Issue 42 (2013)

Sergei Taramaev, Liubov’ L’vova: Winter Journey (Zimnii put’, 2013)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2013

winter journeyAn intense and captivating story about a gay opera student, Winter Journey—Taramaev and L’vova’s directorial debut—was released in Russia at an unfortunate time. In the wake of the Russian Duma’s legislation against “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” this cinematic exploration of a homosexual character’s romantic interest was shunned by Russia’s largest national film festival, Kinotavr, in June 2013. Shortly thereafter, in August 2013, the Russian Ministry of Culture annulled the film’s distribution license (the film’s producers have recently regained distribution rights to audiences “18 and older”). Having ventured into a territory that Russian filmmakers have been reluctant to explore, Winter Journey was only able to make its way to a few smaller film festivals in Russia. Most notably the film received the Prize of the Guild of Russian Film Critics and the award for the best actor (Evgenii Tkachuk) at the “Window to Europe” festival in Vyborg in August 2013.

Winter Journey/ Zimnii put’ borrows its title from Winterreise (op. 89), a song cycle for voice and piano by Franz Schubert set to Wilhelm Müller’s poetry. Written by the fatally ill composer in 1828, this musical piece describes a romantic hero’s journey through a somber, snow-covered world. In Schubert’s songs, the protagonist’s sojourn serves as an allegory of soul-searching and meditation on the loss of love, loneliness, and despair. Using Schubert’s song cycle as a poetic backbone for their film, Taramaev and L’vova integrate the German composer’s music into the film’s diegesis when the protagonist Erik (Alexei Frandetti) rehearses and performs one of the songs from the Winterreise cycle for a vocal competition. Inspired by Schubert’s dramatic parable of love and betrayal, Winter Journey also deconstructs the traditional archetype of the romantic hero through an unusual (for Russia) cinematic portrayal of unrequited love between a homosexual and a heterosexual man.
winter journeyWhile sharing the general sense of despair with Schubert’s song cycle, the film begins with a pre-credit lateral shot, where we see a breathless man in drag (played by travesty artist Andrei Tsymbalov) running across a bridge over snow-covered railroad tracks. With minimal non-diegetic sound, the viewer becomes engrossed in the sound of the howling wind that, after a brief blackout, is replaced by an off-screen piano rendition of Schubert’s melancholic sonata. In this following sequence we see the protagonist Erik walking through the snowy cityscape towards a bus stop. After Erik – a thin-faced, long-haired embodiment of the 19th century romantic hero – boards his bus, he pensively listens to the piano sonata on his cell phone earphones. While the camera continues to linger on Erik’s face, a parallel soundtrack develops, bringing with it noises of a raucous, expletive-filled fight initiated by another young man on the bus, Liokha (Evgenii Tkachuk).

The counterpoint of these two soundtracks introduces the viewer to the tragic intersection of Erik’s and Liokha’s universes. (One is tempted to speculate that a similar theme of traversing opposites is, perhaps, also epitomized in the polymorphous male/female identity of the dashing drag artist seen in the opening sequence). As Schubert’s melancholic music continues to overlap with the sounds of the fight, the hoodlum Liokha—the violent antithesis of the refined conservatory student—approaches Erik, grabs his cell phone and rips the earphones from his head. While Liokha violates Erik’s “sound world” by appropriating the latter’s music, he also disrupts the romantic protagonist’s inner equilibrium by putting an end to the strains of classical music. At the next stop Liokha is arrested by the police, but he leaves the bus with Erik’s cell phone. Completing an exchange of identity-defining items, Erik picks up a lizard charm that Liokha has left behind in his scuffle with police. After determining that Erik has his prized key chain, Liokha now must find the opera student to reclaim his (Liokha’s) possession.

When the two characters meet again, Erik is clearly attracted to Liokha and the film begins its progression through the various intersections of their opposing worlds: hetero- and homosexual, vulgar and artistic, real and artificial. Alternating the subdued monochromatic palette of cool blues and browns with the dazzling bright reds and yellows, the film’s cinematic space is visually divided into several loci. The space of homosexual men has a certain hallucinogenic quality to it: artificially bright and stylized, filled with drug-induced adrenalin rushes and the synthesizer-laden music of Klaus Nomi. The dream-like, “otherworldly” space of the gay community is juxtaposed to the drab and lifeless contours of the “straight” world, such as Erik’s family apartment (where the conversations are mundane and focus on a leaking toilet) or a snow-covered Moscow back yard (where Liokha receives a thrashing for stealing a wealthy Russian’s dog).

