Issue 51 (2016)
Irina Evteeva: Arventur (2015)
reviewed by Ksenia Konstantinova-Ragot © 2016
In June 2015 the audiences of the 37th Moscow International Film Festival discovered a new film by Irina Evteeva, Arventur. Evteeva is a director from Saint Petersburg, who emerged from the traditions of Lenfilm. In 1980 she graduated from the Institute of Culture and Arts, faculty of cinema and photography, and started to make her own animation films in the experimental studio of film amateurs attached to LOMO (Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association). This was the period when she found her style and technique, caused by accidental damage to the lighting equipment that she wanted to use. When Aleksei Iu. German and Aleksandr Sokurov were invited to see her first film, The Rat-catcher (Krysolov, 1984), based on the story with the same title by Aleksandr Grin, their appreciation gave her an opportunity to work at the Studio for First and Experimental Film (PIEF) organized by German at Lenfilm in 1988. Her first professional film, The Horse, the Violin and a Bit Nervously (Loshad', skripka i nemnozhko nervno) made in 1991 already bore the trademarks of Evteeva’s personal style that we can discern further in Arventur.
Arventur is another example of Evteeva’s adaptation of classic literature for the screen. Earlier, she had already made Elixir (1995) based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs, as well as Faust (2006), based on Goethe’s tragic play, and The Little Tragedies (Malen’kie tragedii, 2009), based on Aleksandr Pushkin’s drama. The plot of Arventur is composed from two different literary sources linked through narration and metaphor.
The first part of the film, titled “Fandango,”is based on Aleksandr Grin’s 1927 story of the same title. Together with The Rat-catcher and the story “A Gray Car” (“Seryi avtomobil’”), turned into a film by Oleg Teptsov in 1988 with the title Mister Designer/Gospodin oformitel’, “Fandango” forms part of Grin’s cycle of stories about Saint Petersburg. Evteeva has often underlined her affection for these stories that transmit the particular atmosphere of her native city, and “Fandango” is one such case. The plot focuses on Aleksandr Kaur (Vladimir Koshevoi), who leaves his house one frosty morning in 1921. The melody of the Spanish dance fandango goes through his head. He buys overprice a mediocre landscape painting of a certain Gorshkov from a painter called Brock (Leonid Mozgovoi) for a client. During their discussion of Gorshkov, Brock acquires a canvas by an unknown artist. Kaur, sensitive to real beauty, sees the marvelous painting of an empty room and decides to procure the canvas at all cost, despite his financial needs. The next time Kaur comes before the painting, he finds himself inside it: the unknown place turns out to be the luxurious palace of certain Bam-Gran (Vladimir Adzhamov) in the magnificent dream-town of Arventur, where Kaur watches the dance fandango.
The second part of Arventur, “Secret of a Sea Landscape,”is based on a Taoist parable. An old artist, Van Fu (Sergei Dreiden) and his faithful apprentice Lin (Valentin Tszin), travel to discover the secrets of painting in China during the period of the Han dynasty. Suddenly they are seized by the Emperor’s soldiers, and the Emperor orders to gouge out the artist’s eyes and cut off his hands, thus rendering him incapable of depicting the (non-existent) beauty of the world. Wherever Van Fu sees beauty and purity, the Emperor sees only dirt and blood, and this discrepancy makes him jealous. Before carrying out the dreadful order, the Emperor allows the Van Fu to finish one of his sea landscapes. While the artist is at work, the water from the canvas floods the Emperor’s Palace. Van Fu and Lin happen to be inside the canvas, aboard the marvelous Sea. They take a small bark “to be off to the land beyond the waves”, to Arventur.
Dramatically these two parts of the film are linked by the character of Lin, who serves tea to Kaur in the palace of Bam-Gran, while the latter tells Aleksandr the story of Lin and Van Fu. From a philosophical point of view, these two parts are united through their moral lesson, thus making Arventur a parable. The moral lesson is this: truth is with those who enter the world of beauty against all odds. For Evteeva, the beauty of a canvas, of the painting, is a magical and eternal place called Arventur, where only select people “are meant to get lost”.
