merely a superficial distraction from daily drudgery? As in Chekhov, the problem remains unresolved. Like Fedosia’s ballet-induced trance, which lasts only for a few minutes and is quickly forgotten, the birds seem to hold a profound symbolism for the viewer when accompanied by music, yet when the musical veil is lifted, their poetic veneer vanishes along with it, leaving the viewer chagrined and sober.
The second part of the film, set inside a church, visually and thematically echoes the first. Both the church and the farm are cramped and cluttered spaces, forcing its inhabitants into uncomfortable physical proximity. Cloaked in the latest fashions of fur and feathers and craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the bride and groom, the guests can best be described as creatures whose nonsensical and repetitive remarks and giggles could rightfully be compared to animal noises. The liturgy forms a background din, the prayer ignored by nearly all those present including the bride and groom. Here Muratova emphasizes the vast distance between the human and the divine. After the end of the service, Kuzma the sexton utters a line directly from Tatiana Repina: “I have served here for forty years and not a single time has God heard us.” Yet, it is clear that even if the voice of God did address one of the congregants, they would not hear it because they are incapable of listening.
Demands to be heard and entreaties for silence are a repeated refrain throughout the film. We hear it in Egraf’s exasperated demands for his son to shut his mouth and show respect, in the wedding guests’ mutual hushing, in the scornful moans of the woman in black and in the sexton’s speech on the futility of prayer. At the end of the film the prodigal son returns home only to enter into yet another exasperated argument with his father, rehashing the same endless cycle of anger and blame. In the morning, as he is leaving—this time for good, Petia hesitates at the front door, turns back and quietly says goodbye to his father. Evgraf responds in kind and tells him that he left the money on the table.
True to the literary source, the film ends with the father’s compassionate speechlessness, a gesture that makes it possible for the son to accept the money with dignity. In Muratova’s film the suffering caused by misunderstanding is not interminable, but as the creator of her artistic universe she does not offer a deus ex machina resolution to the problems of communication. The Chekhovian motif that Muratova recreates most faithfully is the fragile and ephemeral nature of compassion. This theme is not borrowed, but shared; for instance, both parts of the darkly misanthropic Asthenic Syndrome end with unexpected gestures of kindness. Although in her films she does not depict a transcendent realm that can permanently transport characters into a state of grace, Muratova does leave us with the precarious hope that although the newly found peace between father and son will not last, there will be more fleeting moments of love and beauty in the future.
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Alaniz, José, Review of “Chekhovian Motifs,” KinoKultura 6 (2004)
Kira Muratova’s Chekhovian Motifs (2002)
revisited by Maria Kisel © 2011