Issue 48 (2015)
Vera Storozheva: Nine Days and One Morning (Deviat’ dnei i odno utro, 2014)
reviewed by Lena Doubivko © 2015
Director, producer, screenwriter and actress Vera Storozheva is a prolific artist who, since the early 1990s, has explored art-house and mainstream territory. She has directed 25 television documentaries, nine feature-length films and a television serial. In addition to several humble melodramas, among which are three “feel-good” New Year’s pictures, Storozheva has cemented her reputation as internationally-renowned director with the widely-acclaimed Sky. Plane. Girl (Nebo. Samolet. Devushka, 2002) and Traveling with Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi, 2007). In her early “art-house period”, she was the creative collaborator on Kira Muratova and Renata Litvinova’s projects: as actress in The Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1989) and Goddess, How I Fell in Love (Boginia, kak ia poiubila, 2004), as co-scriptwriter for Three Stories (Tri istorii, 1997), and as director of Sky. Plane. Girl. Inspired by this famous collaboration, Storozheva’s women-centered perspective especially in Sky. Plane. Girl and Traveling with Pets has been praised by many critics for constructing women’s existential search on women’s terms.
Shot in Rostov (Rostov Veliky)—the renowned spiritual center of Russia and one of the oldest towns—Nine Days was conceived as third in a trilogy of Storozheva’s provincial stories (echoing Muratova’s “provincial melodramas”), which also includes Traveling with Pets and Spring will Soon be Here (Skoro vesna, 2009). Like the other two films, Nine Days is concerned with human relationships, touches on the orphan and animal themes, and explores the emotions of mature women. Yet in contrast to the filmmaker’s earlier works, there is an international twist to the provincial story, inviting a series of “us vs. them” contrasts—complete with all the clichéd juxtapositions and conciliations. Although the film received recognition for its visual style and compelling story in numerous festivals, Nine Days is deemed to be more interested in the Kremlin-backed patriotic staging of the Russian idea and falls into line with well-trodden formulas.
The film’s title refers to the time which the former orphan, Anna Kruglova (Anna Shcherbinina), now a Paris-based top fashion model, is set to stay in her native town where she grew up until, at the age of nine, she was adopted by a French couple. Her return is not triggered by nostalgia, but because of her engagement in marketing and charitable missions of a famous cosmetics brand that is about to enter the Russian market. Anna’s first destination is her former orphanage, where children recite Soviet-style verses about a happy childhood in her honor (“Our native orphanage, it’s such a nice place to live!”). Anna delivers a frothy motivational “fate gives a chance to any and every one of us!” speech to the bewildered and skeptical orphans with angry eyes. That the children hope for international adoption and a fate similar to Anna’s becomes evident when one orphan, hushed by the adults, asks Anna whether her French adoptive parents will return to their orphanage again. Anna is at a loss for a convincing answer, and the exposed hollow rhetoric of her optimistic address can only be remedied by smothering the children with Western cosmetic products.
International “tensions” continue in the next scene. Anna and her French boyfriend, the photographer Michel (Xavier Gallais) who accompanies her on this trip, are driven back to their hotel by the Head of the Department of Culture, Sergei Sergeevich. Sergei tells Anna that they should have gone to a local eatery because the food is very tasty there. Anna protests, remembering this place from her childhood when they served only clotted porridge. Sergei responds defensively and says that she shouldn’t go looking for bad things: they can be found everywhere. Exposing the xenophobic feelings which have become a key aspect of social consensus in Putin’s Russia, he adds: “Look at the USA. Schoolchildren shooting each other! And in France there are only Arabs. What is good about that?” Similar xenophobic remarks about Paris are made later in the film by an ice cream saleswoman, representing the people’s point of view, who says to Anna: “I saw it on TV… Poor things. What a horrible life, I could not live like that.”
Significantly, at this very moment, Michel spots an impressing sight of the town’s medieval towers and cupolas, and demands that they stop so that he can photograph this beauty spot. When the car stops in the midst of the dirty road next to a squalid house, and Michel runs up a small hill to capture the imposing sight of Rostov’s architectural ensemble, the symbolism of the scene could not be more telling. The Russian provinces may be in severe decline and its population undernourished but, as suggested by the “upper” sacred realm, Orthodox spirituality will forever nourish and purify. It is no coincidence that Michel later says: “The air itself is different here. I love it. I’m like crazy here.” In yet another over-the-top reference to spirituality, Anna looks across Lake Nero and sees the seventeenth-century Church of the Conception of St. Anna (!) next to a vaulting rainbow—a floating bridge to the heavens.
