Issue 38 (2012)
Viacheslav Kaminskii: The Stone (Kamen’, 2011)
reviewed by Masha Kowell © 2012
The Stone is an existential thriller about a personal vendetta, subtended by the protagonist’s ruined childhood. A literal and metaphoric description of the dialectic relationship between life and death, childhood and adulthood, children and parents, instinct and intellect, and cold-heartedness and human warmth form the main crux of a tangled plot. However, at the end a profusion of symbolic references, accompanied with literal statements that tend to explicate those symbols, undermine the complexity of the filmic text. The narrative is centered on the kidnapping of a seven-year-old boy, Kolia, whose father Vlad (Nikolai Kozak), is a Russian oligarch. The kidnapper, who is also the protagonist of the film, Petr Naidenov (Sergei Svetlakov), does not demand a ransom (“not everything is resolved by cash!”). Rather, he requests Kolia’s father to commit suicide in exchange for the boy’s release, thereby forcing the father to decide whose life he values more: his or that of his son.
Created in the contemporary tradition of Hollywood thrillers, the film opens up with a murder scene, in which Petr stabs a middle-aged man with a long nail in the heart, thereby causing the victim to fall into a lake. The story ensues from there with a rapid editing of shots of Moscow’s traffic-packed streets. The camera finally focuses on a shopping mall near some children’s attractions. Petr picks his victim, Kolia, who is wearing a yellow sweater with a Ralph Lauren logo that brands him of a wealthy background. Petr kidnaps the boy and locks him in his house, which is located on the water somewhere in the environs of Moscow. “Call me Uncle Stone!” Petr yells to Kolia. After the kidnapping, Petr visits a middle-aged woman, Kira (Natalia Koreneva), whom he clearly occasionally visits, but who does not know much about him. They play chess and eat fruit and chocolate that he brought her. By this point, it is clear that Petr prides himself on his anonymity and a rule-regimented lifestyle.
Vlad and his wife Natalia (Olesia Sudzilovskaia) are grief-stricken by the disappearance of their son. Vlad marshals his considerable wealth, power, and relations in order to locate the kidnapper or his son, but he is unsuccessful. It is only after a phone call, during which Petr divulges the rules of the game, that Vlad and his wife regain hope for their son. The call is coupled with a series of flashbacks from Petr’s childhood that punctuate the plot and provide sporadic clues for Petr’s motivations. Petr emerges as a victim of his parents, who put him into the custody of the social services where he was brutally mistreated. Almost every phone call from Petr begins with “Hello mother” or “Hello father…”—an address that emphasizes the personal void opened up by the absence of his parents. For instance, he states: “Hello mother…your boy looks just like me when I was his age...some women choose their sons, while others choose their husbands.” The pieces of the puzzle begin to come together: the man is incapable of trusting another human being. Anonymous sex with prostitutes is as close as he gets to a relationship.
The flashbacks continue. However, these scenes reveal that Vlad grew up under the same conditions and actually hatched a plane for both Peter and himself to escape. Prior to the escape, had to Petr withstand rough treatment from the staff, who hosed him down with cold and hot water as they attempted to extract the name of Petr’s accomplice in stealing condensed milk cans. Despite the torture, Petr never revealed Vlad’s name.
The next scene shows the boys running through a field, where Vlad promises that his grandmother would take in both of them. However, when Vlad and Petr reach the bus stop, Vlad jumps onto the bus and abruptly says that, after all, his grandmother would not have enough space. Vlad hands the stunned Petr a long nail—a weapon to protect himself in life. This scene runs through the mind of the oligarch as he sits in his car, having agreed to meet with Petr, who popped up from the back seat and asked: “Do you love your son?” Vlad admits that before the kidnapping he did not realize how much he loved him. Petr hands him a long nail and leaves the car. The nail provides the clue to Petr’s identity and to the fact that the kidnapping is an act of vengeance.
Prior to commiting suicide in a public space, which he intended to stage with the help of professional actors and an empty gun, Vlad put his own loaded gun into his coat. In the meantime, Petr drives a prostitute (Valda Bichkute), with whom he established a rapport, and Kolia to Kira’s house. They remain in the car as he approaches her house. After entering, Petr stabs her in the heart with a long nail in the same manner as the murder shown in the opening scene. This identifies Kira and the murdered man as Petr’s past tormentors. Petr continues his journey. After pulling over, he releases Kolia into the woods. In order to assert the simultaneity of action, this scene is intercut with a shot of Vlad’s intense face as he is sitting in a public square ready to pull out his gun. As Kolia is set free and running, Vlad takes out his loaded gun and kills himself. The next scene is that of Petr taking the place of Kolia in the back seat. He announces to the prostitute that he is “tired” and shoots himself in the heart. The story comes to a full circle: life and death are intermeshed.
The narrative is well written, replete with multiple twists and turns, and saturated with symbolic and formal flourishes. The director cleverly allows the shots of the city to bespeak symbolically the main message. The frequent images of the intersections and intricately interwoven streets abuzz with cars not only graphically map out the theme of choices in life, but also articulate the entanglement of lives that defines the plot. Through Kolia’s kidnapping, Petr attempts to disentangle the “knot of fate,” which he references a number of times in the film. Right before his decision to commit suicide, Vlad asks his assistant for a cigarette. Vlad smells it: “It has a nice smell, a sharp one.” While nearing the moment of dying, the nuances of commonplace events in life become particularly noticeable and strong. Vlad continues: “This son of a bitch is right. He tightly entangled this whole thing. You know that you will die, and yet you live as if life is eternal.” The camera pans onto the beautiful private garden with densely planted multi-colored flowers. The shore of a lake, the flowers, and the picturesque surrounding, and his devastated wife on a pier and looking at the horizon stand out in particularly bright tones. Both formally and contextually, this scene transforms into a metaphor of Vlad starting to “smell the flowers,” of finding beauty in the everyday on the edge of death. Life and death are interwoven in a mutual embrace.
