Issue 52 (2016)

Marina Migunova: Mirrors (Zerkala, 2013)

reviewed by Åsne Ø. Høgetveit© 2016

“Since she wrote most of her finest poetry in emigration, Marina Tsvetaeva (1892–1941) has not yet received the renown she deserves;” this is how Evelyn Bristol introduces Marina Tsvetaeva in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature. And this, one might presume, could also serve as a motivation for Russian filmmakers to portray the poet and writer Marina Tsvetaeva to a contemporary Russian audience.

zerkalaThe historical figure of Marina Tsvetaeva was born at the turn of the century, in 1892, into a creative family: her father was a professor of graphic arts and her mother a pianist. During her childhood and teenage years she lived in Moscow, but also, due to her mother’s illness, the family spent periods of time in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. At 16, Tsvetaeva took a course at the Sorbonne in Paris. Looking into her biography, one gets the impression of a highly educated, intelligent and resourceful woman, who socialized and corresponded with other influential contemporary artists such as Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke. After meeting each other in the summer of 1911, Tsvetaeva and Sergei Efron were married in January 1912. They had a turbulent marriage, and Tsvetaeva had several affairs; they had three children: the first daughter, Ariadna, arrived in September 1912; Irina was born in 1917 (she tragically died in 1920 during a famine); and Georgii (nicknamed Mur) was born in 1925.

zerkalaTsvetaeva started writing mostly poems, but after 1930 she wrote more prose, on themes related to mythology and folklore, love and mental states. During her adult life, she seems to have been writing constantly: fifteen collections of poems are linked to her name, in addition to several long poems, essays and other works. In short, there is much both in Tsvetaeva’s life and in her writing that would inspire later storytellers to introduce her to a larger audience.

Mirrors is director Marina Migunova’s eighth feature film. After graduating as a physician in 1988, she changed her profession and started working in an advertising agency in 1995. Subsequently she took a Master’s degree in film directing at the renown Film Institute VGIK. After her graduation in 1999 she directed a total of eight feature films and four TV series. In Mirrors Viktoria Isakova plays the lead role of Marina Tsvetaeva, a part for which she received the prize for Best Actress at the Film Festival “Premiera”.

zerkala The film opens with a scene on a beach in Koktebel, during the spring of 1911. The symbolist poet Maksimilian Voloshin (Andrei Dement’ev) had a dacha in Koktebel, where he invited, among others, Marina Tsvetaeva to spend some time during the summer. The young and lively Tsvetaeva watches a play performed at the beach about the Greek mythological character Medea. In one scene, Medea receives news from a messenger that her husband Jason knows she poisoned the princess Glauce as revenge for Jason leaving Medea in favor of Glauce. Medea then plans to flee, but first she kills her young children, while announcing that it is better she kills them, since she once gave them life. Then she dramatically kills herself. Tsvetaeva was bewitched by the messenger, a young man with a significant mole on his right cheek. As Medea falls dead on the beach, Tsvetaeva ran after the messenger, only to find that he had vanished; the only creature she sees in a cave is a butterfly. It turns out no one knows the young man who played the messenger, and Tsvetaeva would soon forget him. The scene led to Tsvetaeva’s first meeting with her future husband Sergei Efron (Roman Polianskii); from that point on, the film revolves mainly around their relationship, and the relationship between Tsvetaeva and her children.

zerkalaThe timeline in the film coincides with Tsvetaeva’s literary life: in 1911 she had just published her first book, and it ends with her death in 1941. The film is divided into three parts, including a prologue. Each part condensed time and shows a glimpse of Tsvetaeva’s life at the given moment. First we meet the young, lively, almost naïve Tsvetaeva at Koktebel in the spring of 1911. This prologue is simply called “Sergei and Marina”. Then, in Part I, called “Flesh and Soul”, we leap forward to the summer of 1922 in Prague, where they stay until January 1925. This part circles around Tsvetaeva’s and Efron’s marriage, her affair with Konstantin Rodzevich (Viktor Dobronravov), and her pregnancy with Mur. Next follows Part II in Paris, in the early winter of 1937. This is the year when Ariadna (Aleksandra Moshkova) decided to return to the Soviet Union, and Efron took part as an NKVD agent in the assassination of the former NKVD spy Ignace Reiss (in the film they use his alias Poretsky). In Part III Tsvetaeva is back in the Soviet Union, living in an NKVD-dacha during the summer of 1939. She is shown as having tantrums and breaking into tears just minutes before Ariadna is arrested by the NKVD. Then Tsvetaeva and Mur are evacuated to a small village. The final part ends in the autumn of 1941, when Tsvetaeva commits suicide and Efron is executed.

