Issue 50 (2015)
Ella Omel’chenko: Patients (Patsienty, 2015)
reviewed by Arlene Forman© 2015
The Aura of the Patriarchs
Like many films that stray from blockbuster or nationalist pageant models, Ella Omel’chenko’s Patients impressed several festival audiences, earning debut awards at the Moscow Premier and the Window to Europe Festivals, as well as a directorial award from the prestigious Guild of Film Experts and Film Critics. After a limited run in a handful of cities, Patients was released on DVD. Sadly, this fate is common to many thoughtful films today, forcing viewers to search out such alternative fare. In this case they would be rewarded, for Patients, Omel’chenko’s low-budget, stylish production, is a film worthy of adult contemplation.
Omel’chenko graduated from the Advanced Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors in 2008, after studying with Vladimir Men’shov, Natal’ia Riazantseva and Vladimir Tumaev. Along with screenwriter Dmitrii Lemeshev (whose work was most recently seen in Sergei Ol’denburg-Svintsov’s 2013 compendium Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes), Omel’chenko created a script for a musical. Understanding that funding for such a lavish production would hardly be given to a neophyte director, Lemeshev shared with his coauthor a tale of a young couple seeking personal and marital counsel from two different types of sages: a psychoanalyst and a priest.
Well-known actors Timofei Tribuntsev and Pavel Barshak found the project intriguing enough to agree to work for free (Omel’chenko 2015). The screenplay was thus tailored for their particular talents and screen personae. Tribuntsev, who played a traditional family man in Gennadii Ostrovskii’s Dumplings Brothers (2013), here assumes a diametrically opposed role: a flashy analyst who proselytizes personal fulfillment largely through egocentrism and consumerism. Pavel Barshak, who has played a host of appealing romantic figures since his 2003 debut in Aleksei Uchitel’’s Stroll (Progulka)— including Aramis in Sergei Zhigunov’s series The Three Musketeers, 2013)- transforms into a unprepossessing domesticated husband, the twenty-eight-year-old “analysand” Serezha. After a year of therapy he still cannot decide what to do, how to live. The solution to all his problems (not to mention the classic dilemmas of Russian culture) seems shockingly simple to his therapist: leave the marriage.
While her husband, a screenwriter, cogitates and hesitates, pecking away at screenplays in a hammock that resembles a cradle, his wife acts. Lenochka (the cinematic debut of Mar’iana Kirsanova) has secured professional employment, albeit on a far from satisfying level: her acting credits are limited to disembodied recordings of the stops on the Moscow subway system. Viewers are led to believe that single-minded purposefulness and an inability to compromise are her birthright: her family name turns out to be Shalamov. This loaded surname may also motivate her choice of spiritual advisor, the Russian Orthodox priest Father Sergei (Dmitrii Mukhamedeev). His counsel: to save the marriage, have a child.
What begins as the trials and tribulations of contemporary couples becomes more and more compromised as the film progresses. The problems that Serezha and Lenochka face—their lack of adequate living space and struggle for a place in the world—harken back to the classic struggles of the little man (with or without a little woman) in 19th-century literature. Viewers therefore expect to see the physical and emotional oppression of their confined living quarters. Instead of a poignant picture of destitution and desperation à la Dostoevsky, we are welcomed into a bright, cozy studio that seems a model of tiny house design (a place for everything and everything in its place). The camera repeatedly shows the pair’s room from different angles, making the space seem larger and more appealing than it would be, were the room to be shot in its entirety. By expanding the dimensions of their home, Kirill Gerra’s camera actively conspires to make the couple’s complaints and their dilemmas seem more pitiful than pitiable.
Then there is the matter of Lenochka, always referred to in the diminutive form, never as an adult. Her childish petulance and passive-aggressive behavior make her the most unappealing character in this chamber drama. Her demanding personality explains her lack of friends, and perhaps her husband’s as well. For Serezha is also alone, without any of the male camaraderie that Dmitrii D’iachenko has explored in What Men Talk About (O chem govoriat muzhchiny, 2010). The couple’s total isolation from family and friends, more established avenues for counsel and support in Russian life, seems rather strained, more of a necessary conceit that permits their respective gurus, their standard bearers of opposing philosophies, to compete with each other, first through their charges, then face to face.
As the film’s art director, Omel’chenko displays a talent for set decoration and an eye for telling details. With its glass blocks, silver artwork, white leather couch and deep aquamarine walls, the therapist’s penthouse office is a study in light and water, a tropical oasis in a northern clime. A watchful kitchen witch stands guard over the couple’s color-coordinated Ikea-ified nest. The arches, proportions and iconostasis of his church only enhance the physical and spiritual gravitas of Father Sergei. In addition, a musical score that skillfully mixes “Begin the Beguine” with Prokofiev, Tom Jones, and liturgical music (to name but a few) further helps to delineate the three venues in which the drama unfolds.
Initially, there seems to be no contest between the two advisor adversaries, for the headshrinker appears to be a blatant huckster. Either pontificating or issuing ultimata to his patients, his demiurgic impulses befit his surname: Briusov. Riding a stationary bike, building a house out of business cards from a bar he frequents (and pushes to his patients) or playing a game of solitaire (in Russian, patience) during sessions, Briusov seems the least likely source of good advice. While Omel’chenko’s savage lampoon has evoked comparisons to the films of Woody Allen, in the final analysis her therapist reveals considerable perspicacity. Despite his tendency to clown around, especially in the presence of the imposing Father Sergei, Briusov is able to see beyond the rich, imposing vestments to find a man going through the motions. Faithful to church rituals and doctrine, content with the prestige his profession confers, Father Sergei now gives his congregants little more than platitudes, making his role as a spiritual guide equally suspect.
Yet the cleric plumbs the depths of Briusov’s soul with similar ease. These discoveries send the plot in unexpected directions, as both father figures explore the road not taken in somewhat unexpected ways.
Omel’chenko does not spare her own generation from critique. Why else would she focus on two truly infantile twenty-somethings incapable of communicating with each other? Serezha and Lenochka search outside themselves for simple solutions, putting their faith in authorities of questionable value and virtue. At the film’s end viewers are treated to the fruits of this advice: the couple is still in the same place, and with a newborn added to the mix, Serezha’s anxiety begins to disrupt his sleep. As Nina Tsyrkun (2015) suggests, Serezha’s dream of Briusov wandering in the desert cleverly recalls Ivan Kramskoi’s canvas “Christ in the Desert.” Omel’chenko references both the moral force and human dimension of Kramskoi’s figure as a reminder to us all, that life’s struggles require considerable introspection and fortitude. Viewers are enjoined to take personal responsibility for their own decisions, to stop relying on the schemes of “priests, shamans and shrinks” (in Briusov’s parlance), no matter how attractive they appear.
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Omel’chenko, Ella. 2015. “Ia schitaiu, chto Patsienty – eto avtorskoe zritel’skoe kino.” ProfiCinema, 24 March.
Tsyrkun, Nina. 2015. “Kushetka v Moskve, ili Obratnyi mat” Iskusstvo kino Blog 14 April.
Patients , Russia, 2014
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Ella Omel’chenko
Screenplay: Dmitrii Lemeshev
Cinematography: Kirill Gerra
Cast: Pavel Barshak, Timofei Tribuntsev, Mar’iana Kirsanova, Dmitrii Mukhamedeev
Producers: Ella Omel’chenko, Aleksandr Plotnikov
Production: Look Film
Ella Omel’chenko: Patients (Patsienty, 2015)
reviewed by Arlene Forman© 2015