Issue 51 (2016)
Elena Hazanov: The Puppet Syndrome (Sindrom Petrushki, 2015)
reviewed by Emily Schuckman Matthews © 2016
Elena Hazanov’s film The Puppet Syndrome, based on Dina Rubina’s novel of the same title, debuted at the Kinotavr film festival in 2015. Largely well-received by critics, the film’s excellent music by Nicolas Rabaeus received a “Best Music” award at the festival. A psychological drama, the film examines the complicated relationship between the puppeteer Petia (Evgenii Mironov) and his wife Liza (Chulpan Khamatova). The film’s melancholy exploration of their marriage and the impact of their first child’s death on their lives, Petia’s art and Liza’s psychological state is enhanced by excellent set design and location shots which imbue the film with a grey and mysterious atmosphere. Narrative portions of the film are interspersed with extended scenes of Liza and Petia’s on-stage dance routine in which she serves as his marionette who comes alive and attempts to resist his powers. The dance, choreographed by Radu Poklitaru, is not only a captivating and impressively performed by Khamatova and Mironov, but, as one reviewer noted, offers a “small story about relationships and love” (“Sindrom Petrushki”). The dance provides a framing metaphor for the entire film.
The puppet syndrome opens with the jarring scene of a boy witnessing a suicide. Walking with his mother through a provincial town, young Petia spots the alarming figure of a woman balancing on a window ledge, her gray nightgown billowing against the dull color of the building, her almost technicolor, curly red hair, barely contained by a white nightcap, contrasting sharply with muted grays of the landscape. She leaps. Hazanov then spends the first third of the film depicting a series of vignettes to carry the viewer through to the present day, though in a non-linear montage which leaves the viewer initially disoriented in deciphering the chronology and main characters of the film.
The montage reveals that the female suicide left behind a baby girl who shares her mother’s flaming red hair. Petia, a boy fond of playing with homemade puppets and dolls, develops an early fascination with this little girl, stealing her from her stroller upon their first encounter and carrying her home like a living doll to share with his friend Boris. The two inspect the exceptionally striking child with fascination and awe, Petia immediately asserting his possession over her by pushing his friend aside with the claim that she doesn’t like him. The boy’s horrified grandmother recognizes the child immediately as Liza, the daughter of the strict local prosecutor, and rushes to return her to her nanny. Subsequent scenes offer snippets of Petia and Liza growing up together intermixed with flashforwards to them performing a dance on stage with Petia as a puppeteer and Liza as his marionette and flashbacks to their rushed departure to St. Petersburg in order for Petia to attend puppeteering school and for Liza to escape her domineering father. Boris is never far away as he too journeys to St. Petersburg to become a psychiatrist and remains a devoted friend. The montage sequences continue to reveal Petia and Liza’s happy marriage, scenes of them performing together, their excitement over the arrival of their first child and the horror of the child’s death. Their young son dies not long after being born with “Angelman Sydrome,” also known, derogatively, as happy puppet syndrome, for the placid grin and jerking movements that individuals with this genetic disorder exhibit. After the baby’s death, the film slows down considerably to explore the impact of the loss of the child on Liza and to reveal the family legend that haunts her.
Liza becomes despondent upon the baby’s death and both she and Petia believe that they were cursed by her father because they defied his wishes and ran away. Another flashback reveals a scene in which Liza’s father tells the teenage Petia the story of the family of an innkeeper with a red-headed daughter who was cursed to give birth to children with Angelman Syndrome because of her defiance of her father. An image of Liza’s mother and a puppet created in the likeness of the innkeeper with a secret chamber (a womb) containing another puppet symbolizes the curse. This curse not only haunts the adult Liza, but weighs heavily on Petia who has devoted himself to creating and animating marionettes to look as authentic as possible. Petia and Liza live in a shabby apartment/workshop surrounded by intricately carved marionettes, dolls and props for Petia’s work. Through her portrayal of these inanimate, yet almost lifelike puppets hanging in their home, in Petia’s car and protruding out of his backpack Hazanov creates an atmosphere of mystery and intimacy that convinces even the most cynical viewer that perhaps there could be some truth to this tale. And certainly Liza and Petia’s willingness to latch onto this curse as an explanation for their child’s tragic disease makes sense in the context of the fraught relationship with her father and Petia’s career. It also reveals the unstable mental state the couple is pushed into amid their grief and guilt over the child’s death.
Liza, unable to return to her on-stage persona as Petia’s doll, enters a psychiatric hospital after she breaks down sobbing during a performance. Boris serves as her doctor and sounding board as she delves deeply into analyzing her marriage. It is in these conversations with Boris that the film is at its most interesting. Liza rails against Petia for treating her like his doll, his puppet. She claims that the baby’s death shattered the almost fantasy-like world they lived in, forcing Petia to see her as real, flawed woman, something she claims he finds impossible—to “think of [her] as a human being.” Liza’s words offer powerful metaphors for women in relationships in which they have lost their “self” and feel confined or controlled.
