Issue 53 (2016)
Andrei Proshkin: Orlean (2015)
reviewed by Olga Mesropova, Thomas Waldemer© 2016
Based on veteran scriptwriter Iurii Arabov’s eponymous 2011 novel, Orlean is the second cinematic collaboration between director Andrei Proshkin and Arabov (following their 2012 film, The Horde). Jointly produced by the TNT television network and the government-sponsored Cinema Fund (Fond Kino), Orlean was the subject of a major promotional TV campaign, well before its theatrical release, that promised future viewers nothing less than a “Master and Margarita of our time.” While Bulgakovian subtexts are indeed interwoven throughout the film’s narrative (including an enigmatic bow-tie wearing protagonist, a mysterious “W” on an office building, and the film’s own version of a grotesque “variety show”), Orlean is a peculiar philosophical parable filled with black humor and kitschy aesthetics. Featuring the tagline “Phantasmagoria of Sin,” the film—according to its director Proshkin—poses such timeless questions as “what is humanity?” and “what makes us all human?” (Kornatskii 2015).
Following Arabov’s novel, Proshkin’s film takes place in the provincial town of Orlean, whose bleak portrayal suggests a sort of post-Soviet purgatory. Wind-swept and barren, Orlean features a garbage dump, a dilapidated hospital / abortion clinic, an abandoned gas station, and a circus “big top” for a rag-tag troupe of performers who, luckily for them, are probably just passing through this wasteland. Among this sad hamlet’s inhabitants are the surgeon, Rudik (Oleg Iagodin), who, when not performing abortions, is seducing women; the doctor’s hair-stylist lover, Lidka (Elena Liadova), a single mother and serial patron of Rudik’s clinic; the corrupt, scar-faced local police chief, Nevolin (Vitalii Khaev) and a circus magician who “saws in half citizens of the Russian Federation.” The key character is the mysterious ekzekutor, Pavliuchik (Viktor Sukhorukov) who assumes human forms but appears to be a walking allegory representing either a force of supernatural retribution or the personification of the other characters’ guilty consciences.
The film begins and ends in Orlean’s garbage dump. The opening scene presents a shot of a fly-blown tent as police chief Nevolin and his assistants, all dressed in shabby civilian clothes, investigate a gruesome crime scene: a bloody, legless female corpse. (We learn later that the woman is a victim of a local circus act where the magician saws people in half with no intention for ever putting them back together). At the end of this first scene Nevolin retrieves a chair from the dump and places it at the entrance to the town. Nevolin then gives one of his assistants a “very important” assignment: to keep an eye out to see if anybody appears and sits in the chair. As we will learn later, the policeman, a self-acknowledged anti-Semite, has read an article about the coming of Moshiah (Messiah) in a Jewish newspaper. Nevolin’s rather naïve, literal reading of this story inspires him to provide a chair where Moshiah can rest before he enters Orlean and renders divine judgment on the townsfolk.
While Nevolin awaits Moshiah, it is the ekzekutor (perhaps playing more the role of an executor than an executioner) who becomes the moralizing axis around which the sinners of Orlean orbit. (One can’t help but wonder if the ekzekutor is the Messiah and nobody realizes it). As the ekzekutor badgers the town’s malefactors into accepting (and self-inflicting) punishments for their many turpitudes, the unholy trio of Lidka, Rudik, and Nevolin attempts to slay their unshakable and indestructible tormentor.
The ekzekutor is particularly focused on punishing the practice of abortion. (A strong and none-too-subtle anti-abortion theme is present throughout the film). In this vein, when we first see the surgeon Rudik, he is in mid-operation, removing a fetus from Lidka (whom he has presumably impregnated). The scene is graphic and callous as Rudik surgically removes, bit by bloody bit, fetal body parts while taking a bite from an ice cream popsicle extended by the attending nurse. Rudik is portrayed as a soulless, womanizing egoist, who is hounded by the ekzekutor for a trifecta of sin: abortion, adultery, and lack of filial piety. Towards the end of the film, after Rudik believes that he and his cohorts have finally eliminated the ekzekutor, the surgeon expresses a sense of remorse; not for the crime of murder, but rather because life has become boring without his nemesis. However, when the ekzekutor reappears alive and kicking, Rudik snaps. It seems the good doctor can no longer bear to see or hear this constant reminder of his own evil. As the ekzekutor begins to hound him, Rudik stuffs his ears with candle wax and retires to his operating room, where—in a scene reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s shockingly graphic visuals—he stitches his own eyes shut.