zerkalaTowards the end of the film, when Tsvetaeva and Mur have emigrated, and Ariadna and Efron are imprisoned, Tsvetaeva receives a visitor, or rather a messenger. It is the very same person as Medea’s messenger on the beach, with the same big mole on his cheek. He says he is from the government and hands her the news of Efron’s death sentence. That is when Tsvetaeva unties the rope that holds her suitcase together, and hangs herself in the hall. After that Efron is shown, beaten and crippled in prison, waiting for his death sentence to be carried out. But with a surprised smile, he notices a butterfly in the cell, which gently lands on his cheek.

A big part of the film takes place in the various apartments where Tsvetaeva and her family lived during their émigré years. Common features of these places are the colors—dark, shades of brown and grey—and size—they are quite small and uncomfortable. The standard of the houses keeps worsening throughout the film. This deepens the impression of the family’s harsh life, which may be part of the motivation for Ariadna and Efron to return to the Soviet Union. But for Ariadna’s part, the film also shows how the relationship with her mother motivated her to leave.

zerkalaTsvetaeva is not presented as a loving and affectionate mother. She seems ignorant towards her children and their needs: the 12-year old Mur says he is hungry and Tsvetaeva doesn’t seem to hear him, often jealous, when Ariadna receives a present from Tsvetaeva’s future lover. At the same time there is no doubt that the children are important to her and that she does not wish to be separated from them. Tsvetaeva’s relationship with Efron is presented in a similar way: she is cold and cruel to him at times, but at other times she makes it clear that she loves him, and that she cannot live without him. In the autumn of 1924 she is pregnant with Mur: she and Efron are shown in bed, and she asks him to read for her. As the mood changes from a close and intimate tone to a more hostile one, the camera angle changes and we see that they are in fact not sharing a bed: they sleep in single beds with a gap between them. Efron is shown as trying to care for her, and trying to answer all her needs. At the same time he gets frustrated and hurt by her whims and her cruel and selfish acts.

zerkalaMigunova has chosen to concentrate on Tsvetaeva’s relationship with her husband, her lover Konstantin, and her children. But most of all she focuses on Tsvetaeva’s character, which resembles the stereotypical difficult female artist. Tsvetaeva is shown as controlling and manipulating, even if one gets the impression that this is not always what she wants to do or how she wants to be. It is almost as if she can’t help hurting the people around her. She keeps walking into traffic and getting confused and disoriented by everyday noise, such as heels clicking on the floor or a bell ringing. She gets lost outside a shop window looking at papers and notebooks; she forgets to eat, and then forgets the food she is cooking. In this Tsvetaeva is shown as not being in control of herself, or being able to look after herself. Even when Efron walks in on her and Konstantin naked, romantically wrapped in front of the fireplace, she struggles to take control over the situation, but is out-manoeuvred by the old war-buddies trying to smooth over the embarrassing encounter.

All in all my sympathy in the film goes towards Efron and Adriana more than Tsvetaeva. It doesn’t seem as if Migunova is trying to make the audience understand Tsvetaeva’s perspective on her own life and actions. So for Tsvetaeva one is left with a sense of pity. Perhaps Migunova is trying to present Tsvetaeva as a sort of “holy fool”, a genius struggling to function and be understood in the world, but who nonetheless is able to describe the world in ingenious ways through her poetry.

Åsne Ø. Høgetveit
University of Tromsø (Arctic University of Norway)

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Works Cited

Moser, Charles A. (ed.) 1992. The Cambridge History of Russian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Mirrors, Russia, 2013
Director: Marina Migunova
Screenplay: Iurii Arabov, Anastasiia Sarkisian
Music: Aleksei Aygi
Cinematography: Sergei Machilskii
Production Design: Andrei Osadchii
Cast: Viktoriia Isakova, Roman Polianskii, Viktor Dobronravov, Aleksandra Moshkova, Evgenii Kniazev.
Producers: Marina Migunova, Anna Kaminskaia, Anton Zlatopolskii
Production: Cinelab Production

Marina Migunova: Mirrors (Zerkala, 2013)

reviewed by Åsne Ø. Høgetveit© 2016

Updated: 21 May 16