Issue 35 (2012)

Nikolai Khomeriki: Heart’s Boomerang (Serdtsa Bumerang, 2011)

reviewed by Mihaela Mihailova © 2012

One of the first shots of Heart’s Boomerang features an ultrasound image. The ultrasound, (over)used as a celebration of life and a symbol of new hope on the silver screen, turns out to be a harbinger of death in art-house director Nikolai Khomeriki’s existential drama. It reveals a fatal weakness in the heart of the protagonist Kostia (Aleksandr Iatsenko), a 23-year-old assistant to a metro train driver. Kostia leads a completely ordinary existence: he shares a Moscow flat with his single mother (Natal’ia Batrak), has a steady girlfriend (Klavdiia Korshunova), and occasionally goes out partying. He is also perfectly healthy—the doctor informs him—but he can die at any moment of a heart failure.

hearts boomerangThis is the setup for a narrative Khomeriki has described as being about “loneliness” and “the meaning of life” (Poliakova 2011). It is also a deeply personal project. In an interview, Khomeriki has shared that he grew up knowing that his mother was dying of cancer. After she passed away, the director shot The Two of Us (Vdvoem,2005), a short film about a mother’s last days spent with her son. Heart’s Boomerang was conceived as a retort, a “mirror image” of that narrative—hence the boomerang of the title (Poliakova 2011).

This mirror image is a distorted one, however. In the world of Heart’s Boomerang, there is no togetherness or shared grief. Kostia chooses not to tell his mother about his illness. In fact, he keeps the news from everyone in his life: his long-term girlfriend Ania, the train driver he works alongside every day, his friends. As a result, the majority of his social interactions are tinged with irony and marked by the viewer’s uncomfortable awareness of the pointlessness and relative unimportance—compared to the threat of certain death—of the mundane situations and discussions the protagonist is engaged in. For instance, the attempts of Kostia’s mother to pressure him into marrying Ania and having children sound tragic-comical; this commonplace episode becomes at once absurd and poignant due to the discrepancy between the mother’s expectations and the son’s uncertain future. Likewise, Ania’s melodramatic admittance that, after an argument, Kostia’s failure to pick up the phone caused her “heart to stop” is both a painful reminder of his condition and a comical display of inadvertent insensitivity.

hearts boomerangThe young protagonist’s decision to face impending death alone—along with many of his choices and actions in the film—is not motivated in any way, but is nevertheless carried out with dogged apathy and indifference towards the surrounding world which appears to have been Kostia’s defining personality trait even before the fateful doctor’s appointment. Indeed, the protagonist’s perpetual catatonic state does not surprise anybody. His relentless listlessness remains unacknowledged, suggesting that Kostia’s awkward, cold, and disinterested interactions, punctuated by prolonged silences and half-intelligible mumbles, are not the product of his despair, but rather aspects of his usual behavior. Herein lies the film’s revelation: the threat of certain death does not fundamentally alter the protagonist, but only deepens his inability to establish a connection with the surrounding world. Sure, he attempts to get to know his no-good father and briefly rekindle romances with women of his past, but even these scenes are permeated with a sense of purposelessness and pointlessness. Like any existential hero, Kostia considers life an exercise in futility—as far as any kind of philosophy can be derived from his sulking silence and his longingly pathetic looks directed at nothing and nobody in particular.

Khomeriki has stated that “when people descend into the subway, they fall into a state of trance. The person does not sleep, but he is immersed in himself. He sits in the subway carriage, but his thoughts are far away” (Poliakova 2011). This is a fitting description of the protagonist, who spends his days in half-daze, drifting from place to place and situation to situation without fully participating in anything. The dreamlike aspect of Kostia’s experiences is underscored by the film’s seamless transition between scenes set in Moscow (over ground) and in St. Petersburg’s subway, where it was reportedly cheaper to shoot (Poliakova 2011). Khomeriki claims that he chose black-and-white because he needed a “newsreel detachment” to his imagery (Poliakova 2011). This detachment is certainly felt throughout the film, and while it is one of the main themes of Heart’s Boomerang, it is also the film’s weakness. Khomeriki’s moody cinema is too self-aware, too obsessively concerned with its bleak and melancholy aesthetics and with keeping its distance from the viewer that its exploration of Kostia’s psychology remains skin-deep. In the end, the protagonist is a little more than an experimental specimen; like a moth pinned to a wall, he is already dead and put on display simply to be observed.

