Issue 54 (2016)

Arsenii Gonchukov: The Last Night (Posledniaia noch’, 2015)

reviewed by Dane Reighard© 2016

last nightArsenii Gonchukov is nothing if not prolific. Since 2012 the writer-director-producer (and occasional poet, playwright, and documentarian) has released four feature films and a web series, all without the help of state funding. Essentially a one-man cottage industry, Gonchukov has made a name for himself on the film festival circuit while remaining true to his personal manifesto denouncing commercial cinema in the name of artistic integrity.

The filmmaker’s latest work, The Last Night (Posledniaia noch’), depicts the final days of a celebrated oncologist who had been so preoccupied with treating his patients’ cancer that he failed to detect the disease spreading inside his own body. The production’s miniscule budget is evident throughout, yet the formal minimalism on display registers as a deliberate thematic choice as much as a necessary concession to financial constraints. As Ivan (Evgenii Krylov) struggles to come to terms with his impending death and attempts to tie up the loose ends of his personal life, Gonchukov maintains an elegiac tone (aided by Stanislav Polesko’s somber if occasionally cloying piano score) and languid pace throughout the brief running time. Interiors are sparsely decorated, and the few elements of mise-en-scène that call attention to themselves are often distractingly obvious in their symbolic import: a large hourglass on Ivan’s desk, pumpkins on a window sill with autumn leaves falling outside, and no shortage of mirrors in which the protagonist literally and repeatedly faces his own mortality.

last nightThe film begins on the day of Ivan’s funeral but flashes back after the opening credits to proceed chronologically towards his inevitable death. The middle-aged Ivan is shown enjoying breakfast with his young mistress (Marina Kaletskaia), though we do not learn until later that he has a wife and children. He rebukes the girl for addressing him as “Daddy” (papushka), revealing his discomfort with aging or with having his extramarital lover act like a daughter figure. Next, Ivan is working at the hospital when, moments after declaring to a journalist that the length of one’s life is irrelevant if it is lived purposefully, he receives test results confirming his cancer diagnosis. Enraged at the news, he demands an oath of secrecy from his secretary (Anastasiia Velikorodnaia) and the lab technician, the only others who know of his illness. Though he confides in his best friend (Georgii Martirosian), whose devastation is tinged with anger over Ivan’s failure to detect his own cancer, he soon returns home to his family but neglects to share the news. This series of scenes establishes Ivan as a complex and not entirely sympathetic character, a man who has dedicated his professional life to saving lives but who is irritable, short-tempered, and dishonest in his personal relationships.

last nightAs both a character study and a meditation on death, though, The Last Night ultimately proves more frustrating than thought-provoking. Gonchukov’s aspirations are undeniably ambitious, given the illustrious tradition of Russian works of art about death and dying. The film repeatedly evokes The Death of Ivan Ilyich, from its narrative structure (beginning with a funeral before presenting the character’s life and the circumstances of his death) to its protagonists’ name; but Gonchukov’s dispassionate approach lacks the palpable urgency, the constant groping for Truth, that characterize Tolstoy’s novella. After receiving his diagnosis, Ivan spends much of the film alone, wandering the city or gazing wistfully out of windows to underscore his perceived sense of isolation. Such long stretches of inaction might have proven illuminating if Gonchukov had conjured the visual poetry necessary for suggesting the inner life of a silent character, but the camera remains steadfastly objective and the imagery more televisual than cinematic. Any significant metaphysical exploration of death via film semiotics, perhaps exemplified best by Aleksandr Sokurov’s nearly dialogue-free Mother and Son, is absent in favor of platitudes like the film’s tag line: “A man is given only one life. And only one love.”

last nightYet as The Last Night’s all-too-brief opening scene proves, Gonchukov is capable of purely visual storytelling. The initial tableau is striking: a bright red open casket lies in the back of a moving bus, flanked by flower bouquets and silent mourners in black winter clothes, and a ray of sunlight penetrates the back window. The camera then zooms in on a young man (Aleksei Liubimov), who slowly removes his coat and places it over the face of the deceased. Finally, the face of a woman (Daniela Stoianovich) is shown in close-up, her eyes red from tears though she is no longer crying. While the sequence is intrinsically captivating, it acquires its full significance only at the film’s end when we learn that these characters are the deceased’s son and widow; at this point we do not even know who the deceased is.

last nightIn the second act of the film Ivan experiences a coughing spell just as he is about to board a plane for a business trip. Abandoning his plans, he instead takes a train to Nizhnii Novgorod to drop in on a former lover (Mariia Surova), who has a family of her own. Though they share a romantic evening culminating in sex, she abruptly leaves him the following day. Ivan then travels to his childhood hometown, where he disturbs the current tenants of his former apartment in a fit of drunken nostalgia. After calling his wife to apologize for his prolonged absence, he flies to Anapa and finally dies on the shore of the Black sea.

The consequences of Ivan’s decision to hide his illness from his family and to omit them entirely from his final days are reflected in the faces and actions of his son and wife in the opening scene. The former cannot bear even to look upon his father, and the latter expresses a range of conflicting emotions without uttering a word. Yet despite the tacit judgment passed by Ivan’s family, the remainder of the film fails to justify his behavior as anything other than selfish capriciousness. If Gonchukov’s intention was to undermine the very idea of the search for a Tolstoyan epiphany in the face of death, then it stands at odds with the pervasive sentimental tone. Indeed, a more secular-minded film would not shy away from addressing the harsh and often ugly physical effects of late-stage cancer, which are represented here only by occasional bouts of coughing. That Ivan retains his stamina and leading-man good looks until the end further supports the unfortunate conclusion that The Last Night was conceived as a tragic love story in an existential drama’s clothing.

Dane Reighard
University of California-Los Angeles

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The Last Night, Russia, 2015
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Arsenii Gonchukov
Screenplay: Arsenii Gonchukov
Cinematographer: Konstantin Rassolov
Music: Stanislav Polesko
Producers: Arsenii Gonchukov, Galina Kurochkina, Nataliia Makarova, Ol’ga Panina, Il’ia Tsofin
Cast: Evgenii Krylov, Mariia Surova, Daniela Stoianovich, Nataliia Vdovina, Georgii Martirosian, Anastasiia Velikorodnaia, Marina Kaletskaia, Aleksei Maslodudov, Aleksei Liubimov

Arsenii Gonchukov: The Last Night (Posledniaia noch’, 2015)

reviewed by Dane Reighard© 2016

Updated: 12 Oct 16