Issue 42 (2013)

Irina Volkova: Dialogues (Dialogi, 2013)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes © 2013

Dialogues (2013) is the feature-length debut of director Ira Volkova and the latest example of the increasingly popular anthology film in Russian arthouse cinema. While depicting a diversity of scenes from everyday life, its five vignettes, “Whipped Eggs,” “Birthday Party,” “Scent,” “The Gun,” and “Seagulls,” are united by the common themes of death, disconnect, and the characters' attempt to get through to one another, captured in intimate dialogues.

dialoguesDeath hangs in the air in each of the film’s vignettes. After the mother's sudden death in “Whipped Eggs,” a son becomes the sole caretaker for his Alzheimer's-stricken father. When a friend nearly hangs himself in their bathroom in “Birthday Party,” a young couple must reconsider their inability to hear his cry for help. After his father's death, the protagonist of “Scent” realizes that he never noticed the color of his eyes nor his smell, reminding him to pay attention to the sensations of life around him. Tat’iana Moskvina-Iatsenko (2012) has argued that death is the main preoccupation of recent Russian arthouse cinema: “Testing the hero through the proximity of death, filmmakers check the condition of his soul and of the world”. Similarly, in Dialogues death forces characters to reflect on Ivan Il’ich’s famous question: “Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?”

The loose anthology format reflects both the script’s genesis in the short stories and sketches of Belorussian writer Konstantin Steshik and the financial exigencies of the filmmaker. Unsure of the fate of the project and armed with only limited personal funds, a camera, and a script-in-progress, Volkova decided to begin filming piecemeal the vignettes of this “experimental” project. She managed to gather some supporting funds from private patrons and, most remarkably, convinced a stellar cast (including Vladimir Men’shov, Evgenii Tsyganov and Aleksandr Iatsenko) to take part in the film without pay. After filming the first, and arguably most successful, vignette, “Seagulls,” Volkova showed it to esteemed producer Sergei Sel’ianov, who eventually supported the project in post-production with his studio CTB. Dialogues was one of twelve films accepted into the main competition at Kinotavr, but failed to garner any prizes. Drawing from this experience, Volkova recently gave a master class at the Moscow Youth Film Festival in August 2013, titled “Low-budget cinema as one path to making a debut film.”

dialoguesThe five vignettes that make up Dialogues are united not only by characters’ awareness of death, but by their active revolt against the realities they face. In such moments, they ask uncomfortable questions or make desperate proclamations, hoping to break through ossified language and conventional behavior to something more authentic. In “Birthday Party,” the unhappy guest exclaims, “This is what you call a birthday party? Some strangers come in, stuff themselves, get drunk, yell and leave!…Why can’t we turn off the music and talk in a humane way, to actually hear each other?” Hoping to establish a deeper significance to their friendship, the young man in “Scent” treads on uncomfortable sexual ground when he asks his male best friend, “What do I smell like?” The tense intimacy of these dialogues is captured by equally uncomfortable, often oblique, close-ups of the interlocutors’ faces. Volkova remarked that, while traditionally auteur cinema is relatively silent and expressive, Dialogues is “speaking cinema (govoriashchee kino), it says aloud what people usually think about and hold back.” (Sycheva) By externalizing these typically internal doubts and frustrations, characters hold the rapt attention of the viewer. The result is at times poignant and moving, at times unappealing, even absurd.

dialoguesThe film’s emphasis on dialogue recalls another trend in recent Russian arthouse, namely the cross-pollination of cinema and theater. Whether due to the precarious state of the Russian film industry or the growing affinity between these media, numerous Russian directors have alternated between theater and film productions in recent years, such as Vasilii Sigarev, Kirill Serebrennikov, Ivan Vyrypaev, and now Ira Volkova, who in 2007 directed a play (Rescue Operations at the Coast of an Imagined Sea [Spasatel’nye raboty na beregu voobrazhaemogo moria]) at the documentary-realist theater, teatr.doc. Theater actors populate the films of these directors and dialogue, rather than action, advances the plot. The influence of Chekhovian dramaturgy on Dialogues is evident. All action occurs off screen, in the past, and characters react to and emotionally unpack these events in their dialogues onscreen. Also as in Chekhov, everyday objects take on a rich symbolic significance (the whipped egg cocktail the son labors over for the entirety of “Whipped Eggs;” the poster of the French New Wave film on the character’s wall in “The Gun;” the baby’s pacifier in “Scent”; the dead seagull in “Seagulls”). 

