Issue 48 (2015)
Valeriia Gai Germanika: Yes and Yes (Da i da, 2014)
reviewed by Olga Mesropova© 2015
“Frames are only good for paintings,” philosophizes Antonin, the artist-protagonist in Valeria Gai Germanika’s second feature film, Yes and Yes. While Antonin is discussing his desire to escape the confines of mundane mainstream art, his rebellious (albeit clichéd) statement also aptly characterizes Germanika’s own controversial oeuvre. Indeed, since her debut documentary shorts in the early 2000s, Germanika’s distinctive cinematic “shockers”—such as her film Everybody Dies But Me (Vse umrut a ia ostanus’, 2008) and the scandalous television series School (Shkola, 2010)—have featured troubled teens, gritty settings, ambiguous endings, and Dogme-95-inspired stylistics. Building on the director’s earlier narrative and visual themes, Yes and Yes delivers a peculiar love story laced with profanity, nudity, as well as a fair dose of gratuitous sex and violence. Germanika has described the film as “a poetic sketch” of her personal “inner world” (“Press konferentsiia”).
Yes and Yes focuses on the non-conformist elementary school teacher, Sasha, played by Agniia Kuznetsova, one of the lead actresses in Everybody Dies But Me. Sasha wears dreadlocks, smokes, and encourages her students to think outside the box (which generates free-form writing submissions about things like “wounded cockroaches”). Like the protagonists from Germanika’s earlier work, Sasha suffocates in her family’s overbearing atmosphere. To convey this sense of claustrophobic domestic hostility, Yes and Yes begins with a cinema-vérité-style depiction of Sasha’s apartment as an arena of conflict between the resentful protagonist and her repressive relatives. Visually marking this estrangement, Sasha’s mom and dad appear to be spatially separated from their daughter and are stripped of any palpable identity: for most of the opening sequence, the parents remain off-camera and the viewer only hears their voices nagging their daughter about her chain-smoking. The one evident “face” of this hostile family is Sasha’s tempestuous sibling, who is presented through several close-ups as he threatens to break his sister’s fingers over the family’s bête noir: her smoking in the apartment. Sasha decides to escape this domestic hell and heads for the abode of the aforementioned artist, Antonin (played by Aleksandr Gorchilin), with whom she has made virtual contact via an Internet chat-room.
In a stark contrast to the drab environment of Sasha’s apartment, the entrance to Antonin’s space—located in a dilapidated block of apartments—is presented as a brightly lit and vividly colored purple window. (The use of unusual lighting and varicolored lenses will remain a prevailing visual motif throughout the film). With a nod to mythical and fairy-tale tropes, the pathway leading to Antonin’s charmed universe is difficult and, in order to enter his world, Sasha must overcome the obstacle of ascending a steep fire-escape ladder. The hierarchical spatial positioning of Antonin’s apartment is perhaps symbolic, as the artist appears to reside “above” the mundane world of philistines (obyvateli). Entry through the mystical purple window seems to promise Sasha the possibility of an escape from her repressed life, with Antonin assuming the role of a “magical helper” who will guide the young teacher along the path of artistic fulfillment.
Once inside Antonin’s apartment, the female protagonist discovers a company of alcoholic artists who pontificate on mortality and art, while liberally peppering their conversations with profanities (it is worth noting that many actors in these scenes are real-life artists making cameo appearances). The film’s episodes set in this “art world”—like the opening scenes in Sasha’s apartment—rely on Germanika’s signature documentary techniques, including jerky, hand-held cameras, improvised dialogue, and minimal use of extra-diegetic sound. While creating this ambiance of assumed bohemian authenticity, the director simultaneously populates this artistic world with animated sequences, in which paintings come to life and reality is infused with surrealist (or perhaps alcohol-induced) imagery. As Sasha physically enters the world of artists and their “living” creations, she must undergo a ritualistic “re-birthing” in order to be accepted into their milieu (as Antonin pompously proclaims to the female protagonist: “People like you are dead to me; be born now”).
As far as Antonin is concerned, until Sasha becomes fully integrated into the world of art, she is not only “dead” but also “blind” (Antonin refers to his female visitor as a “mole girl” [devochka krot]). On the one hand, Sasha’s “blindness” is prosaic: the myopic Sasha does not see details of Antonin’s paintings simply because she has left her glasses at home. On the other hand, Sasha’s lack of vision has a more aesthetic explanation: she simply is incapable of perceiving the animated painted images that the artist Antonin (and the viewers) clearly see. The motif of “seeing” is foregrounded throughout the film, perhaps as a broader metaphor for the creative process: it is only through a complete initiation into the world of art that Sasha will be open to the epiphanic experience, which will allow her to acquire Antonin’s artistic vision.