Indeed, as the loss of the baby has woken up the previously compliant Liza and caused her to assert herself with her husband, it plunges Petia into a deeper, more disturbing connection with his puppets. In a series of scenes which cut between Liza explaining her anxiety about her husband’s obsessive fixation with her as his “perfect doll,” Petia is shown in his workshop crafting a shockingly lifelike doll in the image of his wife. He sifts through close-up photographs of Liza’s individual body parts (her eyes, breasts, hair, thighs), crafting each detail of his creation, whom he names Alice, to match the real Liza exactly. Hazanov’s juxtaposition of Liza’s self-awakening and Petia’s disturbing reduction of her to a series of parts and simultaneous construction of the life-like Alice is made even creepier by her choice to cast Khamatova herself as her own body double, playing the role of Alice the doll. Thus, as Petia takes Alice on the road, performing the same dance he did with his wife, she is almost indistinguishable from the real-life Liza. This casting decision offers a brilliant depth to the Pygmalion subtext of the film and also doubles down on the metaphor of Liza as Petia’s puppet, making Alice an immediate and creepy addition to the narrative. It is no wonder that Liza is horrified when she returns home from the hospital after being “cured” to find that Alice has almost literally replaced her in her own home—particularly as Petia insists on communicating with Alice as if she were a real person and speaks of their relationship in terms of “us” and “ours.”
Liza remains jealous of Alice as her presence is a reminder of Petia’s disconnection from reality and his increasing decent into the imaginary world of his art. After witnessing the passion Petia demonstrates for the doll on stage, Liza experiences another breakdown, returning to the psychiatric hospital. This latest break has revealed to Liza that she needs to divorce Petia if she wants to be free of his confining and increasingly twisted love. However, upon returning home from the hospital, Petia lies and tells Liza that Alice was broken during a performance and is no longer with them. He also reveals that while perusing an antique shop he found the innkeeper puppet from her father’s tale of the family curse, complete with its hidden secret of a baby puppet inside (also a lie). The superstitious Liza feels restored by this discovery and she and Petia share a passionate night of intimacy.
Their newfound love is challenged when Liza discovers Petia has not in fact destroyed Alice, but is continuing to perform with her. In a jarring scene, Petia is shown performing on stage with what we think (and he thinks) is Alice, when mid-way through the dance it is revealed that it is in fact Liza, reprising her role. Both the audience and Petia are caught in a moment of suspended animation as we wonder whether this is indeed the living Liza or if Alice has come to life (something the narrative has hinted at loosely throughout the film). It is only when Liza flees the stage that we are sure it is really her. Petia chases her home to find her sitting on the floor next to a dismembered Alice. A crushed and distraught Petia in comforted only when Liza reveals triumphantly that she has achieved what the inanimate Alice never could: she is pregnant.
The film’s denouement shows Liza, happily cooing over her daughter, a remarkably doll-like baby with flaming hair to match her mother’s. Petia is shown walking home through a carnivalesque street fair populated with stalls of puppets, performers and eventually surrounded by fantastical figures on stilts, goading him, surrounding him, leading him and eventually disappearing and leaving only a giant puppet of a red-headed woman being burnt in effigy.
The film’s ending leaves one with mixed feelings about Liza’s happiness with motherhood and her willingness to succumb to her role as Petia’s muse. Any feminist subtext of her journey is squashed by the scene which depicts her aglow in white, an almost angel-like mother doting on her baby and having lost her will to fight against Petia’s oppressive love. And while the effigy is perhaps meant to symbolize the death of Alice, Petia’s dreamlike journey through the carnival of puppets and fantasy figures reveals that his character remains steeped in his self-created fantasy world in which he is the master puppeteer.
Emily Schuckman Matthews
San Diego State University
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Dadykina, Ol’ga. 2015. “‘Sindrom Petrushki’: retsenziia FashionTime.ru”. FashionTime 4 November.
The Puppet Syndrome, Russia/Switzerland/Germany, 2015
Director: Elena Hazanov
Screenplay: Alena Alova
Music: Nicolas Rabaeus
Cinematography: Aziz Zhambakiev
Production Design: Natal’ia Navoenko
Cast: Chulpan Khamatova, Evgenii Mironov, Merab Ninidze
Producers: Il’ia Gavrilov, Aleksandr Novin, Dmitrii Aronin, Asia Temnikova, Elena Bren’kova, Anna Kachko, Evgenii Mironov
Production: Studio Tretii Rim
Elena Hazanov: The Puppet Syndrome (Sindrom Petrushki, 2015)
reviewed by Emily Schuckman Matthews © 2016