Issue 41 (2013)
Renat Davlet'iarov: The Steel Butterfly (Stal’naia babochka, 2012)
reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2013
The Steel Butterfly represents something of a departure for both the director, Renat Davlet'iarov, and lead actress, Dar'ia Mel'nikova, both of whom made their reputations working largely in comedy. The opening minutes of the film present us with a quite unfunny crime thriller. A serial killer has been preying on teenage girls on the outskirts of the city. Formally, the film remains true to the genre throughout. The cityscape, apparently Moscow but without the city’s landmarks playing any role, provides a constantly hostile and potentially threatening environment. The cinematography exploits the potential of this urban landscape and the music creates an atmosphere of tension and suspense. But the action of the film soon veers into an unaccustomed path as the relationship between the male and female leads, which should accompany rather than dominate the crime plot, takes over, making the film into something other than a standard genre film.
Anatolii Belyi plays Khanin, a frustrated police investigator leading an unsuccessful effort to stop a serial killer preying on teenage girls. He hits upon the idea to lure the killer into a trap using “live bait.” By coincidence, Chumakova, a young orphaned delinquent better known both on and off the streets by her nickname Chuma, meaning “plague,” has been brought into the police precinct after being apprehended for assault and theft. Khanin believes that he has found in Chuma the perfect decoy for his serial killer inasmuch as in the unfortunate case that she is killed, no one will miss the orphaned criminal girl. Their crime-fighting partnership evolves quickly and in unexpected ways. Unwilling to live in the juvenile detention facility, Chuma moves in with Khanin, bringing turmoil into his personal life. Their complex evolving relationship becomes the central conflict of the story, resulting in the strange fact that the serial killer fades into the background of this crime thriller.
As the killer fades into the background of the film and the relationship between Khanin and Chuma becomes the driving force of the plot, the genre of the film is on the verge of becoming a romantic drama. Certainly, at the most superficial level, the film can be viewed as the story of a particularly dysfunctional romantic couple, two alienated and lonely individuals who learn to establish true human relationships based on emotional intimacy. The alienation from human society of both Khanin and Chuma is made clear in the first fifteen minutes of the film. The figure of Khanin has much in common with the Western figure of the hard-boiled detective, but in the Russian context his character is not so much a burned-out cynic as an amoral careerist completely devoid of human feeling. While examining the latest victim he expresses sincere frustration that the killer does not rape his victims, because a rapist must necessarily leave more evidence. Chuma, for her part, is characterized above all by predatory aggression. Whether by violence, trickery, or deceit, Chuma lives by the law of a feral animal. Humanity for her is divided into the members of her pack and the mass of potential victims. Sexuality for both of them is little more than a physiological necessity, although Chuma is more honest with herself in this regard than is Khanin. When practical necessity forces Khanin to allow Chuma to live with him, these two damaged individuals are forced to forge bonds that not only allow them to work together but that foster the development of emotional connections that bring them to experience a human relationship for the first time in their lives.
The film can therefore be regarded above all as, in the words of the director, “a touching human story.” This is enough to make the film appealing to viewers and a commercial success. The Steel Butterfly is, however, a much more interesting film than the director’s own summation of the film’s subject would suggest. The context in which the relationship develops is deceptively generic. It actually offers a rich field for interpretation and raises the film above the level of both crime thriller and appealing love story for the mass audiences. Both Khanin and Chuma are embedded in social milieux that invite us to understand the relationship between Khanin and Chuma as more than just the relationship between two private individuals.
Chuma, in particular, is not a loner, but rather the ringleader of a band of street urchins, orphans who hearken back to the stock figure of the bezprizorniki, the orphaned children, usually living in the streets, surviving through crime, and ubiquitous throughout the Soviet period both in real cities and on celluloid. Most memorably in Nikolai Ekk’s film The Road to Life (Doroga v zhizn’, 1931) , the orphaned children of the USSR present a problem and a challenge to the Soviet state. Communist ideology presented a way to bring the orphans, existing on the edge of civilized community, into the collective. In post-Soviet film, the continued endurance of the figure of the orphan bears witness to the continued anxiety regarding the nature of Russia’s collective identity and the ability of the state to provide a “road to life” for its discarded members. The Steel Butterfly emphasizes the feral nature of these 21st-century orphans and thus suggests that Khanin’s role as police investigator is more than simple law enforcement but is part and parcel of a civilizing project. Success will be achieved when Chuma has been reintegrated into law-abiding society. It is interesting to note that Chuma herself functions on both sides of the particular function: inasmuch as the killer is also a feral, predatory being, Chuma’s role is not only to be tamed and civilized by Khanin, but is also to help Khanin capture and bring to justice a murderer who would prey on the likes of her.
