Issue 54 (2016)
Daniil Zinchenko: Elixir (Eliksir, 2015)
reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2016
Daniil Zinchenko’s Elixir screened in the Forum section of the 66th Berlinale, and it is not the first film produced by CineFantom to be presented in Berlin. The festival has long since engaged with experimental filmmaking in Russia, as represented by CineFantom, and offers a sound platform for alternative film-making. Thus, in previous years the festival presented For Marx (Za Marksa, 2013) by Svetlana Baskova, and Embroideress (Vyshival’shchitsa, 2015) by “Liusia Matveeva”, a pseudonym for the photographer Liudmila Zinchenko. This is the debut film of Daniil Zinchenko, also a professional photographer, as well a video-artist and artist.
Elixir begins with what seems like a ritual: in a swimming pool surrounded by bodyguard holding torches, a man in a black suit submerges another man in white clothes, who professes not to believe in “the miracle.” The man in white has been long awaited and functions a messiah. He apparently knows the secret of the forest people, namely how to turn water into oil. As the dead body floats back to the surface, the pool fills with not with blood, but a black liquid: oil (even though it mixes too easily with water). The film cuts here to the opening credits. What follows seems to be an explanation for this opening scene, offering in a flashback providing the reasons that brought the man in white into this situation. The film weaves together several stories until the plot emerges, even though this remains mysterious and blurred throughout, and in many ways is secondary. The lack of a clear plotline is compensated by structures of the fairy tale, which revolves around a journey.
In the following, several groups of characters are shown erring in the forest, initially without any connection to each other and without a clear link to the prologue. First, there are three soldiers on a forest clearing: two men, who belong to the same “Zaevsk” squadron, Petr and Grisha; they are commander and communications officer and find a third man, who is injured (he has been shot in the legs): he can be identified as the man who has just been drowned in the pool. Petr and Grisha carry him away, out of the danger zone where the enemy might intercept them. They err through the forest, without clear memory and without a sense of time. They are in a swamp, where trees frequently fall around them.
A second plotline involves two men on a cemetery: one, a gardener-scientist, digs up the soil and tastes the remains it harbors. He concludes that those who are buried here have lived a slow life and sends the second man, Seraphim, for DNA samples of cosmonauts and partisans, as well as from the ominous HIM, so that he can create an elixir. The purpose of this substance is to revitalize and revive the people, and stop the population from being extinguished. Seraphim composes a letter in verse and recites it, before passing it to a courier, who moves through space seemingly just by uttering wild screams.
In another plotline, a female cosmonaut “Seagull” and a female partisan “Seagull” (Chaika) meet with Seraphim in the forest. Seagull the cosmonaut is in search of the landing capsule that is somewhere in the swamp, and that contains the only link and possible contact with the mission centre in Moscow. The two women both eye Seraphim as a potential father of a child that could save the human race from extinction, before their biological clock ticks over. Seraphim takes samples of the cosmonaut and the partisan by cutting their pubic hair, a scene shown in extreme close-up, which makes the act look like the chopping of trees or cutting of grass. The courier arrives with news and delivers messages, while at the cemetery the graves are being lit up mysteriously by flashes and lightning.
A further plotline concerns a man, the ominous savior, who lies in a candle-lit cave. He claims that the end of his life is near and that wishes to die in his coffin, yet he is called to the surface of the earth when Anna Timofeevna, who attends to him and cleans the damp space, reads him a letter that his DNA is needed for the elixir. Indeed, the theme of the dampness of the soil (swamp, forest, bogs) is a dominant one, and it is complemented by the images of the water in the pool and in the river, both signifying death. And whilst the soldier dying of bullet wounds is healed by the cosmonaut-nurse, the men all perish: only the two Seagulls survive and give birth at the film’s end, to children fathered presumably by Seraphim. Their survival is anticipated by a letter they read to an imaginary son, imagined in the comic space and visually represented by a red cloud in the nocturnal starry sky.
Two men in suits, associated with the man in black from the prologue, take prisoner one of the forest people whom they throw into a well and who is later interrogated. They are apparently the “enemy” trying to disclose the secret of turning water into oil—the power that keeps the Russian economy afloat (or not, depending on the oil price). Later in the film, the healed soldier surrenders to the men in an attempt to save the people from drowning in the river. These arrests are the prelude to the scene from the prologue, ending with the killing of the assumed “messiah.”
