Issue 46 (2014)

Ramil' Salakhutdinov: White White Night (Belaia belaia noch', 2014)

reviewed by Theodora Kelly Trimble© 2014

A young boy named Sasha disappears after traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg to attend a concert. His mother hires Igor', a private investigator, to search for her son. The detective, who moved to Moscow from St. Petersburg many years ago, quickly finds himself caught in a complex chain of events connected to the mystery of Sasha’s disappearance. The film traces his investigation, as Igor' is forced to face the city and memories from his past, while tracking those responsible for the young man’s disappearance.

belaya belaya nochRamil' Salakhutdinov’s White White Night is a detective drama infused with tropes from the film noir and chernukha traditions: criminality, anxiety, distrust.  However, the darkness and pessimism of classic film noir is superseded here by disillusionment and melancholia. The characters within the oppressive social environment of contemporary St. Petersburg are essentially helpless. They are, rather, at the mercy of the main character, the city itself, recalling films like Carol Reed’s The Third Man.  

The city’s ambience is coded through the visual characterization of its urban atmosphere, its structures, its history, and most of all its citizens’ discontents. This is foreshadowed through Igor'’s arrival on an early foggy morning. As he passes the statue of Lenin in front of the House of Soviets, the film suggests that an unsettling sense of surveillance pervades St. Petersburg. And as Igor' gradually understands more about Sasha’s disappearance, we learn that the young man’s current state—alive, but comatose in a hospital—is the result of his involvement in the politics of historical preservation vs urban development. One suspects that, at some level, St. Petersburg itself is to blame for Sasha’s wounds.

This notion is reinforced through Igor’s encounters with the people who last saw Sasha before he was hospitalized. An ailing, middle-aged man who is trying to sell his half-functional apartment ultimately sees no point in leaving the city to save his health and his life. A girl with whom Sasha has rendezvoused is caught in the day-to-day apathy of her post office job. A war veteran whose taxi breaks down on a bridge earns his living the only way he can outside the frontlines. All of these figures underscore one of the film’s central ideas about contemporary St. Petersburg society: life is empty.

belaya belaya nochOne interview Igor' conducts during his investigation confirms the film’s central argument that life in this city is meaningless. An elderly woman, whose existence is consumed with sitting behind her street-level window, and who is one of the last people to see Sasha unharmed, represents the psychological trauma with which each of these generations must deal. Her claim that the window’s glass wears thin from the constant gaze of passersby alludes to the sense that the city is frozen in its current place in history, plagued by an irremediable set of hauntings and memories.

What this scene does most of all, however, is establish the city of St. Petersburg as a museum whose contents are trapped in a world forgotten by the passing of time. This metaphor is set up not only through its citizens, who are trapped in their own futile lives, but also through the film’s fascination with objects and collectibles. A man who brings old photographs to an archive is told that his neighbor’s once valued pictures will not be accepted. When Igor' visits an old friend, an unhappily married alcoholic, whose biggest item of news is the household’s new vacuum cleaner, Igor' discovers that he is surrounded by a past world in which no one has fully come of age. The shelves are packed with clutter, the tchotchke reminders of past times and various historical periods. These objects are not only worthless but meaningless, the preservation of stagnation partly caused by the historical process, partly by social disenchantment.

belaya belaya nochAlthough Igor' eventually discovers Sasha’s whereabouts, he cannot entirely fulfill his role as hero. As he traces the young man’s attackers and violently beats them, Igor' himself lands in jail. He is only released after making a deal not to return to the city.  However the final shot of the film suggests that this outcome is not possible. Just as he begins his trip back to Moscow, his journey is thwarted by Petersburg’s raised bridges. Like everyone else he encounters, Igor’ has no way out.

By the end, the film also reveals the particular uncomfortable memories that tie Igor' to the city he abandoned. We learn that he initially left because he was afraid of becoming trapped, presumably in a dead-end life. However Igor’ is the only character whose emotions actually fluctuate, who develops, who has a sense of morality, reinforcing the idea that he has matured while the city has not.

Wbelaya belaya nochhite White Night presents an interesting conflict: St. Petersburg at the center of the struggle between different degrees of nostalgia, its inhabitants as the victims of this tension. Although none of the film’s characters seem to be nostalgic for anything particular from their past lives, they long for a former existence in which time flows freely, unencumbered by the city’s frictions. While the plot unfolds in a fairly straightforward manner, psychologically the film is quite complex. One might consider these complexities through various approaches to post-Soviet St. Petersburg: psychoanalytic frameworks or even Nabokov’s understanding of poshlost', since one could argue that the film constructs a disjointed city pervaded by falseness.

Artem Tsypin, as Igor', mediates the film’s anxieties well. Originally trained as a theatre actor, Tsypin gained early experience in the detective genre when he appeared in the television serial Streets of Broken Lights (Ulitsy razbitykh fonarei), which also engaged the images of St. Petersburg that White White Night addresses.

With this film, Salakhutdinov, who is an actor as well as a filmmaker, adds to his repertoire. His previous film, Who was Not (Kotorogo ne bylo), is also a mystery drama. White White Night premiered in 2014 at Kinotavr.

Theodora Kelly Trimble
University of Pittsburgh

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Novikov, Boris and Aleksandr Golubchikov, 2014. “Ekskliuziv! Ramil' Salakhutdinov o fil'me Belaia belaia noch'”, Filmz.ru, 3 June  


White White Night, Russia 2014
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Ramil' Salakhutdinov
Screenplay: Elena Dolgopiat, Ramil' Salakhutdinov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Kuznetsov
Cast: Artem Tsypin, Sergei Barkovskii, Irina Obrezkova, Dmitrii Vorob'ev, Anna Emintseva
Producer: Viktor Izvekov
Production: Sever

Ramil' Salakhutdinov: White White Night (Belaia belaia noch', 2014)

reviewed by Theodora Kelly Trimble© 2014

Updated: