Issue 41 (2013)

Renata Litvinova’s Rita’s Last Fairy Tale (Posledniaia skazka Rity, 2012)

reviewed by Seth Graham © 2013

ritaRita’s Last Fairy Tale is the second fiction film scripted and directed by multimedia icon Renata Litvinova, and like the first (The Goddess, 2004), it is a lushly photographed and metaphorically abundant showcase for its creator’s distinctive aesthetic. Here, as in her debut, that aesthetic has much in common with the fin de siècle tradition of Russian Decadence, and especially the Decadents’ preoccupation with death, decay, beauty, artifice and love. If in The Goddess Litvinova contextualized (albeit idiosyncratically) these themes in genre cinema (the detective film), Rita’s Last Fairy Tale is more purely auteur, i.e., difficult to classify among the still-developing genre system of post-1991 Russian cinema. The film has been described as a dark comedy, an ‘art house chick flick’ (Rudenko), and a collection of impeccably shot vignettes and tableaux saved from complete narrative disunity only by the dominant presence of Litvinova herself. To this last description I would add: and also by the ubiquity of cigarettes and a cameo by Iurii Gagarin.

ritaAs in her previous effort, Litvinova wears most of the filmmaking hats: director, producer, screenwriter, and lead actress. She plays a low-ranking doctor named Tania Neubivka (translated in the subtitles as ‘Tania Immorta’), who is actually a human ‘shell’ worn by Death herself (as Theodora Kelly Trimble writes, Litvinova portrays Death as a ‘haute couture Grim Reaper’). This personified Death, it seems, takes a personal interest in certain mortals she deems worthy (by virtue of their capacity to love) and helps them prepare for their imminent passage to the afterlife. The main narrative of the film is told in a flashback to one such case, that of Rita (short for Margarita) Gautier, a woman with a terminal illness who has just checked into a dilapidated hospital. Tania takes a job there (appropriately, she is assigned to the morgue) in order to be close to Rita during her final days, encouraging her to write a will and treating her to a last meal in the local eatery, Café Beyond (Kafe Zapredel’e). The pair is joined by a third strong female character, Rita’s former schoolmate Nadia, a doctor at the hospital who has become a cynical alcoholic. The collection of characters also includes Rita’s eccentric, graphomaniacal roommate, credited only as ‘the writing woman’, and a high-ranking female doctor who appears in two of Rita’s dreams.

ritaThe men in the film are few, and with the exception of Rita’s beloved, Kolia, are depicted in an indifferent or outright negative light. The head doctor is a weak and confused manager who cannot even prevent his staff—of physicians—from smoking during the morning briefings. The pathologist is identified by more than one character as mentally ill, but is still allowed to perform autopsies, during which he is in the bizarre habit of dropping his lit cigarette into the deceased’s body before it is sewn up. Death complains that, in order to maintain her disguise, she had to drink alcohol and ‘go on dates with men’, and the only such suitor we see is underwhelming in every sense, and Tania/Death tells him ominously at the beginning of their date that, when she falls in love, she does so ‘irrevocably’.

ritaLitvinova’s Death has hints of Woland, from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (whose heroine shares the first name of Litvinova’s). Woland is the classic image of an omnipotent supernatural being represented as an aesthete who visits the mortal world. Instead of the talking cat and other eccentrics who provide the comic relief in Woland’s entourage, Litvinova’s Death is accompanied by a silent scribe and a live ermine (or ferret?) that she continually ‘freezes’ into a taxidermists’ model. Another, rather different implicit intertextual link that comes to mind is to the films of David Lynch, with their similarly meticulous palette, touches of surrealism, and a campy cabaret performance that both interrupts and is part of the narrative (in Litvinova’s case, of course, it is she herself who takes the stage).

ritaThe low-budget film (it reportedly cost about $200,000) was funded entirely by Litvinova herself. Despite the shoestring budget, it has the gorgeous mise-en-scène that Litvinova has become known for, as well as a sometimes-entrancing wordiness that manages not to distract from the visuals (a feature she perhaps developed under the influence of her many collaborations with Kira Muratova). There are even some modest, yet respectable special effects. The film also shows an eclectic and dynamic focus on seemingly random, castaway objects such as an old radio (which Litvinova’s Death uses to locate the mystic ‘portals’ she uses to move around), a broken telephone that nevertheless works for Tania, and a pair of Kolia’s wet insoles that Rita lovingly puts on a radiator to dry. It is cigarettes, however, that dominate the visual plane, and even much of the script. Perhaps in implicit response to recent anti-smoking legislation in Russia, the film is utterly awash in cigarettes from the first frames to the last. The staff and patients at the hospital are a community whose relationships are defined by smoking: bumming cigs from one another, asking for lights, standing outside (or inside) the hospital for a smoke break, constantly commenting (with and without sarcasm) that smoking is prohibited, but that nobody pays attention to the prohibition. The second-most memorable image of the film involves a headdress constructed of dozens of lit cigarettes, which is surpassed only by the final scene of the film, which features the monument to cosmonaut Iurii Gagarin in Moscow, a model of which we had seen earlier in the film on a desk at the hospital. Gagarin might seem like an odd choice for Litvinova, who normally ignores most of Soviet history (except Soviet film history). But on closer consideration, the image of a man who dies young and beautiful, and is transformed into a Gargantuan, stylized knick-knack, is well in line with her overall project.

Rita’s Last Fairy Tale marks Litvinova’s return to fiction filmmaking after several years as a television host, advertising icon, and director of music videos and a concert film featuring rock star Zemfira Ramazanova, who co-produced and composed the music for this film.

Seth Graham
University College London

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Works Cited

Rudenko, Olga, “Movie critic: Art house chick flick, from Russia with Love,” Kyiv Post, 6 November 2012.

Rita’s Last Fairy Tale, Russia, 2012
Color, 100 minutes, Russian
Director: Renata Litvinova
Screenplay: Renata Litvinova
Cinematography: Anastasiia Zhukova
Production Design: Natal'ia Selinskaia, Tat'iana Iurkova
Music: Zemfira Ramazanova
Cast: Ol’ga Kuzina (Rita), Tat’iana Drubich (Nadia), Renata Litvinova (Tania Neubivka), Nikolai Khomeriki (Kolia)
Producers: Renata Litvinova, Zemfira Ramazanova
Production: Studio Zapredelia

Renata Litvinova’s Rita’s Last Fairy Tale (Posledniaia skazka Rity, 2012)

reviewed by Seth Graham © 2013