In 1989 Evteeva received her doctorate from the Leningrad State Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinema (LGITMiK) with a thesis on the formation of genres in Soviet animation from the 1960s to 1980s, from parable to polyphonic structures, which explores attempts to lead animation out of its specific format as an art form, on its patterns and the dynamic interaction between different cinematic forms (Evteeva 1991). At the end of the 1980s, the investigation of the parable as a new form of filmic expression was obliquely forbidden on the big screen. At the same time, animation was treated as cinema for children and considered less dangerous. This negligence allowed Evteeva to write about “ambiguous” authors, such as Sergei Paradjanov, Tengiz Abuladze and Andrei Tarkovskii.
Today Evteeva teaches film analysis at the St Petersburg Institute of Culture, and she reflects on her own films, just as Lev Kuleshov or Sergei Eisenstein did in their time. Her writings can definitely help to trace the evolution of her work and her perception of cinema. In her reflections, Evteeva insists on the importance of representation on filmic composition, and its influence on the dramatic construction, leading to a modification of the range of genres in animation.
Such theoretical investigations have influenced Evteeva’s artistic work, where she mixes different art forms: cinema, animation and painting. Within this framework, Arventur is not only an excellent example of Evteeva’s particular manner of representation, but it also exhibits her philosophical ideas concerning time, space and cinema. Her specific manner of work may be termed as a “method of double recording.” Her films are often called “paintings brought to life.”
First, she creates the “base” for her future film, either filming her own footage with actors and on specific locations (as for The Little Tragedies or Arventur), or she uses archival footage, including from newsreels (as for The Horse, the Violin and a Bit Nervously),or she uses shots from different fiction films (as for Petersburg,2003). The second part of her work is entirely handmade. In her studio, Evteeva and her cameraman Valerii Miul’gaut (Arventur)project their “basic” shots onto glass. They install colored lights to illumine some parts of the shot. Then Evteeva applies paint onto the glass over the illuminated projection. The light emphasizes the colors, giving them an inner shine and distinguishing details that are already in the shot but had hitherto remained unnoticed.
Evteeva explains that “the camera depicts the external movement of an object, while each shot of the famous 24 frames per second comes laden with its inner immediacy of movement, with its inner kinetic details invisible for the spectator” (Evteeva 2003). Through painting, Evteeva enlarges these details and thus the instant of their existence, approaching the methods of the stop-motion technique. “Keep one motion or gesture, and take away another,” says Evteeva, “and you can make dynamic the inner force of a shot.” (ibid.)
For instance, her first film, The Horse, the Violin and a Bit Nervously, is composed from “black noises” from original footage of Maiakovskii. The most uninteresting moments, such as empty streets, keep a trace of the epoch and enlarging these moments emphasizes that they took place. Her technique of double recording and manual painting of each shot (she categorically refuses digital processes) takes a lot of time: an average of two years of work for 30 minutes of film. But the result is exceptional and unique.
The scene where Kaur looks at a mysterious canvas, which guides him to Arventur, is formed of a long shot in slow motion as Kaur is “feeling as if he was standing in a sunny place.” The light bulb for the background scintillates while Kaur’s golden hair and face are dipped into warm shades. The warmth that connects the real world with Arventur contrasts with the cold winter outdoors. The “meeting” between reality and the canvas is anticipated by the warmth of the fire emphasized through the bright color, by the sound of crackling and a short circuit when the mysterious light bulb starts swaying.
Kaur and Brock exist in two different temporal spaces. While Kaur approaches the fairy-tale-like warmth of Arventur, the technique of filming resembles stop-motion; sometimes the painting becomes quasi-abstract through Evteeva’s eroding strokes. The characters of Brock, as well as of the statistician Ershov or the Emperor, are shot in classic motion: they stay in their cold reality governed by money and jealousy. The difference between Kaur’s imaginative perception and the reality of famine and cold interact through the juxtaposition of different speeds, which creates a specific rhythm of the film.
