Issue 36 (2012)
Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii: Samka (2011)
reviewed by Mila Nazyrova © 2012
Samka, a romantic comedy/fairy tale written and directed by Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii, presents the story of a beautiful journalist abducted by a yeti in the taiga, told in the mode of parody and post-modernist re-writing. It evokes the plot complications of King Kong: the monster falls in love with the heroine, and those who try to save her from her abductor turn out to be more vile and dangerous than he is. The romantic theme is a version of “The Beauty and the Beast”, since the yeti who falls in love with the girl is destined to die if she does not reciprocate his feelings. According to an interview with the lead actor and one of the producers, Aleksandr Strizhenov, the film also employs a few other fairy tale motifs, and one might guess that the relationship between a beautiful but dumb journalist and an ugly but smart and educated yeti has its source in the happy misalliance of Charles Perrault's “Riquet- with-the-Tuft.” However, the film is even more radically open to the theme of a union with someone “who is not like me,” the other who is of a different kind—and here it resembles the renowned Shrek, since the hairy yeti won’t be transformed into Prince Charming nor “beautified” by a fairy’s gift of magic vision.
The compositional framework of the story is a journey, whose symbolism unfolds on various levels of the film structure. Not only does the protagonist make a five-day trek to the yeti’s village that could also be viewed as a drug-induced psychedelic trip, but she also travels away from the conventional, rational, and cruel and profoundly inhuman world of people towards the irrational and unconventional reality represented by the yeti, who are more humane and much less morally degenerate. The journey also entails traveling between various modes, genres and registers: the film starts as a parody with plenty of comic nonsense and proceeds through ironic melodrama to the romantic fairy-tale finale.
The overtly fantastic, dream-like and absurd nature of “reality” in the film is emphasized through various improbabilities in the story. For example, the journalist Larisa wears high heels and skinny jeans on her journey through the taiga; she is never cold and eats nothing but dried mushrooms. The mushrooms have the power to radically transform the world around her, and are probably (as we are forced to believe) responsible for the existence of the implausible reality in which the heroine meets the yeti and has a relationship with him.
As the movie begins, Vania the yeti (Strizhenov) has just been captured by hunters (Konstantin Murzenko, Artur Sardai) with long, Dumbledore-style beards and is caged in a village in Siberia. Larisa (Ekaterina Vilkova) is there to make a TV report about him. Suddenly Vania breaks out of his cage and abducts Larisa (who hangs onto her camera and throughout the film occasionally turns it on, trying to continue her report). The yeti forces Larisa to eat the mushrooms which, as she notices, put him into a trance. Once she eats them too, he starts talking to her in an educated vernacular and addressing her by “vy” and by her name and patronymic. Obviously trying to impress Larisa, he informs her that he owns a piano, reads books and, as it turns out, even composes poetry. Larisa immediately guesses that she is hallucinating and that he “fed [her] the mushrooms on purpose in order to talk all this rubbish.” However, she readily accepts the presumably mushroom-induced dreaming as the current version of reality—and although questioning it as a whole, she never seriously questions any specific event within this dream. As a result, when Vania offers to take her to the yeti village and introduce her to his parents (an offer which later proves to be a decoy), the credulous Larisa, who is eager to tell the world about this newly discovered miracle, willingly goes with him. On the way they encounter vistas of incredible beauty (shot in the Murmansk region): mountains, rivers, rapids, pine forest partly covered with snow, and a frozen sea, all in the bluish light of the low winter sun. In one scene, when Vania shows Larisa a big herd of mammoths crossing the ice-covered plain of the sea, Larisa exclaims with amazement: “But it can’t be!”—and immediately starts to film the mammoths. From time to time they meet people, but the human world is shown schematically and populated mostly by immoral types: hunters and policemen. They are all drunk, vile and menacing as they try to capture the yeti and rape and rob Larisa. The true domain of these representations is the comic-strip or perhaps the video-game, since in the dream-like reality of the hallucinogenic journey they are all exterminated by the yeti and the heroine, without remorse, anger, or suspense, and sometimes without even the excuse of self-defense. One of the hunters (a cameo appearance by the director Konstantinopol’skii), for example, tries to rob Larisa of her camera and the expensive fur hat that Vania procured for her (probably by killing and robbing some hunters). Konstantinopol’skii’s character thinks Larisa is a boy (as a precaution Vania has painted a moustache on her face with burnt cork). As he is about to assault the presumably defenseless youth, Vania shoots him. At one point Vania seems to undergo a personality crisis, killing a few hunters and hanging them on a big tree. And Larisa in the end kills two hunters in order to save Vania, shooting at close range—as they all do, but of course she’s the only one who hits her target.