The recurring opposition between the lush vegetation of the oligarch’s garden and the barrenness of Petr’s (Uncle Stone’s) heart (“nothing grows on stones”) hyperbolizes the contrast between life and death, while complicating the leitmotif of living as dying and dying as living. For instance, water acts as a source of life as well as a receptacle of death. It nourishes the lush vegetation of Vlad’s garden, and receives the body of a killed man. In the last scene, Kolia gathers stones on the shore of the family lake. These stones, clearly a metaphoric invocation of the boy’s memory of his kidnapper, are shown intermittently awash with waves of water and literalize a constant vacillation between life and death, as they are located underneath the water and are allowed to breathe once the water recedes.
Petr’s vendetta exhibits a similar dual disposition toward living and dying. As Petr avenges his tormented childhood by reliving its painful moments in his adulthood, he seeks to murder the tortured child in himself. This conceptual imbrication of living and dying with childhood and adulthood crescendos at the exact moment when Petr releases Kolia and the death of his father. Moreover, the discourse of birthdays in conjunction with death further accentuates the thin line that simultaneously separates and unites living and dying. When Petr arrives to kill Kira, he brings her red flowers and announces that it is his birthday. He then looks at the class photograph on top of a hutch, grabs her and tells her that she was the one who assigned his birthday date and stabs her. Kira was the one who formally birthed him and thus precluded him from living. During the final drive, he announced his six rules of cohabitation to the prostitute. One of the rules is “there will be no children.” He continues: “there is nothing more terrifying than newborns.” Petr, therefore, destroys the idea of granting life to someone else, having lived his own life as a dead man. He admits that he has been living in pain. It was this very pain that kept him alive, fully tuned in to the reality of the everyday. Right before his death he pronounces: “There is no meaning, there is no love. While one is in pain, one lives.” Death releases him from the pain of living, while his life was akin to dying.
Despite the fact that the theme of living and dying is highly nuanced and driven by flawed and multi-dimensional characters, the recounting of the existential drama appears to be overwrought with recurring symbolism. When a metaphor is supplemented with a literal explanation, it loses its affective power, ossifying into a cliché. Petr possesses a human side (he adjusts a pillow in the cot onto which he throws the boy after the kidnapping; he makes sure that Kolia washes his hands after using a restroom) and emerges as an overly primal character, whose hardened soul is, at times, softened by the presence of a female body for which he yearns but whom he cannot fully embrace. This figurative process of revitalization would have emerged as a potent allegory, if it were not for the constant reassertion of the rigor of his beliefs. He consistently asserts that he chooses to be a loner. To assert his anti-social tendencies and heighten the level of his psychological damage, Petr produces statements like “A family is a flock!,” “People are animals!,” “Do not turn anyone into a God except yourself!,” “You are alone!,” “In life: either you got screwed or you screw someone!,” “Family is a deception!,” and “When one is in the custody of childhood services, one listens only to his instincts!” The scenes of abandonment and mistreatment would have been sufficient to inform the viewer of the source of Petr’s animosity toward the entire world. However, the viewer seems to be transformed into a child himself/herself as the excessive explanations transform the symbolism into direct assertions. For instance, while it becomes clear at the beginning of the film that Petr’s motivation behind kidnapping Kolia is linked to the abandonment by his parents, Vlad’s wife explains the issue to her husband and by extension to the viewer: “Don’t you understand… all this hello father, hello mother… he is dealing with his own issues!”
Interestingly, Vlad’s wife, who appears at the beginning as a silent figure who is shocked by the kidnapping, emerges as a powerful character towards the end, stripped of her infantilized portrayal defined by Vlad’s affectionate reference to her as “the little one!” She even goes so far as attempting to shoot her husband before collapsing into the hands of the bodyguard. The point here is to assert her strength in the face of a highly patriarchal familial setting. Most certainly, the main points of The Stone are to portray a series of transformations catalyzed by Petr’s personal story and his subsequent kidnapping of Kolia. However, the film’s initial symbolic complexity, which transforms into an overly heightened depiction of human drama towards the end of the film, undercuts a more cerebral “reading” of the film.
University of Pennsylvania
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The Stone, Russia, 2011
Director: Viacheslav Kaminskii
Script: Iusup Razykov, Oleg Antonov, Alena Alovaia, Iurii Brigadir
DoP: Ruslan Gerasimenkov
Production Design: Valerii Sorokoumov, Evgenii Potamoshnev, Irina Milakova, Ekaterina Khimicheva
Music: Iurii Shevalin, DJ Shved
Producers: Viacheslav Kaminskii, Sergei Svetlakov
Cast: Sergei Svetlakov, Olesia Sudzilovskaia, Nikolai Kozak, Elena Koreneva, Valda Bichkute, Aleksandr Kolesnikov
Viacheslav Kaminskii: The Stone (Kamen’, 2011)
reviewed by Masha Kowell © 2012