The unforgivingly slow tedium of the film is broken only once, in a brilliantly amusing episode featuring Renata Litvinova (Kira Muratova’s leading lady) as a crossbreed between a fortune teller and an alternative medicine charlatan. Litvinova’s character, all formal and businesslike behind her large desk in her equally large office, rattles off a fast-paced monologue, repeatedly yells into her cell phone, and, with a ferocious determination, draws lines on Kostia’s palm with a pen in order to “strengthen” his health (but only his health, since he didn’t pay for more). Her aggressive and neurotically hyperactive demeanor is sharply—and hilariously—contrasted with her patient’s quiet apathy, while the over-the-top ridiculousness of her so-called treatment is a welcome respite from the overwhelming mundaneness and the heavy-handed tone of the rest of Heart’s Boomerang.

hearts boomerangThe film’s main redeeming feature is its cinematography. Shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Shandor Berkeshi (Vanished Empire [Ischeznuvshaia imperiia, 2008], Roads to Koktebel [Koktebel’, 2003]) and set in snow-covered Moscow, Heart’s Boomerang takes advantage of its monochromatic scheme in order to achieve striking visual contrasts and compositions. For instance, in an early scene, the color palette is employed for framing purposes: a shot of the doctor explaining the diagnosis to Kostia is taken from the corridor outside the room, the two of them visually enclosed in the blackness of the wall in front of them and backlit by the misty whiteness outside. The resulting shot is a memorable visual representation of entrapment, of the bleak news weighing on, oppressing and confining the protagonist. Visualizations of confinement and seemingly inescapable, dead-end spaces dominate the rest of Heart’s Boomerang. One of the film’s visual motifs is the tunnel, enveloping the protagonist from every side, with no end in sight. For instance, at one point a tracking shot follows Kostia down a grey, empty corridor which seems to stretch on endlessly, like an uncanny enchanted maze. Likewise, there is a repeated shot taken from the point of view of the metro train driver’s cabin on a moving train, wherein underground walls imprison the gaze and rails lead into an impenetrable darkness. This is a world where freedom is no longer an option. Even when he is over ground, Kostia can rarely escape: his walk with Ania ends inside a park gazebo whose arches recall those of the subway station, hanging over the couple’s heads, hiding the sky from their eyes.

The film begins and ends with an extreme long shot of a snow-covered Moscow landscape. This is a Moscow which seems to exist outside of time, perpetually frozen in its omnipresent whiteness. It is an image of the eternal city, of an endurance and longevity unconcerned with the personal drama and insignificant lives of people like Kostia. Kostia will melt away from this landscape (and the viewer’s memory) as quickly as a snowflake, but the city will remain.

Mihaela Mihailova
Yale University

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Works Cited

Svetlana Poliakova, “U Tolstogo i Dostoevskogo seichas byl by ne ochen’ khoroshii reiting,” Moskovskie Novosti, 30 June 2011.

 


Heart’s Boomerang, Russia, 2011
B&W, 96 minutes
Director: Nikolai Khomeriki
Screenplay: Aleksandr Rodionov, Nikolai Khomeriki,
Cinematography: Shandor Berkeshi
Production design: Denis Bauer
Sound: Boris Voit
Cast: Aleksandr Iatsenko, Klavdiia Korshunova, Natal’ia Batrak, Pavel Petrov, Igor’ Volkov, Aleksandr Il’in (Jr), Ekaterina Semenova, Renata Litvinova,
Producers: Svetlana Kuchmaeva, Anastasiia Ragozina
Production: Valdai Films
Official website

Nikolai Khomeriki: Heart’s Boomerang (Serdtsa Bumerang, 2011)

reviewed by Mihaela Mihailova © 2012

Updated: 11 Jan 12