This tendency is developed further in the scenes where Kaur meets the gypsies on the bridge, or in the scene with the fish, or the Spanish guests. The speed of the shots changes when different figures appear as symbols of magic and beauty: storks, fans, butterflies, peacocks, lullabies and hummingbirds, whose fascinating movements can be admired in stop-motion.
Evteeva manipulates time to give the spectator the possibility to come into contact with the invisible and eternity. Invisibility and eternity are linked through the movement of classical elements: “Cinema is the first and only art that is entirely based on dynamism and speed [...] and it is also eternal,” said Sergei Eisenstein in a speech to the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood (Eisenstein 1995: 30). Hence Evteeva’s representation of classical elements—fire, air and water—is a symbol of the transition between reality and Arventur, a place of eternal joy and beauty.
In Arventur water is almost omnipresent and appears in all possible forms. Aquatic surfaces create mirrors, which means doubles—a theme that had featured in Elixirs, where the film exposed all sorts of transformations, mirrors and reflections that “exist simultaneously but in different dimensions” (Margolina 2002). Fluffy snowflakes cover Kaur on the bank of the Neva and transform into a tinkling blizzard when Kaur meets the gypsies on the bridge; later, during the fortune-telling, a blizzard starts inside the gypsy’s crystal bowl as a symbol of the passage between different worlds. There are thick snow piles that hinder Kaur’s advancement; and there is the smooth ice covering the river, and icicles hanging from roofs and pine trees, as well as small pieces of ice falling from the sky. Water is presented in the deep blue sea in Arventur, where the Spaniards dance the fandango and in the transparency of southern waters full of treasures; the shot of transparent water brings Kaur back from Arventur when we see the image with the card pinned to the entrance door at Kaur’s.
The density of the color of water varies according to the emotional drama, and goes from an opaque blue for the snow on the Neva’s embankment, resembling the texture of oil colors, to the glazing aquarelle of the blizzard at the end of the Chinese part. Emotionally the opacity of the snow can be perceived as a block of reality with cold and famine, while the transparency of the snow is a moment of transition to another, eternal reality.
The miraculous liquid is a glass of hot water, a bowl of tea, a carafe of vodka, a cup of a refreshing drink with ice brought from the Norwegian fjord, a shot glass that Lisa proposes to her husband, and even her tears.
Water from a well is in the painter’s bowl where he cleans his brushes, as well as in streams and water-falls, in muddy paddies in a rice field and in the reflection of water-colors of Claude Monet’s lily ponds with goldfish. It is either in a singular drop of rain falling into a jar or in abundant downpours. Water exists alongside fire, another symbol of eternal life that serves as a passage from one world to another.
Only in the Emperor’s palace, entirely red and glittering, there is no vivifying water, because there is no life. The luxury of his palace is dead, surrounded by insincere obedient courtiers in masks. Therefore water submerges the palace, and ice and snow cover the royal yard at the film’s end. The final shot is of storks dancing in the fog as they turn into colorful fans from the magic place of Arventur.
Images courtesy of Antipodes Sales
Université Paris 8
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Eisenstein, Sergueï. . “Le Carré Dynamique”, vol. 10 of Carré Ciné, 1995.
Evteeva, Irina. 1991. “Protsess zhanroobrazovaniia v sovetskoi mul’tiplikatsii 60kh–80kh godov. Ot pritchi k polifonicheskim strukturam.” Thesis. Leningrad: LGITMIK.
Evteeva, Irina. 2003. “Dokument, animatsiia i igrovoe kino. Tochki peresecheniia,” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 65.
Margolina, Irina. 2002. “Mir animatsii ili animatsiia mira”, cycle of documentaries about animation in Saint-Petersburg.
Arventur, Russia, 2015
Colour, 80 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Irina Evteeva
Cinematography: Valerii Miul’gaut
Music: Andrei Sigle
Cast: Vladimir Koshevoi, Vladimir Adzhamov, Leonid Mozgovoi, Iuliia Mavrina, Sergei Dreiden, Valentin Tszin, Yan Nam
Producer: Andrei Sigle
Irina Evteeva: Arventur (2015)
reviewed by Ksenia Konstantinova-Ragot © 2016