Almost three quarters through the film, the hitherto loose narrative lines come together and lead in fast moves towards the end—reminiscent indeed of the structure and rhythm of Petr Lutsik’s Outskirts (Okraina, 1998), which Zinchenko had not seen at the time of making, as he professed in an interview (Muminova 2016). The soldiers leave the injured man behind, to be cured by the medically trained cosmonaut Seagull, only for him to sacrifice himself; the interrogation leads to death; the scientist destroys his test tubes and papers. In the meantime, HE has been reunited with the space capsule and sends signals, thus reuniting with the Seagulls and the soldiers. The signals are intercepted, and the people trapped: they are doomed to perish in the river, yet saved through the healed soldier’s self-sacrifice. In a clear inversion to the fairy tale, water stands for death and not for life; water is synonymous with oil that suffocated the people—with all the references to contemporary Russian society that ensue.
The final images are that of a happy ending, of rebirth and resurrection—without the elixir. The landscape is covered in snow, and the people, along with mummers, march into the open fields. The two women, cosmonaut and partisan, both go into labor, about to give birth to a new generation. No elixir is needed to bring the people back to live and generate births. Figuratively speaking, life on earth may end, but there will be rebirth and regeneration, there is hope nevertheless. This hopeful ending is visually rendered with beautiful crane shots of the people marching in the innocent and pure white of snowy expanses. The delicate imagery highlights well Zinchenko’s background as an artist, whose work has been nominated for awards, including the Kandinsky Prize.
The forest, replete with birch trees, seems to be an image of collective memory, of a different axis of reading time that a horizontal one (Muminova 2016). Time here is measured against cosmic space (not unlike the idea represented, albeit in a comedic manner, by Konstantin Khabenskii’s character in Good Boy [Khoroshii mal’chik, 2016]). The trunks of the birch trees may turn red as if bleeding from injury; the trees may simply fall—both a natural phenomenon in bogs but also a symbolic image for a broken link of the vertical axis; and the forest is populated by mummers, who seem to lead the people out of the forest, where existence occurs in a temporal vacuum.
Throughout the film, Zinchenko—consciously or unconsciously—refers to pagan rituals and superstitions, and draws in the richness of the landscape of his native Siberia. Moreover, he seems to draw on the visuals of films from the mockumentary tradition, such as Aleksei Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon (Pervye na lune, 2005) or Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (Nebesnye zheny lugovykh Mari, 2012) with reverence and simultaneous mockery of rituals, but also to the films of the necro-realists, especially the film of Evgenii Iufit, in which Zinchenko made his acting debut back in the 1990s (see Muminova 2016).
Overall, this is an intriguing debut film that skillfully plays with universal notions of time and memory and concise references to contemporary society; that uses delicately invokes visual references (one might even like to think of the bog in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood) and created new, poetically infused images; and that balances well the absence of a clear narrative with fairy-tale elements, which also allows for the happy ending (despite all narrative odds).
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Muminova, Nelli. 2016. "Daniil Zinchenko: 'Esli etot fil'm zapustit' po krugu, kheppiendy budut prodolzhat'sia beskonechno , kak i bselennaia'." (Interview). O-Kul'ture 17 March.
Elixir, Russia 2015
Color, 80 min.,·DCP
Director, Scriptwriter: Daniil Zinchenko
DoP Aleksandr Tananov
Editing Daniil Zinchenko
Music Maria Fedina
Sound Design Andrei Gurianov, Anton Kuryshev
Production Design Grigorii Selskii
Costume Design Anastasia Nefedova
Producers Andrei Silvestrov (CineCooperation), Tikhon Pendurin (Cosmosfilm), Gleb Aleinikov (Cine Fantom)
Cast: Aleksandr Gorelov, Nikolai Kopeikin, Grigorii Selskii, Dmitrii Zhuravlev, Victoria Maksimova, Anna Alekseeva, Sergei Frolov, Oleg Rudenko-Travin, Viktor Khorkin, Anastasia Chupakhina,
Produktion: CineCooperation, Cosmosfilm, Cine Fantom
Daniil Zinchenko: Elixir (Eliksir, 2015)
reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2016