Issue 42 (2013)

Kira Muratova: Eternal Homecoming (Vechnoe vozvrashchenie, 2012)

reviewed by Eugénie Zvonkine © 2013

When the spectator watches the most recent feature film by Kira Muratova, Eternal Homecoming, the beginning of Milan Kundera’s The Unbereable Lightness of Being comes to mind: the author plays in the introduction with the Nietzschean idea of eternal return that would give more weight to human actions:

Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine. (Kundera 1999: 4).

vechnoe vozvrashchenieWhereas for Kundera the unbearable lightness of being is the result of its transitory nature, Eternal Homecoming shows that for Muratova the eternal return can also be treated as a light and even laughable matter. The film is mainly composed of what once constituted black-and-white casting tests in search for actors in the preparation of a film to be shot by a director who has since deceased. The bemused spectator will then observe for almost two hours of the film how several acting duos play the same three scenes of a script over and over again.

In these three scenes a man comes to visit a woman, an old acquaintance from student years. He immediately reveals that he has come to get her advice. He is married and loves his wife, but he is also in love with a mistress. The woman tries to avoid the situation, before finally offering advice, but he gets mad at her and leaves. In the second scene he appears again and the situation more or less repeats itself. He goes away to his hotel, talking about suicide. In the final scene, the woman discovers on television or radio that a man has committed suicide in a local hotel. The hero almost magically reappears at this point to comfort her: he is not the one who committed suicide.

vechnoe vozvrashchenieThe traditional expectation of the narrative development is little by little replaced by the pleasure of dwelling on the same situations over and over again in their similitude and their differences. Muratova’s habitual interest for doubles, twins and duplicated elements (Zara Abdullaeva calls them “refrains”) takes yet another form here. This time, there are no real twins on the screen, yet everybody seems to have a twin in the fictitious world: the hero has a twin brother and we never get to know which one of the brothers he really is, Oleg or Iurii. He loves two women—his wife Lucia and his mistress Liuda—but as the heroine notes, those are diminutives for the same name, Liudmila. The scenes, replayed by different actors, mirror each other in a refracted way: same dialogues with only slight changes, but also repeating the same elements. The heroine always has the same painting in her living room, “The Ghost in an Armchair,” and its motif is also repeated in the frame, just as the entangled ropes that the heroine tries to unknot in almost every scene.

Yet when listening to a musical piece with variations, what matters most in fine: the variations, the differentiation or the recognition of the main theme through its forms? Muratova leaves this question open. The film seems like a lesson for directors and actors in the mise-en-scène: the slightest variation of the setting, or a new intonation, change our perception of the situation. Muratova’s characterization of the protagonists through the setting is always extremely complex and surprising. For example, in the third duo the wall is covered with Madonna posters over which medieval tapestry is hung, unfolding the entire story of the ill, romantic and anachronistic heroine, who is probably renting the space where she lives.

vechnoe vozvrashchenieThe same is true for the subtleties of acting. In the second scene the woman wants to get rid of the insistent intruder, and he suggests she should call the police. From the lips of different actors, this sentence sounds in turn like a conniving joke, an aggressive or snide comment, or a desperate suggestion. The woman, whose role is performed by different actresses or even twice by the same actress, comes across in turn as seductive, overwhelmed, annoyed or even sarcastic towards the man.

Zara Abdullaeva notes: “It is surprising how the partners’ sensitivity goes hand in hand with their heroes’ inconsideration.” This is a particularly astute comment: while we observe all the subtle variations in the different interpretations of the scenes, we also are confronted with a sense of eternal recurrence of human failings. When faced with a moral problem in his life (he loves two women and makes them both suffer), the hero (Oleg-Iurii) decides to ask a long-gone friend for advice, who should decide his fate, instead of resolving the problem himself. The woman gives him progressively all four pieces of advice that are possible: to leave both women; to go on with both of them; to stay with his wife and leave the mistress; or vice versa. But the man rejects every piece of advice and accuses the woman of being heartless. This display of cowardice, of moral and sentimental dishonesty, is a frequent theme in Muratova’s oeuvre. Kundera said that, because of the transitory nature of human life, “everything [was] pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.” Muratova shows us such a cynical world, but through incessant repetition makes the spectator “come to a verdict”—to use Kundera’s words—about the moral inanity of human behavior. And yet, the repetition remains light and humorous: all this is just cinema, the director seems to say. “Tests for tests’ sake. A kind of a game,” as one of her characters puts it.