The cruelty and treachery of the people is one reason why Larisa chooses to stick with the yeti (although she does contemplate returning to the city once or twice). At the same time she gets more and more enchanted by him, especially after he tells her the story of his origin. According to the legend Vania narrates, his grandmother once met the writer Ivan Turgenev as a young man on a hunting trip and had a short romance with him, eventually bearing his child, Vania’s father. The proof of this ancestors is an aged copy of A Hunter's Notebooks, which he has at home and which eventually passes into Larisa's possession. This legend is part of the myth that becomes central in triggering the romantic plot. In the course of his or her life, each yeti looks for their second half: a human. When the yeti find their true love, they are transfigured; all their hair binds up into a braid. This phenomenon was what attracted the young Turgenev, since with her braid, the yeti grandmother didn’t look like a hairy monster but like a fantastic, beautiful creature. However, according to the myth, finding true love is fatal for yeti, because when the braid unbinds itself, they turn back into “monsters” and become abhorrent to their human lovers, as happened with Turgenev. This seals the yetis’ destiny, since they have to die if their beloved human does not love them.
At this point in the journey, as Vania and Larisa approach the yeti's village, a radical change occurs in the plot, in the genre of the film and in the representation of reality. Vania suddenly stops feeding Larisa the mushrooms that affect his ability to speak, his behavior and attitude to Larisa, and his entire character. After all, his refined and educated persona entirely hinges on her intake of the mushrooms. Vania roars, becomes rude, and pushes Larisa in the back to force her to walk, whereas earlier he had carried her in his arms when she was tired. She is puzzled by the change, hungry for the mushrooms that confer on her a better reality and also hurt by Vania’s attitude, especially since she is already emotionally attached to him. It turns out that Vania was bringing Larisa home not to his parents, but to his wife who is also able to speak human speech when Larisa eats the mushrooms. Vania’s wife Zhanna immediately realizes that her husband is in love with the girl and threatens to tear her to pieces. When Larisa confronts Vania (after she consumes a new supply of mushrooms), he explains to her that he and Zhanna could not have children and decided to abduct a human female to use as a surrogate mother (whence the title of the film: “Samka”). Vania also confesses that, although he has lied to Larisa in order to bring her home for reproductive purposes, he has truly fallen in love with her and therefore will have to die.
At this point, the world within the dream (featuring the speaking and well-educated yeti) becomes more textured, solid and plausible, and less emphasis is placed on questioning its reality. In particular, Zhanna confirms everything that Vania had said before: she refers to the curse of the yeti and Vania’s origin in a matter-of-fact way—which suggests that if the yeti is a dream, this dream is at least internally consistent. Some events in this consolidated dream are shown from a different angle, independently from Larisa. Thus, it turns out Larisa is not the only observing subject, but all this time Vania has also been observing her and has his own version of events. He explains that the mushroom-besotted Larisa was a non-stop chatterer: hard to take, but Vania was patient because he loved her. However, he had to stop giving her mushrooms as they approached his home, because her chattering interfered with his concentration on dealing with Zhanna and the guilt he felt towards her. In this more complicated reality – still dependent on the mushrooms of course – many things also suggest that the yeti do in fact exist and, although they may behave in a different way without the mutual mushroom consumption, their actions and motivations are pretty much the same. However, the relationship between dream and reality is not a serious concern in Samka, and the consolidated plot now splits into a parody melodrama and a concomitant fairy tale based on the ramification of the myth about the yeti’s curse.
At the center of the melodrama is Vania’s wife, who is depicted as a typical villager from Soviet films of the 1970s-1980s, with the characteristic speech and accent, a comically exaggerated simple-mindedness and a motherly attitude to her husband. Soon after Larisa’s arrival, Zhanna starts deploring her husband’s anticipated death from unrequited love and her destined widowhood, and asks Larisa to return Vania’s love. Finally, in their mutual concern for Vania, who has turned to heavy drinking and debauchery, the open-hearted and confused Larisa and the compassionate and simple Zhanna make peace. This love triangle is supposed to evoke Soviet village comedy melodramas like The Village Teacher (Sel'skaia uchitel'nitsa, dir. Mark Donskoi, 1947). Especially relevant, according to an interview with Strizhenov, are Vladimir Men’shov’s Love and Doves (Liubov' i golubi, 1984)and Vasilii Shukshin’s village films. When Larisa gets an opportunity to film an interview with Vania and Zhanna, in a parody allusion to the nationalist flavor of the Soviet village film they introduce themselves as “ordinary Russian yeti.” Curiously, otherwise they do nothing but express their gratitude to Larisa and glorify her, thus suggesting that she is the main dreamer after all.