Not surprisingly, the “epiphany” that the artist offers to the female protagonist is a series of sexual encounters, followed by Antonin’s recognition of their relationship by drawing an “official” marriage stamp in Sasha’s passport. As Sasha will discover later, tampering with a passport legally annuls the document. Therefore, by “stamping” the female protagonist as his “wife,” Antonin has literally and symbolically stripped the young woman of her identity and official status as a citizen. Sasha’s new identity, signaled by Antonin’s “artistic” defacement of her passport, turns out to be that of a subservient wife, who loves the artist with abnegation, dutifully cleaning his home, walking his dog, and cooking his meals.
Sasha’s deeper initiation into the artistic world takes place after the hard-drinking Antonin imbibes massive quantities of alcohol (along with a chaser of his own urine) and winds up in the hospital with renal colic. With Antonin possibly in need of a kidney transplant, Sasha is tasked with financing her “husband’s” surgery and hopes that producing and selling her own paintings will generate the required funds. Sasha proceeds to consume large quantities of vodka and begins to work on blank canvasses that she finds in Antonin’s apartment. At this point in the film—perhaps as a fairy-tale-like reward for her good deed—Sasha’s own paintings become animated (both technically and diegetically) as she appears to achieve the very artistic initiation she so desires. As a confirmation of Sasha’s arrival as an artist (at least commercially), her works are immediately purchased by two buyers at a street market (played by the real-life art dealer Nikolai Palazhchenko, and the actor and painter Evgenii Mitta).
Although Sasha now has sufficient funds to pay for Antonin’s transplant, her artistic and monetary achievements quickly lose their raison d’être. It turns out that Antonin’s kidneys have survived the alcoholic and ureic onslaught and he no longer requires surgery. To make matters worse, upon his release from the hospital, Antonin resumes his carousing ways and, before too long, we see him performing sex acts with another woman in front of Sasha. Her lover’s betrayal provokes yet another transformation of the female protagonist’s identity – only this time, rather than the artist-as-saving-angel, Sasha turns into an angry, computer-generated creature dashing through the woods, accompanied by a pack of wolves and the throbbing sounds of the rock band Agata Kristi.
The film’s closing scenes transport the female protagonist back to her family’s apartment. Without Antonin’s inspiration, Sasha is no longer able to create art and we see her shaking hand splattering white paint onto a blank canvas. Although her artistic vision seems to have vanished (a possibility that she confirms when she states that she no longer “sees anything”), Sasha’s home life has been somehow transformed. Instead of the tight frame of the bullying brother, we now see her family represented by a single close-up of the face of Sasha’s mother. The mother no longer finds the daughter’s smoking objectionable and, moreover, lovingly praises Sasha’s artistic talent. As the mother exits the room, Sasha pulls one of Antonin’s doodles from her desk drawer, studies it through a magnifying glass, and then—focusing the glass on the paper—sets the drawing on fire. Next, we see a close-up of Sasha’s face, the blaze reflected in her eyes, as the flames occupy the entire screen. Given director Germanika’s penchant for open and ambiguous endings, the viewer is left wondering if this final scene suggests Sasha’s desire to erase the unhappy memories of her unfulfilled love and artistic frustrations. Or is the entire film really just the narrative of a drunken, pyro-maniacal nightmare?
Yes and Yes was presumably completed in 2012 but was not released until June 2014 at the36th Moscow International Film Festival. At MIFF, the film was awarded the Silver George for Best Director, along with the FIPRESCI jury prize. Most recently, Agniia Kuznetsova has been nominated for a NIKA award for best female role (stay tuned: the NIKA winners will be announced on March 31, 2015). Unlike the film’s artist protagonist Antonin, Yes and Yes could not avoid “surgery:” under Russia’s new “anti-obscenity” legislation, the film had to be significantly re-edited and was not released in cinemas until March 12, 2015.
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Yes and Yes, Russia, 2014
Color, 115 mins.
Director: Valeria Gai Germanika
Scriptwriter: Aleksandr Rodionov
Director of Photography: Vsevolod Kaptur
Cast: Agniia Kuznetsova, Aleksandr Vinogradov, Vladimir Dubosarskii, Aleksandr Gorchilin
Producers: Fedor Bondarchuk, Dmitrii Rudovskii, Maksim Korolev
Production: Art Pictures Studio, VVP Al’ians
Valeriia Gai Germanika: Yes and Yes (Da i da, 2014)
reviewed by Olga Mesropova© 2015