Issue 59 (2018)

Vlad Furman: Guppy (Gupeshka, 2017)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2018

guppyGuppy is a mighty peculiar film, difficult to classify. The title card sets our expectations in declaring the film to be “maybe comedy, maybe tragedy.” The socio-economic smallness of the characters, however, precludes classification as a tragedy proper. (Indeed, our heroine is called “‘Guppy,” not “Sturgeon.”) The film instead seems to fit uneasily into what we recognize to be “dramedy,” a combination of drama and comedy. The humor here—if it is actually comedy—comes less from its content, its absurdity, and its ironic presentation, and more from the performances themselves. What we have is a film about pain, obliviousness, and extraordinary awkwardness.

guppy The film starts with Lënia (Razumovskii) begging his wife Tamara (Popova) not to leave him as she descends a staircase with Pasha (Baranov). As Lënia pleads that she think of their daughter, Tamara looks up with moist eyes at her desperate, tearful husband and hesitates. We then get a flashback to a couple hours earlier. Tamara is outside taking a bag of trash to the dumpster and is spied upon by Pasha, who then approaches. He is seemingly a stranger to her and carries a bottle of wine in his hands. The off-screen sound of a dog barking prevents us from hearing what he says to her, but almost immediately she invites him inside and we arrive at the living room where we will spend almost the remainder of the film.

guppyTamara is a sweet and kind stay-at-home wife who also works on the side as a seamstress making bedding for work associates of her husband. She wishes, however, that she could make dresses and clothing. She lives in a pervasive, quiet misery of which she seems mostly unaware. As Pasha sits nervously and looks about rather shiftily, Tamara casually begins to recount details of her life that reveal the litany of mental abuse she suffers from her husband (who is ostensibly away at work). She fears sitting on the couch beside Pasha and getting too close because Lënia has complained of her breath smelling like a toilet. On the wall there is a signed poster from the singer Sofiia Rotaru, to whom Lënia once gave 17 chrysanthemums, but Tamara never receives such gifts from her husband. “If I were beautiful,” she matter-of-factly asserts, “he would bring me flowers.” We learn that Lënia seems to regularly forget her birthday as well. Her nickname—the eponymous Gupeshka (Guppy) that she is apparently called by Lënia—is one Tamara attempts to rationalize: “I think maybe because I am as simple as these fish. They can even live in sewage and nothing happens to them.” And in case all of this were not enough, Tamara reveals how she and Lënia had a daughter who died.

guppy So clueless and resigned is Tamara that when Pasha insists that she is beautiful, she thinks that he is joking. Moreover, those few injustices that she does recognize—which she considers to be misfortunes—she has convinced herself to be divine punishment for what she believes was an insufficient expression of grief at her daughter’s funeral. Pasha is visibly uncomfortable and objects to much of Tamara’s self-assessment, but to what extent is he really a knight coming to rescue her? He is a mysterious suitor and seems to have his own uncomfortable agenda. At one point he calls her “Toma,” a name she was called in her youth. His true relationship to her is revealed slowly, but it is not what we might initially suspect.

guppy Much of the film plays out the pained courtship of Pasha and Tamara. They are unable to open the bottle of wine he has brought, having failed with a can opener and screwdriver and at least having the sense not to attempt using a sledgehammer. They then decide on tea, only to realize that they have no tealeaves and instead resort to warm sugar water. Meanwhile, they inadvertently—even if systematically—begin destroying the apartment: ruining the linoleum flooring, cracking crystal wineglasses, and even tearing and crumpling the poster of Sofiia Rotaru. At the very moment when they might at long last share a tortured kiss, Lënia suddenly appears and things get messy and awful for all three as each man proves to be nefarious in his own right. Of course, this being fiction by, about, and for the human species, it is the woman who suffers worst.

guppy The film is an adaptation of award-winning playwright Vasilii Sigarev’s 2003 two-act play of the same name, for which Popova and Baranov have reprised their roles as Tamara and Pasha. The film’s director Vlad Furman—an Honored Artist of Russia—was also the director of the stage version, but here Furman clearly aims to present more than just canned theatre. We almost have a “Kammerspielfilm,” a cinematic chamber play wherein most of the film’s action is restricted to a single location playing out in real time—all of which seems very theatrical. Yet while our characters are physically limited to a single living room throughout most of the film, we are at times given brief glimpses of character subjectivity that dramatically take us far beyond the confines of the apartment. Our protagonists may be stuck in one suffocating domestic space, but their minds burst out and beyond in fits and starts. These fleeting subjective relocations to outdoor spaces help to raise questions that drive the film forward, as these locales seem no more comforting than the interiors in which we find ourselves trapped with them.

guppyThese subjective jumps in space are also jumps in time and seem intended to differentiate the film from its theatrical predecessor. The film’s cinematography works hard to present a viewing experience distinct from what would be seen on stage. Those subjective landscapes are filmed with wide-angle lenses that display distorted curved panoramas. Whereas we might expect the standard scenic découpage for a singular interior space with routine shot/reverse shots ranging from medium-long shots to medium close-ups, here we are charmed by a much more adventurous camera. High angles, low angles, and canted angles—close-ups and even extreme close-ups—are all stylistic norms for this film. Once Lënia arrives, the camerawork becomes much more mobile—handheld, rougher and bumpier.

guppy Most striking is the incredibly shallow focus throughout. In such a small space, there is little need for depth cues, but the film’s exaggerated stylization rarely presents a depth of field greater than about a foot. Do we ever see two characters in two different planes of depth in focus at the same time? Instead, we get rack focusing back and forth between characters. Furman seems determined to showcase this film as cinematic; indeed, the film’s black-and-white cinematography in and of itself seems to proclaim its status as cinema. We are even treated to an instance of overlapping editing, so that the simple, otherwise nondescript act of Pasha sinking back into his seat is given special emphasis by being shown happening three times in three separate shots from three different angles—back to back to back, over and over and over.

guppy During the original stage production, the depressing and rather cruel subject matter drew comparisons to chernukha, a tendency originating in post-Perestroika Soviet literature and film concerned with depicting a bleak, harsh reality. It seems to me, however, that the film has a tempered bleakness—and it certainly does not leave me anywhere nearly as despondent as some more recent Russian films. Perhaps one of the film’s achievements is in being dispiriting without being disconsolate. Our heroine’s suffering is a result of an individual character’s particular obnoxiousness as opposed to greater intractable, oppressive, and inescapable social forces. Maybe this is a more upbeat form of Russian pessimism that might prove successful to overseas audiences? The film has already been screened at a few international film festivals and Popova deservedly has won at least one Best Actress Award so far.

Vincent Bohlinger
Rhode Island College

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Guppy, Russian Federation, 2017
Black and White, 77 min.
Scriptwriter and Director: Vlad Furman
Director of Photography: Kirill Moshkovich
Based on the play by Vasilii Sigarev
Production Design: Andrei Vasin
Costume Design: Andrei Shishov
Editing: Andrei Kompaniets, Konstantin Firevich
Sound: Sergei Sokolov
Music: Mickail Moskienko
Cast: Nelli Popova, Evgenii Baranov, Mikhail Razumovskii
Producer: Vlad Furman

Vlad Furman: Guppy (Gupeshka, 2017)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2018

Updated: 2018