Comically reflecting on Russia‘s relationship with the West, Storozheva depicts the townsfolk treating Anna, the “goodwill ambassador,” like a royal, albeit not altruistically. A “Cinderella” story of an orphan turned supermodel soon becomes the town legend, and everyone expects Anna to help one way or another. The Mayor (Sergei Puskepalis), whom Anna mistakenly calls Ivan Vasil’evich (instead of Ven’iaminovich), counts on Anna’s help to find a twin city in France; the orphanage director chases Anna in the hope that she can finance the repairs of the washrooms; and the charismatic and manipulative little orphan Liusia (Nika Anaskina), even though she has a mother, demands that Anna adopts her and takes her to a new life in France: “You won’t find anyone better than me.” Anna’s conflicting childhood memories, mixed with confusion about what all these people want from her, add to the heroine’s emotional torment: “What should I do? Why do I owe everybody?” In the first moments of the film, the audience recognizes an old and familiar cultural theme that affluence has its drawbacks, and that despite the beautiful façade of well-being and smile in public, this Cinderella is a neurotic, anxious and truly unhappy person.
Anna’s tenseness, powerlessness, and assailability are underscored by Shcherbinina’s subtle performance and Storozheva’s creative visual methods. Signifying feminine perfection, Anna is framed within the male gaze, entrapped in dark, claustrophobic spaces of her hotel room or confined to someone’s car. During the formal ceremony in the opening scene, for example, the camera photographs the entrapped Anna from a high angle, depicting her at odds with the festive occasion. Surrounded by the ring of orphanage children and teachers, and frenetically photographed by her boyfriend, Anna’s sense of confinement clashes with her elegant outward appearance and the optimistic nature of her speech.
In terms of narrative content, Anna lacks subjectivity. Strained to the extreme, she goes jogging only to be attacked by vicious, stray dogs. While attempting to deal with the distress through breathing exercises, she is interrupted by Michel, who is invigorated by the town’s beauty and wants sex with her. On Anna’s second day in town, she is raped by the Mayor’s feckless, Hummer-driving son, Petia (Gleb Puskepalis, the boy from Roads to Koktebel [Koktebel, dir. Khlebnikov and Popogrebskii, 2003]), who misinterprets his duties as a local guide. Not surprisingly, when she fails to meet the townsfolk’s expectations of charity, the blame is laid squarely at her feet.
As if reinforcing Anna’s “rich but miserable” storyline does not sound formulaic enough, Storozheva introduces a negative contrast between Anna and her “poor but happy” antithesis, Liuba (Ol'ga Popova), thus reinforcing the already established the West vs. Russia divide. Halfway through the visit, Anna learns that the local bania attendant, voluptuous and limping orphan Liuba, whom she has already met several times, is her biological sister, and that their mother tragically died in a fire that left Liuba handicapped for life. Unlike Anna, Liuba was not adopted and stayed in her native Rostov. Living in poverty and feeling contentedly, she has humbly accepted her simple life as it is, without complaining and asking for her affluent sister’s help.
Storozheva clearly privileges Liuba over Anna by creating a clear visual distinction between the two female representations. Filmed in high-key lighting, against open doorways, interacting with the domestic items, Liuba, although herself unmarried and childless, is a compassionate, loving, strong and confident woman, who embodies Orthodox values. She looks after her former teacher Lena (Svetlana Toma)—the surrogate mother of the two sisters; she is kind and helpful to Anna; and she shows a mothering instinct for the little Liusia, whom Anna does not want to adopt. In contrast, Anna is constructed like a freak, too well-off for her own good. She refuses to eat Lena’s homemade fresh and tasty sweets because they will give her anaphylactic shock; she is obsessed with her “real” stress fits, weak nerves, panic attacks, and overreaction; and above all, she does not display any kind of emotion towards her boyfriend or her sister.
