Issue 51 (2016)
Ella Arkhangel’skaia: The Cage (Kletka, 2015)
reviewed by Connor Doak© 2016
The Cage opens with a roll of thunder and the doleful tones of Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane (1887), setting the melancholic mood for this adaptation of Fedor Dostoevskii’s short story “A Gentle Creature” (also translated as “A Meek One” [Krotkaia], 1876). A stylized and often self-conscious film, The Cage bears the strong imprint of screenwriter and artistic director Iurii Arabov, who initially worked on the project alongside Bulgarian-German director Mihail Pandoursky (The Only Witness/Edinstvenijat svidetel, 1990) (Anon., 2014). Ella Arkhangel’skaia took over as director when Pandoursky stepped down, just a few months before filming began. Styled as a “domestic thriller,” The Cage manages to capture the psychological intensity of Dostoevskii’s text with some superb acting and inventive cinematography. However, the film’s efforts to develop the Christian subtext of “A Gentle Creature” and explore the psychology of money prove rather heavy-handed.
Dostoevskii’s basic plot remains unchanged: a repentant pawnbroker tries to understand why his meek wife has committed suicide by revisiting his cruel treatment of her. Daniil Spivakovksii brings a self-important flamboyance to the role of the pawnbroker, known simply as Neizvestnyi (the Unknown Man), and this performance contrasts sharply with Elena Radevich’s deliberately understated acting as his wife Krotkaia (the Meek Woman). While these two characters are immediately recognizable to readers of Dostoevskii, the film significantly alters the frame narrative. Whereas Dostoevskii claims to record the pawnbroker’s thoughts directly, The Cage opts for a confessional format, with the pawnbroker relating his tale to a priest (Evgenii Kulakov) after Krotkaia’s suicide. The intriguing twist is that Neizvestnyi is able to drag the priest into an extended flashback sequence, so that he can see first-hand the history of their relationship. Cinematically, dramatic contrasts of color and lighting underscore the different moods of the two parts of the film: the cold hues of the bleak, elegiac frame narrative, which takes place after Krotkaia’s death, give way to the brightly lit scenes of the flashback when she is alive. Overall, both the aesthetics and the acting owe much to Arabov’s long-time collaborator, Aleksandr Sokurov. Although Sokurov had no official role in the film, according to Arabov, he visited the set during filming and “showed the actors how he thought it should be done” (Novosti kul’tury 2014).
The film appears at a time when the adaptation of canonical literature has become a contested issue in Russia. As Birgit Beumers noted in KinoKultura 49, there are fears that the Ministry of Culture will not finance radical reworkings of the classics, particularly in the wake of the debacle around Timofei Kuliabin’s Tannhäuser in Novosibirsk (Beumers 2015). Yet doggedly faithful renditions of classic texts also remain unlikely to impress. This double bind may have contributed to the film’s rather unorthodox approach to adaptation. The era in which the story is set is intentionally blurred. Although the bulk of the film evokes the nineteenth century, particularly the lavish candlelit interior scenes, a few strategically placed anachronisms complicate the dating. The pawnbroker’s office has both a telephone and a gramophone more in keeping with the 1920s. We even occasionally see fleeting glimpses of a twenty-first century Petersburg with modern automobiles, as well as a dream sequence depicting a busy cosmopolitan city. These hints of a contemporary setting prove unsettling for viewers, prompting us to reflect on how the issues in the film might speak to our era, though the film avoids straying into didacticism.
While some adaptations of Dostoevskii, such as Konstantin Bogomolov’s controversial play Karamazovs (Karamazovy, Moscow Arts Theatre 2013), have offered lurid reworkings of his prose, The Cage studiously avoids graphic depictions of sex and violence. As in Dostoevskii’s text, the pawnbroker gains power over Krotkaia primarily through economic and psychological means. He is never physically violent and shows little sexual interest in her, at one point even bemoaning his conjugal duty toward her. The Cage thus takes on the challenge of evoking a domestic nightmare without recourse to sensational material, no mean feat in this post-Tarantino era when viewers have grown so accustomed to sex and violence on screen. Intriguingly, the film seems to suggest that sadism is most frightening precisely when it cannot be explained away as a sexual fetish, and that power is at its most absolute when its enforcement does not require physical violence.