As Chuma continues to interact with her friends on the street, it becomes clear that the orphans are more than just untamed children. The film dwells on the way in which the orphans have organized themselves into an organization almost indistinguishable from a highly developed organized crime group. The orphans’ organization depends on brute force and a code of thieves’ honor which prohibits above all any cooperation with the police. Chuma’s dominance in the group is a result of her ability to take and wield power. It is striking how her developing relationship with Khanin can be described as a power struggle, a pitched battle for dominance and control of the other. Chuma immediately assumes an attitude of entitlement and autonomy, striding into the police station and stating “I work for Khanin.” She uses sex, guile, tears, tantrums, stubbornness and, when all else fails, brutal violence in order to have her way with Khanin and in his space. Khanin, for his part, proves himself to be an equal adversary, threatening her with arrest and the orphanage whenever her insolence becomes intolerable. The ultimate development of the relationship must depend, above all else, on which of the two will wind up in control.
However, the relationship is more than simply a power struggle. As Chuma’s feelings for Khanin begin to manifest more than pure aggression, she begins to wage her conflict with him in different ways. She begins to care for the apartment and for Khanin’s personal space, occupying it in order to more fully share it. When she refers to Khanin as “my cop” in front of her former fellow gang members, she is clearly indicating to them that she feels a strong and growing sympathy toward him. She is also indicating, perhaps involuntarily, that the attractiveness of Khanin for her rests on the fact that he is not merely a man, but a cop. Her struggle is no longer to gain power vis-à-vis Khanin, but to enter into a relationship with him as a representative of power, specifically the enforcement power of the State.
The depiction of this relationship is rendered convincing in no small part due to the teenaged Chuma’s status as no-longer-girl but not-yet-woman. Davlet'iarov specifically wanted to cast in this role a teenager who was neither girl nor woman. Chuma thus stands on the border not only between the criminal world and the world of order, but between the worlds of children and of adults. She must be civilized and educated by Khanin, but at the same time, she feels she is ready to love and be loved as a sexual partner. Chuma becomes emotionally dependent on Khanin, even as she strives to convince him that he has become dependent on her. As her patrols in the woods become a nightly ritual, her relationship with Khanin becomes the most important constituent part of her life and identity, driving her so far as to threaten the life of Khanin’s sometime mistress Tania. When the police succeed in capturing a man they believe to be the killer, Chuma seems to think that she has secured a permanent place with Khanin thanks to her role in the operation. When it is discovered that the killer is still at large, Chuma desperately tries to convince Khanin that “you will never catch him without me,” although it has become clear by now that Chuma’s decoy role has not been and will not be successful.
What on the surface is a developing romantic and sexual relationship between police investigator and civilian decoy has become a multifaceted structure of affiliations and conflicts. It is inflected by the civilizing role of the state, the educational role of law enforcement, and the coercive role of the police in its opposition to the brute force organization of the streets. But the relationship becomes increasingly pathological as the young woman’s identity becomes fully dependent on her relationship to Khanin, on the degree of her acceptance into the police organization as an equal, and on her full integration into State power itself. In this particular case, the reformation, the humanization, and the full maturation of Chuma depend on a truly fatal attraction. After the false climax of the captured killer who turns out to be a “mere” pedophile, the film’s plot brings Chuma back to the site of the murders twice more, a double return to the scene of death that brings into sharp focus the full horror of Chuma’s fatal attraction. The erotic allure of State power engenders in Chuma a compulsion that is in the most literal sense a death drive.
The complicated figure of Chuma strongly suggests this complicated reading—at once psychological, social, and political—but does not force the point. It is to the film’s credit that it forces no explicit political reading even while presenting such a merciless depiction of Russia’s contemporary urban landscape. Indeed, the final sequence of the film holds an unexpected surprise, an ending ambiguous and perhaps even hopeful that defies the murderous atmosphere of the film as a whole. The success of such a delicate balance between hope and hopelessness, between social critique and psychological drama, between crime thriller and love story, is to be credited certainly to the work of both director and scriptwriters, but above all to the achievement of the lead performers. While Anatolii Belyi gives a solid performance as the dedicated, professional, but emotionally stunted Khanin, it is the brilliant performance of Dasha Mel'nikova that holds this complicated emotional concoction together. Her portrayals of the cynical predatory leader of the feral street gang and of the love-struck teenager cleaning up after her man are convincing in equal measure. Mention must also be given to the vivid performance rendered by Dar'ia Moroz, who raises Khanin’s mistress Tania above the level of mere foil to Chuma to become the one real potential savior of Khanin’s humanity.
University of Pittsburgh
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The Steel Butterfly, Russia, 2012
Color, 102 mins
Director: Renat Davlet'iarov
Screenplay: Iurii Korotkov, Natal'ia Vorozhbit
Cinematography: Semen Iakovlev
Design: Artem Kuz'min
Music: Roman Dormidoshin
Costume Design: Aleksandr Osipov
Makeup: Il'ia Sobinova
Editing: Matvei Epanchintsev
Cast: Dasha Mel'nikova, Anatolii Belyi, Dar'ia Moroz, Petr Vins, Andrei Kazakov, Viktor Nemets, Elena Galibina, Maksim Dromashko
Producers Renat Davlet’iarov, Aleksandr Kotelevskii
Production Propeller Production, Interfest
Renat Davlet'iarov: The Steel Butterfly (Stal’naia babochka, 2012)
reviewed by Gerald McCausland © 2013