Beginning as a parodic melodrama and continuing as a fairy-tale about a beauty falling in love with a beast, the film now ascends to a higher romantic register as Vania’s wife tells the second part of the myth about the curse of the yeti. According to this myth, the original blissful Golden Age of the yeti ended because everyone started looking for his or her perfect match. In trying to get the best of all possible choices, they left the taiga and moved to the cities, where they transformed into people (or perhaps, were assimilated by them).
The first spilled blood between them divided human beings and yeti, who were now “separated by the taiga” for good. The freedom to make the best choice is termed as tomlenie, in which the vexation of spirit and vanity from Ecclesiastes are transparent. Once the split occurs between taiga resident and urban dweller in the myth, the former are to be seen as archetypal noble savages and the latter are consumed with vanity and a sense of privilege and superiority. Larisa’s growing love for Vania hints at a redemptive transformation of the human species through union with the yeti. But a “high” comedy based on this possibility is not even attempted, as the film is brought to an overtly playful and phantasmagorical close.
In the end, the heroine chooses to stay in her mushroom dream with the yeti to whom she has become attached. As she says to Zhanna: “I don’t have anyone, just the camera, you two and those mushrooms: you know, I suspect that it’s because of them that we’re even talking with each other here.” She also grows grotesquely aggressive and intolerant towards people (“I'd shoot them all off to Hell”). However, she develops a dangerous fever and the yeti has to bring her back to the human world. Six months later, Larisa records herself on the new camera (the old one has disappeared in the taiga). She reports the mushroom dream has disappeared and, back in “sober reality,” she wants to forget “those days” since she is “a modern urban civilized woman” with a stable life, and that story is just frightening and uncanny. At the end of the monologue she lowers her eyes and it turns out she holds Vania’s copy of Turgenev’s book in her hands—the only extant memorabilia of her trip. She opens it, and finds a mushroom, which she smells like a flower and calls “the scarlet flower”—thus suggesting Konstantin Aksakov’s version of “The Beauty and the Beast” as the finale’s frame of reference. The background music is reminiscent of the musical theme from the film An Ordinary Miracle (Obyknovennoe chudo, dir. Mark Zakharov, 1978), based on Evgenii Shvarts’s romantic fairy-tale about the love between a princess and a bear. Tears in her eyes, Larisa says farewell to the yeti, Zhanna, the forest and the mammoths and (quite illogically) is about to put the mushroom in her mouth, when we hear the voice of Aleksandr Gradskii (the star of Soviet musicals of the 1980s) and see Vania singing a serenade to the beloved based on Paul Éluard’s surrealist poem “Premièrement” (from L’Amour la Poésie, 1929). While he is singing the line “And when you are away, / I dream that I am sleeping, I dream that I / am dreaming,” (translation by Natalie Boucly), which playfully reinforces the surreal quality of what is happening, he kneels and looks up at Larisa—and her hair all on its own binds into a braid. As there is no sign of Zhanna or the love triangle, the all-reconciling and conflict-less agency of mushroom-induced hallucination seems to have eclipsed all the other possibilities in the story.
With its emphasis on parody and post-modernist re-writing, Konstantinopol’skii’s film emphasizes the literary story: the humor and characterizations in this comedy are mostly text-based. This comes at the expense of dramatic conflict, which is more or less absent. Awkward-looking yeti make-up and costumes seem to prevent any chemistry from arising between the actors, and the accent on theatricality dominates the film through unnatural, sketch-style acting. Despite this, and even with the actors’ clearly trying too hard to be funny, the film achieves success through its cinematography. The camera manages to capture the incredible beauty of the locations and the season, as well as the physical attractiveness of its female protagonist (for example in the beautiful tilt shot of the nude Larisa in the waterfall). Full of clear, well-lit, and distinct images, Konstantinopol’skii’s film may be conflictless and anti-climactic, but it is a light, funny, and sophisticated comedy that is very easy to watch.
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Priadkin, Pavel, Interview with Aleksandr Strizhenov: “Ia ne igral snezhnogo cheloveka,” Film.ru 28 March 2011
“Six Poems by Paul Éluard,” translated by Natalie Boucly, in Papers of Surrealism, 8 (Spring 2010).
Samka, Russia, 2011
Color, 78 min.
Scriptwriter: Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii
Director: Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii
Director of Photography: Iurii Klimenko
Music: Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii
Cast: Aleksandr Strizhenov, Ekaterina Vilkova, Kristina Babushkina, Pavel Derevianko, Iurii Kolokol’nikov, Konstantin Murzenko, Artur Sardai
Producers: Sergei Sel’ianov, Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii, Aleksandr Strizhenov, Andrei Novikov
Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii: Samka (2011)
reviewed by Mila Nazyrova © 2012