Issue 55 (2017)
Misha Holod: The Pessimist (Pessimist, 2016)
reviewed by Denis Saltykov© 2017
The names from the credits of The Pessimist are completely unfamiliar to the majority of film viewers. For its creators, this feature is a debut in cinema. The Pessimist is directed by Misha Holod, who holds a diploma in clinical psychology and who does not like talking to journalists (Iakushevich 2016). Being completely independent from state funding and big production companies, Holod followed an auteur approach and made the film as a kind of specific personal expression. His description of the film is quite eloquent: “The Pessimist film is me, myself. […] By creating it, I’m opening my arms for you and inviting you to my world” (quoted in Vishnevskaia 2016). Holod’s cast consists of four people: the Honored Artist of Russia, Tat’iana Tkach; a theater actor from Novosibirsk, Konstantin Telegin; a student, Mariia Krushcheva; and an actress from the Alexandrinsky Theater, Mariia Zimina. The producer Pafnutii Roshchin also has a background in stage acting. The Pessimist is thus an ambitious theatrical intervention in Russian art cinema.
The film presents a story of three characters set in Saint Petersburg. Film director Misha has just split up with his wife and rents an apartment. His new neighbor is an aged woman, Nina Il’inichna, a retired physicist, still attractive, accurate and interesting to talk to. Misha decides to make a new friend and asks her to teach him to play chess. Meanwhile, Nina Il’inichna’s granddaughter Zhenia quits university in Moscow and moves to Saint Petersburg, seeking her wise grandmother’s support and advice. Misha starts a romantic relationship with the young girl, whilst continuing his friendship with the grandmother. As a filmmaker, he is inspired by both women and starts working on a new film. The women are flattered, but jealous of each other. Seeing this, Misha provokes a deeper conflict that stimulates his work. While Zhenia and Nina Il’inichna have painful arguments with each other, Misha integrates these features into one character and starts a relationship with his new actress.
One of The Pessimist’s first scenes shows Misha’s acquaintance with Nina Il’inichna. She is supposed mediate between the apartment owner and the new tenant. After the greeting, the woman declares: “The entrance hall is clean.” She uses the word paradnaia, which is a distinctive feature of the speech of Saint Petersburg’s intelligentsia. Nina Il’inichna shows the apartment and describes everything, using a clear language, perfectly formulated phrases without grammatical mistakes or gap-fillers. Misha replies in the same way. It is clear that we hear a dialogue between well-educated people. “Are you Vasia’s grandmother?” asks Misha. “Perish the thought! I’m just a neighbor,” replies Nina Il’inichna immediately without even taking a short pause to formulate her answer. The conversation seems to be staged after a long rehearsal, as if all the lines had been learnt by heart by skilled professional actors. Eventually, the woman’s breath gets labored, and this is also not just accidental evidence that these are actually real human beings talking to each other. When Misha has persuaded Nina Il’inichna to let him move in before paying, the woman dramatically leans her back against the wall, raises her left hand and slides down, losing consciousness. This is an explicit sign of a nascent weakness in heroine’s body and spirit. The acting is over-exaggerated, though, and it complements the effect of artificiality already created by the robotic dialogues.
The makers of The Pessimist did not hide the fact that they were inspired by Ingmar Bergman (Iakushevich 2016), which reveals itself in the choice of characters (intellectuals of different ages, including an elderly one), a thematic emphasis on family conflict (between Zhenia and her grandmother), but also in the film’s visual style. The static camera combined with many close-ups to concentrate on people’s emotions is complemented by the 3x4 frame format, which strengthens the portrait-like quality of the screen image. What is different from Bergman’s style is the theatrical acting. When combined with close-ups, it creates the effect of ongoing hysteria, eliminating the cinematic potential for a realistic depiction of a psychological drama. There is an episode in the middle of the film where Zhenia complains to her grandmother about her sufferings in the relationship with Misha. Nina Il’inichna laughs at this manifestation of the young woman’s weakness. Then Zhenia ends her speech, telling grandmother with a dramatic face: “I envy you. Because you don’t need to suffer anymore.” The granddaughter leaves and another close-up depicts Nina Il’inichna’s face shifting from laughter to an expressive pain. While the artistic performance of Tat’iana Tkach is good for theater, it is excessive in a close-up.
