Issue 56 (2017)

Anton Bil’zho: Dreamfish (Ryba-mechta, 2016)

reviewed by Robyn Jensen © 2017


dreamfishAnton Bil’zho’s debut feature film Dreamfish tells the story of a young man whose quiet, studious existence is disrupted when he meets a beautiful woman from the depths of the sea. Dreamfish offers a modern take on the rusalka figure in Slavic folklore. The film premiered at the film festival Kinotavr in 2016. 

The film opens with a low-angle shot of a clothed man thrashing about underwater. The film then cuts to a young man on an empty beach standing at the edge of the water, with suitcase in hand. He places the suitcase down and moves forward, hesitantly stretching his hands out to touch the water. In a voice-over, the man introduces himself as Roman. He is 39 years old and feels this is the time to do “something fundamental.”

Roman, played by Vladimir Mishukov, is a proof-reader from St Petersburg. He has come to Narva-Jõesuu, a town in Estonia near the Russian border, to edit an encyclopedic work by the late Professor Polianskii about the fish of the Baltic Sea. Roman is an intelligent and finds himself at odds with another guest of the hotel, Mark, who tries to get Roman to come with him to pick up women. Roman protests, claiming that he needs full concentration to complete this serious work. However, Roman’s progress on the project is scuppered when he discovers that some information in the manuscript is incomplete.

dreamfishThis prompts a visit to Polianskii’s house-museum. There, we learn that in 1994 Polianskii died tragically as a passenger aboard a ferry that sank. We briefly see a wax mannequin of Polianskii in the corner. He looks strikingly similar to Roman, thus giving the impression that Roman might not only be editing his work but also be his double.[1] Roman is given Polianskii’s old blow-up mattress that he used to swim on. Roman takes the mattress out to sea to float as he explores the aquatic life. But soon he capsizes and nearly drowns. He is saved by a naked woman, who appears from the water. He asks her where she is from, but she does not respond and swims off.

Roman goes back into the water the next day, feigns drowning, and the woman appears again. This time, she speaks. Her name is Helena and they agree to have dinner together. If we had any doubts about her identity as a creature of the sea, their encounter on land clears that up. At the restaurant, she goes up to the fish tank, picks out a fish with her bare hands and bites into it, eating it raw. Roman is transfixed by her and they begin to have a romantic relationship.

dreamfishIn another scene, we meet Helena’s two sisters. They intimate that their father is an “important person” in the sea. The sisters get onstage at the hotel bar and start to sing a song, perhaps in a nod to the chanting of the rusalki in Pushkin’s drama Rusalka. The song has a hypnotic effect on the audience; everyone starts dancing in slow motion.

As time passes and their relationship continues, Roman falls behind on editing the book. Her constant attention aggravates him and distracts him from his work. They have a fight when he asks her to leave him alone, and ultimately he kicks her out of the room. Later, he finds a note that says “dreamfish” (ryba mechta) in a dress she left behind. He returns to Polianskii’s house-museum and asks the woman there if Polianskii ever wrote anything about a “dream fish.” She claims not to know anything about such a creature and asks him to leave. 

dreamfishThe film takes a sudden turn when Roman learns from a local that Helena is now with Mark. Mark, it turns out, is not a guest of the hotel, as he led Roman to believe; instead, he is the director of the hotel. Roman returns to the hotel, where he finds Mark and Helena together at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. Mark has, inexplicably, tied Helena up in bondage ropes. Roman and Mark fight over Helena, and eventually Roman kills him. Roman and Helena dump his body into the sea under cover of night. A detective soon comes to investigate the whereabouts of Mark. Roman confesses that he killed him, but Helena spins a story to get him off the hook. The detective falls under her spell.

Helena discovers that she is pregnant, and Roman becomes increasingly anxious about their relationship. Roman eventually decides to return her back “home.” He drugs Helena, takes her out on a boat, and drops her into the sea. But then he, too, falls into the sea with her. We return to the opening shot of the film: Roman flailing around in the water. But soon he seems to get his bearings. He is now at home underwater, just as she is. Once again, we hear the opening lines of the film: that his name is Roman, he is 39, and that it is time to do something “fundamental.” A shot of his suitcase rising to the top of the water with the manuscript pages floating around closes the film.

dreamfishRoman is quite transformed by the end of the film. At first, Roman approaches his subject matter in a dispassionate scholarly manner. He is modest, unobtrusive, not given to excess. Roman’s insistence throughout the film that he is simply a copy-editor, not an author, calls to mind the clerks and copyists that populate Russian literature. Indeed, in an interview the director referenced Akakii Akakievich and the archetype of the little man, or malen’kii chelovek (Sychëva 2016). As the film progresses, however, Roman is forced to abandon his detached approach to the material through his involvement with Helena. He must viscerally experience the life of the Baltic Sea firsthand. And eventually he surrenders to it completely, plunging into the watery depths with Helena. The final shot of the manuscript floating atop the water makes clear that he has broken with his previous identity.

In an interview, the actor playing Roman, Vladimir Mishukov, praised the film for returning the figure of the intelligent to the screen (Filippov 2016, “Vladimir Mishukov”). The intelligent, he remarked, had no place in the early post-Soviet films of the 90s and 2000s. However, one wonders what valence the film ultimately accords such a figure. The film’s ending is ambiguous. Are we to think that he has ruined his life by abandoning his work and succumbing to the seductive powers of Helena? Or are we to think that he has finally shaken off his passive attitude and done something important and “fundamental” with his life?


Notes

1] In a review of the film, the critic Aleksei Filippov suggests that the film obliquely references the director Roman Polanski, albeit split between the main character, Roman, and the professor, Polianskii (Filippov 2016, “Ryba-mechta”).

Robyn Jensen
Columbia University

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Works Cited

Filippov, Aleksei. 2016. “Vladimir Mishukov: V zhizni my ne geroi, my – boiaki, trusy, stydlivye, robkie.”  Kino-teatr.ru 20 December

Filippov, Aleksei. 2016. “Ryba-mechta: Luchshaia zhenshchina – eto kolbasa.”  Kino-teatr.ru 20 December.

Sychëva, Alyona. 2016. “Anton Bil’zho: Dumaiu, u nas poluchilsia legkii, zritel’skii I pri etom neobychnyi fil’m.” ProfiCinema 18 May.

 


Dreamfish, 2016, Russia-Estonia
Color, 80 minutes, 11.85, stereo
Director: Anton Bil’zho
Screenplay: Anton Bil’zho, with participation from Evgenii Kerov, Liudmila Kruglova
Production Design Nana Abdrashitova, Pavel Kopaev
Editing Anton Bilzho
Cinematography: Pavel Emelin
Music: Philip Glass
Cast: Vladimir Mishukov, Severija Janušauskaite, Maksim Vitorgan
Producers Julia Mishkinene, Andrei Bilzho, Ilya Medovy, Esko Rips
Production Vita Aktiva Production, Honey Films
Distribution (RF) Vita Aktiva Production

Anton Bil’zho: Dreamfish (Ryba-mechta, 2016)

reviewed by Robyn Jensen © 2017

Updated: 08 Apr 17