The scene in which Krotkaia pawns her icon provides an illustration of this idea. In desperate need of money, she hands this most treasured possession to Neizvestnyi, who inspects it with feigned nonchalance before declaring that only the silver setting is valuable, not the portrait of the Madonna and Child inside. He violently prizes off the frame with an iron poker, defiling the image of the Virgin’s face in the process. Nothing happens here to require an 18+ rating, but the audience feels distressed as we feel Krotkaia’s deepening humiliation and Neizvestnyi quietly relishes his own act of cruelty. The lighting amplifies the horror of the scene. Krotkaia’s face is half-lit from a burning hearth on one side, suggesting her vulnerability, but this same light gives a resplendent glow to the icon, making it seem all the more sacred. This sequence demonstrates that, even in 2015, a cinematic depiction of sacrilege can prove as powerful as a scene of sexual violence, if placed in the hands of the right director.
This technique recurs in a later scene when Neizvestnyi brings home a cage for Krotkaia to sleep in. Here again, there is a marked absence of the kind of graphic content that the audience might expect. Far from offering a sadomasochistic thrill, this scene makes the viewer cringe as the camera documents Krotkaia’s humiliation at funereal pace. She enters the cage in silence and without protest, as though she had always anticipated its appearance and required no explanations. The rough texture of the cage clashes with the genteel mahogany furnishings in the background, making the scene all the more unpleasant to watch. Yet the symbolism here is rather heavy-handed, and it comes as no surprise when Neizvestnyi himself appears inside the cage alongside his wife. The inclusion of the cage has naturally evoked the ire of purists in the Russian press. “[O]ur immortal classic [Dostoevskii] quite successfully managed without such cagey metaphors,” protests Aleksei Litovchenko of Rossiiskaia gazeta. Evgenii Ukhov (2015) suggests the cage “might suit an avant-garde play with a minimalist set, but cinema requires a subtler, more nuanced approach.”
However, I would argue that the film’s awareness of its own theatricality is one of its greatest strengths. Neizvestnyi resembles a director who sets up the stage to inflict new horrors on Krotkaia, his marionette. Viewed thus, the cage is simply one of his more extravagant props in the performance that he stages. Of course, any performance requires an audience, provided here in the form of the priest, who watches with trepidation and fascination as the drama between Neizvestnyi and Krotkaia unfolds. Indeed, the priest acts as a surrogate spectator whose reactions mirror our own responses. In the most horrible scenes, he covers his eyes, and we, too, want to look away. However, Neizvestnyi forces him to watch: he even hauls the Father through doorways to ensure he sees every excruciating moment of the drama, and the audience too feel compelled to watch, as if against our will. At best, these scenes hint at a meta-cinematic inquiry into the relationship between a director and the audience, although this aspect of the film never develops as strongly as it might.
Throughout the film, the priest timidly tries to provide a counter-narrative to Neizvestnyi’s cynical account of how he managed to ensnare Krotkaia and eventually destroy her. However, the naïve and inexperienced priest is constantly upstaged by the pawnbroker, who claims to possess a superior understanding of human psychology and even of truth itself. “There’s no truth in icons. Truth is to be found only the burning human heart,” Neizvestnyi proclaims, as he grabs the priest’s hand and presses it against his own chest. Alarmed by Neizvestnyi’s cruelty toward his wife, the priest often attempts to intervene. He even warns Krotkaia at one point that the pawnbroker is a wicked man, and begs her to find work rather than pawn her goods. However, as the priest is merely an observer in the flashback sequences with an already predetermined outcome, Krotkaia cannot hear his voice, and his efforts are in vain.