The question remains which audience Holod’s film tries to reach: here the answer is obvious, since all the characters are representatives of the conservative Saint Petersburg intelligentsia. Even Zhenia leaves her university in Moscow to return to the city of her childhood. At the same time, the characteristic feature of the film’s plot is its complete isolation from the world—both from the modern material goods and from Russia’s social and political context. All three characters speak without dialect, and even swear-words are rare and, when they are used, they seem old-fashioned. Nina Il’inichna calls Misha tiukhtia, an old and rare Russian word for a clumsy man. Everyone dresses in a modest conservative fashion, the interiors look the same; we never see Misha working on a laptop, the TV is always turned off, and cell phones are used only for conversations. The characters are preoccupied with their existential problems and never discuss politics. In this way, The Pessimist refuses to engage in social reflection that is well presented in Russian art cinema by the so-called New Quiet Ones. Holod’s film for the intelligentsia intentionally shifts to escapism.
The main ambition for Holod is to create a film about himself. The filmmaker Misha in the story is a reflection of the possibilities and the responsibility of an artist. The opening shot shows his face (another close-up, this time accompanied by dramatic non-diegetic music) with a long gaze into nowhere. Such cinematography implies the character’s depth and his possibility to live an inner life that is not manifested in physical actions. Misha’s pessimism suggested by the title is demonstrated through his intention to use other people for inspiration. It implies that he actually doesn’t believe in real people and doesn’t need them. Finally, he creates an image of two women, leaving both of them broken and suffering. His credo might sound like the Russian variety-stage singer Aleksandr Vertinskii’s coquettish stanza: “I don’t need a woman, I need just a theme.” While depicting the director as an egoist, Holod also makes him the most powerful character. Finally, Misha is able to use not only the naïve caricature-girl Zhenia, but also the wise (even if not absolutely invincible) Nina Il’inichna.
In order to show the way in which Misha can manipulate the old and seemingly strong woman, Holod hints at her weakness both through the already mentioned exaggerated acting and through some dialogues, which are unfortunately equally explicit. In her first conversation with Misha, Nina Il’inichna decides to let him move in before paying after hearing that he was kicked out by his wife. She says: “I don’t want to be the second woman to kick you out on the street in one day. But only because I like to be the first at everything.” All the close-ups are unnecessary with such dialogues, because the entire plot is clear from just listening to or reading the dialogues. Another speech containing an indication of the potential vulnerability of Nina Il’inichna comes from Zhenia. When all the three characters sit and talk, she tells Misha a story. “Did you know, for example, that my grandmother was a professor with a doctoral degree, that she had 329 scholarly publications?” And then Zhenia proceeds, addressing her grandmother: ‘I remember… on your birthday, one year. I was about ten. […] There were lots of guests, mainly men. […] And then the director of your institute raised his glass and said: ‘Nina Il’inichna, you are an amazing woman. You’re startlingly clever, shrewd. […] If you only wanted, you could become an outstanding scientist.’ Imagine, Misha, what a grandmother I’ve got!” This story is followed by a close-up of Nina Il’inichna’s tragic face with a tear standing in her eye without spilling. The story itself is telling enough—it’s hard to imagine that any professor would take such phrase as a compliment. So it is hardly surprising when Zhenia, in her final invective speech to the grandmother, remembers the same story and clarifies: “You were being praised for what you might have been! It’s a terrible thing to be disillusioned!” Everything was put so clearly already that the final twist with Nina Il’inichna’s dethronement by her granddaughter seems too obvious.
The Pessimist works thoughtlessly with the myth of Saint Petersburg’s intelligentsia about itself. All the revelations kept for the final scenes are evident from the very beginning because of the combination of theatrical aesthetics with Bergman-styled cinematography. The film is made to satisfy people like those who are portrayed in it. An implied self-critique of the director, who endows his hero with a lot of power, looks like a kind of flirtation. The demonstrative anti-actuality makes it clear that people who are extraneous to the conservative intelligentsia are not welcome in this community. This is hardly a bad thing, because all these excluded people probably would not have wanted to engage anyway.
National Research University, Higher School of Economics, Moscow
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Vishnevskaia, Liliia. 2016. “Artkhaus dlia optimistov.” Bumerang. 16 June.
Iakuschevich, Stanislav. 2016. “Kinolenta ‘Pessimist’ s akterom ‘Krasnogo fakela’ v glavnoi roli vyshla na ekrany kinoteatrov Novosibirska.” Novosibirskie novosti. 5 June.
The Pessimist, Russia, 2016
Color, 101 minutes
Director: Misha Holod
Screenplay: Misha Holod
Cinematography: Vasilii Ivanov
Production Design: Saida Kurpesheva
Music: Aleksei Glazkov
Editing: Misha Holod
Cast: Tat’iana Tkach, Konstantin Telegin, Mariia Krushcheva, Mariia Zimina
Producers: Pafnutii Roshchin, Pavel Frolov, Ashot Gezalian
Production Film Company “More”
Misha Holod: The Pessimist (Pessimist, 2016)
reviewed by Denis Saltykov© 2017