Storozheva completes her dichotomy of traditional vs. transgressive woman when she tops off Anna’s representation with a femme fatale layer and the stereotypical idea often portrayed in the post-Soviet media: that all models are prostitutes. Liuba naïvely asks: “Is it true that, when models are out of work, they sleep with men for money? They write in the papers that rich men, oligarchs, the ones that own oil, order models by the dozen and sleep with them.” Anna does not satisfy Liuba’s curiosity, but we learn something about Anna’s experimental sexuality when Michel suggests they invite Petia for a sexual game, and earlier, when Anna wants to “feel the pulse” and see if Petia may be interested in such a ménage à trois. At a local club where Petia takes her as part of his “cultural heritage program,” she says to him that her mind is blank (kakoe-to zatmenie) like in Agnieszka Holland’s film Total Eclipse (1995). Doltish Petia has not seen the film and does not get the subtle hint, taking Anna’s loss of control as an invitation to sexual advancement.
Anna’s casual reference to Holland’s film is, of course, not accidental, and reveals some intertextual meaning. Just as Nine Days, Total Eclipse features highly charged oppositions between the cosmopolitan and provincial, between modern and traditional, or liberal and conservative. Moreover, it focuses on the passionate and violent love affair of the two nineteenth-century French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. The fact that Anna mentions this film to lure Petia into a ménage à trois with Michel situates her in a Western-style homosexual discourse which, for some authors and filmmakers in post-Soviet Russia, “has become a convenient symbol of Western cultural imperialism, involving the encroachment of Western values (overt sexuality, nonreproductive sex, and consumerism) and Western political concepts (tolerance, diversity, and civil rights)” (Baer 2009, 6). While Holland’s representation of a same-sex relationship is vivid and revealing, her focus is first and foremost on the poets’ intellectual bond. Yet it is a hundred-year-old tale, and both men who have transgressed the boundaries of traditional family relations have to be beaten down or destroyed. Thus, Verlaine is fined and sentenced to two years in prison, while Rimbaud dies of cancer at the age of 37.
Consistent with its conservative message, Nine Days ridicules homosexuality as a decadent product of the West, evident in its contrasting Christian symbolism of the rainbow (a prominent symbol of gay pride in the West), and in Anna’s protest to Michel’s “indecent proposal:” “This is not Paris, people are different here. And when they get such proposals they… slap you across the face.” But similar to Holland’s film, Nine Days is preoccupied with the reinvention of love, but suggests a very different path. As Storozheva articulated in several interviews, the film reveals the hiding place of harmony and the difficulty of achieving peace of mind for those deprived of love in the most important period of life: childhood. Looking at the way Anna has turned out, “harmony” and “peace of mind” cannot possibly be found in the West. Storozheva’s xenophobic message stands out a mile. More importantly, in the context of the “Dima Yakovlev’s Bill”, Nine Days reinforces one of the largest myths spread by the massive, Kremlin-led propaganda campaign “defending” children’s rights that accompanied Russia’s ban on U.S. (and later French) adoptions—that Russia’s orphans are in greater danger in Western families than in Russian orphanages.
At the same time, Liuba (her name means “love”), is a local holy fool who, despite her difficult time at the orphanage, is capable of loving—indeed, Popova performed a similar role as the nurse Olia in Spring Will Soon Be Here. Clarifying the obvious, Storozheva said in an interview: “Emotionally deprived in childhood, it is still possible to learn how to love… Just like one of the sisters, Liuba, who stayed in Russia. Maybe it is because of her native environment, her roots and such, which nourished her somehow.” Significantly, Liuba’s employment at a bania—a symbolic microcosm of purification—resonates with the Orthodox sacrament of penance, the formal act of reconciliation with God when sin has broken that communion. During their sightseeing tour, Anna and Petia overhear the famous story about Saint James (Iakov), Bishop of Rostov, episodically delivered by a local guide. In this legend, Saint James defended a woman condemned to execution from the city authorities and sent her forth to life-long repentance. Thrown out of Rostov by the disgruntled prince and the nobles (boyars), Saint James built a small church in honor of the Conception by Righteous Anna of the Holy Mother of God on the shore of Lake Nero. Only after Anna’s “sinful” behavior is purified in Liuba’s bania,and her cold heart (she calls herself “winter-woman”) has melted and is nourished by this town’s ever-present spirituality, love will be reinvented and her reconciliation with Liuba will come to life.