winter journeyAlthough they represent diametrically opposite characters, neither Liokha nor Erik fit into any of the worlds constructed in the film. They both appear to reject all limitations imposed on them. Indeed, the self-styled romantic Erik seems to be stifled and bored in any context: be it conservatory rehearsals, meals with his family, or even the glitzy gay nightclub scene. Erik is a Byronic misfit, a Pechorin-esque character, who is simultaneously arrogant, melancholic, and nihilistic. While Erik’s attitudes appear to be affectations, Liokha’s alienation seems to be grounded in his rough reality. As Liokha explains in one scene, his provincial hometown offered him two career paths: a lumber plant (whose workers are likely candidates for lung cancer) or a paint factory (where melanoma is the prevailing possibility). Fleeing the prospect of small-town malignancy, Liokha has escaped to Moscow, where he winds up homeless, enraged, and alone. Here, he somehow finds some solace in his peculiar fascination with lizards. Liokha’s connection with reptiles is symbolic, marking this character’s “inhuman,” perhaps even satanic nature. Indeed, in a hallucinogenic scene towards the end of the film we see Liokha’s reflection in a window, in which he seems to have satanic horns.  

As the film approaches its conclusion, there is a moment when the two men’s wildly disparate worlds appear to converge into a sort of indelible harmony. When Erik performs Schubert’s song at a vocal competition, Liokha, standing outside the auditorium door, listens, deeply moved, as tears run down his cheeks. However, suggesting an ominous change of events (and with another nod to satanic symbolism), the film’s soundtrack introduces a new classical tune, the Demon aria from Anton Rubinshtein’s opera. This brief moment of sensibility is quickly interrupted by the thug’s reality: Liokha is wanted by the police. Erik, ever the romantic, suggests that the two of them flee to Bombay. Erik implies that the money for the trip can come from the sale of an antique necklace that Erik’s homosexual friend, a gravely ill opera singer, Slava (played by the director Taramaev himself), has promised to bequeath to Erik. As Liokha and Erik enter Slava’s house, Liokha suddenly becomes violent, brutally attacks the ailing singer, grabs the necklace and, with a forceful, climactic kiss (that no doubt, would scandalize many conservative Russian viewers) shoves Erik out of the way and flees the scene. After Erik catches up with a crazed Liokha, the latter suggests that the two of them should never see each other again.

winter journeyIn the film’s tragic finale, we see the intoxicated, rejected Erik who, as if in a reenactment of Schubert’s Winterreise songs, stumbles down the road, his body fluttering in the winter wind as he clutches a bottle of vodka. Erik collapses to the ground and appears to fall asleep as his body is slowly enveloped in snow. In the meantime, Liokha is walking along the railroad tracks with rage etched on his face and the Demon aria playing in the background. Following this volatile sequence, the film closes with an unexpected, open-ended fantasy sequence. Here Erik and Liokha are reunited again, hugging and joyfully floating through a boundless snowy space. The viewer is left guessing whether this scene of a winter wonderland is a dream that Erik has before he freezes to death or if it is the joyous reunion of the two men in an afterlife.

Exquisitely poetic (although at times bordering on maudlin), featuring a powerful soundtrack, intricate cinematography, intriguing characters, and masterful acting, the film offers a subtle and forceful interpretation of the complex romantic relationship between its two male protagonists. (It is also worth mentioning that the film’s potent sound and visual design come from Mikhail Krichman and Andrei Dergachev, both of whom worked with Andrei Zviagintsev on The Return/Vozvrashchenie, The Banishment/Izgnanie, and Elena). In a recent interview, the directors stated that one of their inspirations for the film were the lyrics from a Schubert song, “As a stranger I arrived, / As a stranger again I leave” (Volchek). One only hopes that Taramaev and L’vova’s subtle, yet daring, debut does not become a complete “stranger” in today’s Russia and can manage to make its acquaintance with a wider audience.

Olga Mesropova
Iowa State University

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Works Cited

Volchek, Dmitrii, “Piliuli dlia khorugvenostsa,” Radio Svoboda, 11 September 2013.


Winter Journey, Russia, 2013
Color, 90 minutes
Directors: Sergei Taramaev, Liubov’ L’vova
Screenplay: Sergei Taramaev, Liubov’ L’vova
Camera: Mikhail Krichman
Sound: Andrei Dergachev
Art Director: Natalia Zimina
Editing: Egor Kirpichev
Cast: Alexei Frandetti, Evgenii Tkachuk, Vladimir Mishukov, Dmitrii Mukhamadeev, Andrei Tsymbalov
Producer: Mikhail Karasev, Dmitrii Glukhov, Alexandr Perel’shtein
Production: Mika Film

Sergei Taramaev, Liubov’ L’vova: Winter Journey (Zimnii put’, 2013)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2013