vechnoe vozvrashchenieThe fascination with everything that should be excluded from a traditional feature film is not new for Kira Muratova. In almost all of her films one can see several shots edited together that look a lot like several takes of the same shot. The director is open about her difficulty, and even refusal, to choose between several takes of the same shot: “It’s just the takes, it’s my passion […] to use all the takes. I love to use all the takes. Sometimes it happens because I love to use all the takes and sometimes because I am unable to choose the one I would like the most. I like this one better for one reason and that one for another. I like the third one because of one moment, and the fourth for yet another reason. I think I cannot choose, and so I try to find a way of using all of them” (Muratova 2009).

Let us remember that in his text “L’acinéma” François Lyotard defined cinema as a series of exclusions. The process of editing and elimination of takes is, of course, one of those necessary exclusions for film construction. It then seems that Muratova’s refusal to select, in other words her refusal to exclude different possibilities of fiction offered by these takes, leads to a disruption of the expected order in the film, since it then contains “the fortuitous, the dirty, the unclear, the ill adjusted, the shady, the ill framed, the lopsided, the ill printed” (Lyotard 1994: 57-8). Lyotard even suggests that there should be an “association for the conservation of rushes and for the rehabilitation of outtakes” (Lyotard 1994: 58). Muratova would definitely have a well-deserved place in such an association.

vechnoe vozvrashchenieThis time, she chose to construct the film almost entirely out of cinematic material that would normally never be seen by the spectator: actors’ tests. Here we have once again the desire not to choose between the diversity of fictional directions offered by different interpretations of the same scenes, but—on the contrary—to show them all to the spectator. The reverse angle of this series of tests is the screening room, where a young producer tries to convince a wealthy, provincial man to invest in the film project. These scenes give Muratova, so famous for her sharp comments on cinema and its spectators at the end of the Soviet era in Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom), the occasion to make fun of the cinematic production process in post-Soviet times. The potential investor hesitates and says, with his provincial accent: “All this is too elitist. I am personally extremely interested in all this, but the general public…” The producer immediately admits, with a disappointed face: “I know, it’s a non-commercial project!” Finally, the investor will be convinced not by the promises of the casting tests, but by a provocative scriptwriter who gives him hope for some romantic adventure and by another—false—investor who brings in competition.

Eternal Homecoming is one of the most synthetic films of Muratova’s oeuvre, touching upon most of her beloved themes and exposing, with astounding clarity and elegance, her aesthetic method. It is a true homecoming for the director and for the spectators, who love her films.

Eugénie Zvonkine
Paris 8

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Works Cited

Milan Kundera (1999), The Unbereable Lightness of Being (1984), translated by Michael Henry Heim, New York: HarperPerennial.

Zara Abdullaeva (2013), “Bolero,” Iskusstvo kino, 1.

Kira Muratova (2009), interview with the author, Odessa, 13 April.

Jean-François Lyotard (1994), “L’acinema,” Des dispositifs pulsionnels, Paris: Galilée, pp.57-69.

Eternal Homecoming, Ukraine, 2012
Color, 114 minutes
Director: Kira Muratova
Script: Kira Muratova
DoP: Vladimir Pankov
Production Design: Evgenii Golubenko, Oleg Khvastov
Music: Valentin Sil'vestrov
Sound: Aleksandr Shchepotin
Producer: Oleg Kohan
Cast: Oleg Tabakov, Alla Demidova, Renata Litvinova, Sergei Makovetskii, Georgii Deliev, Natal'ia Buz'ko,
Production Sota Cinema Group

Kira Muratova: Eternal Homecoming (Vechnoe vozvrashchenie, 2012)

reviewed by Eugénie Zvonkine © 2013

Updated: 06 Oct 13