Assimilated by Rostov’s spiritual environment, Anna is suddenly pushed towards reconciliation with her sister. It turns out that they have more in common than originally assumed: both laugh at silly things, both like to wear pale lipsticks, both dislike their formal school and both love sweets so much they can’t have just a bite but have to eat the whole thing at once. Using medium and close-up shots, Storozheva accentuates their likeness by framing both sisters together (when they have tea in Liuba’s house, walk together, order the same ice cream, wear the same hair styles and similar clothes, and employ the same body language). The sisters grow closer when Anna offers to help cure Liuba’s leg; they visit the burnt ruin of their former family house, and share childhood memories. Too much unresolved emotional baggage intervenes into this newly-found harmony, but it does not completely disturb it. Liuba nips earrings from Anna’s purse (probably just to anger her), and Anna once again proves heartless when she tells everybody that her charity foundation—not her—will provide the means and support for Liuba’s treatment. Her willingness to help Liusia (“The Fund has programs for children”) may seem like a practical solution but leaves Lena and Liuba cold. The dramatic climax occurs on the last day of Anna’s visit, when we learn that Liusia staged a suicide attempt (to manipulate Anna, but all in vain) and that Anna will not adopt her after all.
Nine Days deceives its audience into believing that it is Anna’s story. The narrative is divided into ten separate chapters, which—although following the progression of time (day one to the morning of day ten)—appear more like a series of Anna’s intermittent flashes. Yet the story starts and ends with Liuba, whose subjective presence gains control over the narrative. Moreover, by interrupting the flow of the chapters, Storozheva disrupts the emotional spell of Anna’s inner turmoil and forces the audience to refocus attention on the film’s patriotic sermons. Anna and Michel have left, and Liusia will not have a new life in France. But it is better this way, says the concluding scene of the film, because Liusia is surrounded by love and warmth of her surrogate family—the caring aunt Lena and Liuba. The optimistic resolution of Nine Days is supported by the vibrantly colored finale with a sunlit Liuba and Liusia cheerfully walking together towards the lake against the spectacular sight of Rostov’s churches in the background. If Anna, whose last name is Kruglova (meaning: circle), did not achieve spiritual wholeness through transformation, Liuba—who carries the same surname, and her new “sister” Liusia, will.
As a former collaborator of Kira Muratova, Storozheva pays homage to her senior colleague by mixing the eccentric, such as Lena’s shell-shocked neighbor (Sergei Popov), and non-professional actors plucked from the streets of Rostov, in a quest for provincial authenticity. The film also mirrors Muratova’s fascination with doubles when two sets of sisters meet in front of Anna’s and Liuba’s former house; and her deep attachment to animals—although Storozheva’s use of Lena’s goat in the film, which provides much comic relief, is not without symbolic reference to sinful lust in Christian mythology (Anna’s and Michel’s transgressive sexuality). Although visually outstanding, Nine Days is overall deprived of irony and ambivalence that permeates Muratova’s “provincial melodramas” and Storozheva’s own best work, suggesting that she has probably had a change of heart. Produced with the financial assistance of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, the film looks like goszakaz (state directive) participating in staging the conservative Russian idea: “defending” children’s rights and traditional family values from the foreign “invasion;” following the “village prose” tradition that the authentic Russia is the provincial one; and, above all, reinforcing Orthodox heritage as the spiritual foundation of the Russian state.
1] Storozheva revealed that the idea of making Nine Days came to her in 2012 when Dima Yakovlev’s Bill was actively discussed.
University of Washington
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Baer, Brian James. 2009. Other Russias. Homosexuality and the Crisis of Post-Soviet Identity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nine Days and One Morning, Russia, 2014
Color, 87 minutes
Director: Vera Storozheva
Screenplay: Anna Kozlova, Vera Storozheva
Cinematography: Mikhail Iskandarov
Composer: Gari Miller
Production Design: Sergei Filenko
Cast: Anna Shcherbinina, Ol’ga Popova, Xavier Gallais, Sergei Puskepalis, Gleb Puskepalis, Svetlana Toma, Sergei Popov
Producers: Vera Storozheva, Anna Popova
Production: SV Aurum, with support from the Ministry of Culture and Mosfilm.
Vera Storozheva: Nine Days and One Morning (Deviat’ dnei i odno utro, 2014)
reviewed by Lena Doubivko © 2015