Throughout the film the ekzekutor also harasses the policeman Nevolin for the latter’s corruption and criminality (for example Nevolin suppresses evidence against the murderous circus magician in exchange for the latter agreeing to kill the ekzekutor). Nevolin’s attempts to liquidate the ekzekutor prove to be just as futile as Rudik’s, and the policeman ultimately resigns himself to a force he cannot conquer, namely his own guilty conscience. Near the end of the film Nevolin hands over his post to a random criminal suspect (who “can do the job as well as he can”), removes his uniform, and nonchalantly enters a jail cell to begin serving an indeterminate sentence.
Lidka appears to be the ekzekutor’s prime target and his condemnation of her is particularly pointed, especially when he accuses Lidka of having undergone enough abortions to “fill a kindergarten class.” The film’s viewers also know that Lidka neglects and abuses her only son. Nevertheless, while Lidka willingly participates in the trio’s attempts to murder the ekzekutor, she may be the one sinner in this bunch who is capable of redemption. In one of the film’s final scenes, as Lidka escapes from the horrific scene of Rudik’s self-mutilation, she finds comfort in the embrace of an innocent teenager. This rendez-vous results in Lidka’s instantaneous impregnation and she joyously laughs at the realization of this miracle. Here we are presented with another clearly didactic message. By happily accepting her pregnancy, Lidka appears to have transcended the unrelenting despondency of her previous existence and seems to have an epiphany: motherhood is good.
The film’s final scene revisits the city’s garbage dump, where the police assistant is patiently keeping watch on the chair that Nevolin has stationed in anticipation of Moshiah’s arrival. As the camera follows the view through the policeman’s binoculars, we see the coming of, no, not the hoped-for Messiah, but rather a circus monkey dressed in coat and tie. One wonders: is this the director’s take on Godot? Does this finale, oozing with sarcasm and kitsch, suggest that not a single soul in Orlean is worth redeeming? Or has the ekzekutor simply accomplished his mission in Orlean: the sinners have all been punished and there are no saints left to salvage? As the credits roll the sound track seems to suggest an answer. A song from the “Tiger Lilies,” the British dark cabaret group, whose music punctuates the film, chimes in with the lyrics “Well goodbye to the good, goodbye to the just [….] evil rules the day.”
In addition to its rather unconventional (albeit moralistic) narrative, Orlean is filled with Arabov’s trademark witty, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, quirky mise-en-scène, and outstanding acting (Liadova won the “Best Actress” award at the 37th Moscow International Film Festival in 2015 for her role of Lidka). A thought-provoking tale, the film ultimately leaves viewers wondering whether they have seen an expression of profound disillusionment with contemporary society or a more sweeping, cynical mockery of the human condition itself.
Olga Mesropova, Thomas Waldemer
Iowa State University
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Kornatskii, Nikolai (2015). Interview with Andrei Proshkin “U nas byla zadacha sdelat’ kino ‘durnogo vkusa.’” Izvestiia, June 24.
Orlean, Russia, 2015
Color, 110 mins.
Director: Andrei Proshkin
Scriptwriter: Iurii Arabov
Cinematography: Iurii Raiskii
Cast: Oleg Iagodin, Elena Liadova, Viktor Sukhorukov, Vitalii Khaev, Timofei Tribuntsev, Pavel Tabakov
Producers: Igor’ Mishin, Nataliia Gostiushina
Costume design: Dmitrii Andreev, Vladimir Nikiforov
Production: Aksioma Media, STN-Film, April Mig Pictures
Andrei Proshkin: Orlean (2015)
reviewed by Olga Mesropova, Thomas Waldemer© 2016