The film thus poses the question of whether Christianity can provide an effective answer to the problem of suffering and evil. This issue, of course, is one that fascinated Dostoevskii, although he treated it primarily in his major novels, not in “A Gentle Creature.” However, for Arabov, Dostoevskii “always wrote about the same thing: about the passions that are opposed to Christian love.” He sees Dostoevskii as the expositor of how far away “humanity as a whole” and “Russians in particular” are from Christianity. “That’s precisely how I understood the plot of ‘A Gentle Creature,’” he adds (Arabov 2015). This holistic view of Dostoevskii explains why the script often reflects the Dostoevskii that we know from the great novels. For instance, Neizvestnyi’s intense questioning of the priest on theological matters would fall easier from the lips of Ivan Karamazov than from the protagonist of “A Gentle Creature.” However, this all-inclusive approach to Dostoevskii also has its problems. Arguably, the rather thin plot buckles under the weight of the extra theological baggage that the film imposes on it.
In addition to developing the religious themes of the novel, The Cage foregrounds the theme of the money and its psychological effect. Crucial here is the film’s development of the character of Mozer. While Mozer exists only as a background character in Dostoevskii’s text, the film gives him considerable screen time, having transformed him into an extravagant Mafioso type who takes Mammonism to its extreme. Dmitrii Nagiev is appropriately cast in this larger-than-life role. A philosophizing villain, Mozer throws out one-liners about the psychology of money, the nature of women, and the meaning of life. “If you love money, then don’t let any human being come between you and your money,” he quips. The Mozer scenes are especially creative in the use of anachronisms. He himself is an overblown parody of the nineteenth-century dandy, the 1920s gangster, and the New Russian of the 1990s, all rolled into one. In a surreal touch, he even keeps a white horse inside the grand rooms of his palatial home. His combination of intelligence and brutality recall Dostoevskian antiheroes such as Stavrogin or Svidrigailov, yet he also provides a link to our contemporary world, where greed and the uneven distribution of wealth remain topical concerns. However, while the colorful Mozer sequences provide a feast for the eyes and some added spice of black humor, the underlying message about the corrupting power of money is less original.
When Dostoevskii’s “A Gentle Creature” came out, it had a powerful effect on many readers. Even Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, a writer whose ideological sympathies hardly aligned with Dostoevskii’s, called it a “jewel,” admitting, “You simply feel like crying as you read” (quoted in Frank 2010, 746). Arkhangel’skaia’s The Cage demands the same level of emotional engagement from its viewer, though the film intentionally seeks to provoke the audience’s revulsion as often as it causes tears. While the film perhaps overreaches itself in its excursions into theology and economics, The Cage excels as an engagement with Dostoevskii’s aesthetics and stands as a visually compelling film in its own right.
1] My translation here aims to preserve the wordplay of the Russian. Litovchenko makes a play on kletka [cage] when he suggests that Dostoevskii managed bez odnokletochnykh metafor. Odnokletochnyi literally means “single-celled,” or, by association, “simplistic.”
University of Bristol
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Anon.2014. “V Sankt-Peterburge pereosmyslili Dostoevskogo.” KinoPoisk 22 April.
Arabov, Iurii. 2015. “‘Semeinye trilleri dlia nashego kino byli by spasitel’noi solominkoi.’” Interview. ProfiCinema. 14 September.
Beumers, Birgit. 2015. “Kinotavr 2015. Fourteen Shades of Gray.” KinoKultura 49.
Frank, Joseph. 2010. Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time. Princeton: Princeton U P.
Litovchenko, Aleksei. 2015. “Dostoevskii pisal o sovsem drugom. Retsenziia.” Rossiiskaia gazeta. 17 September.
[Novosti kul’tury]. 2014. “Rezhisser Ella Arkhangel’skaia zakanchivaet rabotu nad fil’mom ‘Kletka.’” Rossiia K. 2 September.
Ukhov, Evgenii. 2015. “Kletka. Liubov’ sbivaiushchaia s nog.” Film.ru. 6 September.
The Cage, Russia, 2015
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Ella Arkhangel’skaia
Screenplay: Iurii Arabov, Fedor Dostoevskii
Director of Photography: Arsen Maklozian
Production Design: Pavel Shappo
Music: Aleksei Aigi
Cast: Daniil Spivakovskii, Elena Radevich, Evgenii Kulakov, Dmitrii Nagiev, Irina Rakhmanova
Producer: Aleksandra Piskunova, Ella Arkhangel’skaia, Iurii Arabov
Production: Fortuna Film
Ella Arkhangel’skaia: The Cage (Kletka, 2015)
reviewed by Connor Doak© 2016