dialoguesIn contrast to the punchy satirical wit of Mikhail Segal’s Short Stories (Rasskazy, 2012), Volkova’s anthology is lyrical and serious. The opening montage sequences are punctuated by shots that capture the beauty of the setting and specificity of the moment. The camera lingers in “Seagulls” on a feather stuck in a tree branch, in “The Gun” on the blurred vision of traffic lights on a rainy evening. These images serve a purely poetic function and are accompanied by a melancholy piano score by Ludovico Einaudi. The singularity conveyed by such details is mirrored by idiosyncratic characters, whose pasts are merely hinted at, suggesting their rich lives beyond the screen. The complexity of character and lyricism will certainly appeal to many enthusiasts of auteur cinema, but will leave those accustomed to tauter dramaturgy scratching their heads. The film’s lyrical intonation is epitomized by the voiceover in the final scene:

Actually I want to stroll along the beach by an enormous ocean. It’s cold and windy and the waves are gray and dirty. Then I’ll take a bottle of wine out of my pocket. And have a few sips of it, cold. Then I’ll lie down and watch the ocean sadly, not understanding it. The wind will tickle my nose with sand, and my collar will flap against my ear. The empty bottle will clink softly and I’ll feel cozy in my coat, like it’s a little home. I’ll feel a bit sleepy. Some crumbs in my pocket tickle me. And then I’ll turn on my back and watch the gray sky. Yes, and rain and snow will blow into my face.

Is this sentimental nonsense or poetry? The answer certainly depends on the viewer’s tastes and expectations and will reveal a deeply divided audience. In the more convincing vignettes such as “Scent” and “Seagulls,” I, for one, was enchanted by the rich lives of the characters onscreen. In others, such as “The Gun,” the strangeness of the dialogue leaves one bewildered, unconvinced, acutely aware of the unmotivated psychology of the characters and their ridiculous behavior. The film therefore reflects the best and worst of the auteur and teatr.doc traditions from which it emerged. Eschewing traditional dramatic conflicts in favor of idiosyncratic, authentic dialogues, the film at times captures truly poetic flickers of life on screen, and at others feels like merely the clumsy debut of an auteur director.

Justin Wilmes
Ohio State University

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Works Cited

Moskvina-Iatsenko, Tat’iana (2012), “The Conflict of Life and Death in Russian New Wave Cinema,” KinoKultura 38.

Ruzaev, Denis (2013), “Dnevniki Kinotavra: ‘Maior’ Iuriia Bykova, ‘Dialogi’ Iry Volkovoi,” Variety 7 June.

Sycheva, Alena (2013), “Ira Volkova: V ‘Dialogakh’ zvuchat razgovory, kotorykh liudi obychno izbegaiut i boiatsia,” Interview with Ira Volkova, ProfiCinema 17 May.

Dialogues, Russia, 2013
Color, 91 minutes
Director: Ira Volkova
Scriptwriters: Ira Volkova and Konstantin Steshik
DoP: Konstantin Postnikov
Sound: Artem Bud, Maksim Romasevich
Cast: Vladimir Men’shov, Evgenii Stychkin, Aleksei Iudnikov, Agniia Kuznetsova, Roman Artemev, Aleksei Maslodudov, Sergei Ovchinnikov, Ol’ga Aksenova, Ol’ga Sutulova, Evgenii Tsyganov, Mariia Shalaeva, Aleksandr Iatsenko
Producers: Ira Volkova and Sergei Sel’ianov
Production: CTB

Irina Volkova: Dialogues (Dialogi, 2013)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes © 2013