Issue 59 (2018)

Rustam Khamdamov: The Bottomless Bag (Meshok bez dna, 2017)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2018

khmadamovRustam Khamdamov’s The Bottomless Bag premiered at the Moscow International Film Festival in June 2017. After the three screenings (and a Silver Saint George for Best Direction) the film vanished until December 2017, when it received several special screenings at the Pioneer Cinema in Moscow, to be followed by a release on 18 January 2018. As such, it is the first film by Khamdamov to be distributed in Russia. The film follows on from the short film Diamonds. Theft (Brillianty. Vorovstvo, 2011), presented at the Venice Film Festival, and it was started under the title Rubies. Murder (Iakhonty. Ubiistvo), marking its belonging to this series of films.

Born in Tashkent in 1944, Khamdamov graduated from the Film Institute in Moscow in 1968 and made his debut with a film that returned to the aesthetics of silent era, entitled My Heart in the Mountains (V gorakh moe serdtse, 1967) and loosely based on the story of the same title by William Saroyan. Over the next four decades there followed a series of unachieved masterpieces: Unexpected Joys (Nechaiannye radosti, 1974), based on a script by Andrei Konchalovskii and Fridrikh Gorenshtein, was closed during post-production at Mosfilm and the print destroyed (only 20 minutes of fragments survived thanks to the cameraman Il’ia Minkovetskii); the script subsequently served as the basis for Nikita Mikhalkov’s Slave of Love (Raba liubvi, 1975). Khamdamov’s legendary Anna Karamazoff (1991) premiered at Cannes before it was locked away by the French producer, who “arrested” the negative (see Beumers 2010). The film Vocal Parallels (Vokal’nye paralley, 2005) was produced in Kazakhstan, but never reached the festival circuit. Khamdamov’s films thus all remain hidden from audiences and have only been seen by a small circle of festival-goers who manage to “catch” them at the right time, in the right place.

meshok bez dnaKhamdamov’s films are typically non-narrative and rely on loose associative chains. In The Bottomless Bag too, he builds on visual parallels (including to earlier films) and associations, but it is also probably the most “narrative” film he has made so far. After all, it is based on the short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, “In a Grove,” which also served as the source text for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). Akutagawa’s story is simple and complex at once: it tells from different perspectives about the murder of a man (a samurai) and the disappearance of his wife in a forest. The incident is reported by a witness (a woodcutter); a travelling (Buddhist) priest; a policeman (who arrested the thief, or the brigand); an old woman; a woman who has come to the temple to make a confession; the murdered man who speaks through a medium; and the brigand’s own confession. Whilst Kurosawa is concerned with the different “truths” offered in the narratives, Khamdamov explores the way in which different characters tell the same story, to the point of changing the murderer’s identity. He uses the tale to build a rigid structure, juxtaposing the “arbitrariness of chaos with a neat compositional construction” (Maliukova 2017).

meshok bez dnaKhamdamov’s construction indeed combines the chaos of random associations with a concise narrative framework that is typical of the fairy tale. In fairy tales the most important, but often neglected feature is the oral transmission, the telling and the reason for it: fairy tales are narrated to instruct and educate (children and teenagers); to send children to sleep; or to entertain and keep the listener on tenterhooks. Khamdamov begins his narrative with the brigand/thief (Pletnev), touching his loot in a jewellery box whilst hiding in the hay. From here the story moves to a setting in a forest, where the tsarevich, or prince (Kuzichev) and the tsarevna, or princess (Morozova) will be murdered and disappear respectively. They are dressed in costumes typical for Khamdamov’s cinematic worlds and used in Unexpected Joys (the tsarevna’s kokoshnik, rich embroidered dresses and the sedan chair) and frequently presented in his paintings. In the forest the prince and princess are surrounded by “mushrooms” (men in mushroom-shaped hats); by an old witch or wood spirit (a “Baba Yaga” or a “Leshchii,” played by Alla Demidova) who replaces the medium from the story and is capable of speaking with the dead tsarevich; by a priest in a small hut (Antipov) who replaces the Buddhist monk from the story. Whilst not providing their own narrative versions, these characters act as agents supporting the three principal narrative versions from the prince (tsarevich), the princess (tsarevna) and the thief or brigand.

meshok bez dnaBut the narrative composition is much more complex: Khamdamov creates a frame narrative, a device often used in fairy tales. A lady-in-waiting (Nemoliaeva), dressed elegantly in black silk and wearing several orders, arrives at the court of the Tsar/Emperor and is invited to the emperor’s private rooms to tell him a story. She is introduced by the Empress (Mikhalkova) and instructed that her story must not contain more than two murders so the Emeperor won’t be upset. Instead of reading from a book (which the handmaid prepared), the lady-in-waiting reads from sheets of paper and brings the story to life by pretending to look into other worlds and other rooms: she splices the wall panels with a pen-knife and looks onto the other side with the help of a cone-shaped newspaper serving as kaleidoscope and comic nose simultaneously; or she climbs onto some steps to peek into the ball-shaped light of a chandelier. She also illustrates her story, starting with jewellery that she arranges on the table and ending with a bag containing a lemon that pertains to a story from Arabian Nights woven into the narrative when the princess, in her version of events, claims to have killed her husband after he witnessed her being raped by the brigand. The emperor and the lady-in-waiting bet whether or not she will drown herself (she will not), and the lady-in-waiting recites story No. 295 about Ali the Persian and the Kurd about a bag that contains entire dream worlds as it is claimed both by owner and thief respectively before the Qazi, the judge who has to make a wise decision. In that story, told by Shahrazad (Sheherezade) to the Shahryar to entertain him and keep his suspense in order to prolong her life by a day at a time, it is also the story rather than the actual content that weighs heaviest: the stories that both Ali the Persian and the Kurd present to the Qazi about content of the bag are fictional, exaggerated to the point where they are obviously lies or dreams—the things they wish for and do not have. As Anton Dolin states quite rightly, Khamdamov’s film is not about reality, not about events, not about the truth and what actually happened, but about the pastime of story-telling (Dolin 2017), which he places in the “decadent frame of 19th century,” including witches and spirits. Telling a story is what the protagonists of Akutagawa’s tale do to the police, what Ali the Persian and the Kurd do to the Qazi, what Sheherezade does for her husband, and what the lady-in-waiting does for the emperor: story-telling is not just a pastime, but a mode of existence, of writing and rewriting everyday stories. Khamdamov demonstrates through the construction of his film how unreliable words and stories are: they are no more truthful than the images we see, real or imagined, filmed or “seen” through kaleidoscopes.

meshok bez dnaFollowing the opening scene of the brigand inspecting his loot, the film turns to the palace setting, where the lady-in-waiting is seated in a hall in the palace (filmed at the Brusnitsyn family’s palace in Petersburg), with the chairs veiled in dustcovers; the scene is attended by two man-servants who, when not needed, take off their uniforms and relax by playing chess. Eventually, the lady-in-waiting is invited into the emperor’s rooms by the empress herself, receiving concise instructions designed not to upset the emperor. For the role of the empress Khamdamov had earlier wanted to cast Ilze Liepa or Renata Litvinova (see Leznikov 2012), before giving the part to Anna Mikhalkova.

Emperor Alexander II (Koltakov), who had survived several assassination attempts in the 1860s and 1870s, dons a nightgown and is depressed following the death of his mother, dowager empress Alexandra Fedorovna (who died in 1860). He is entertained by the story-teller, who talks about these assassination attempts when referring to the arrest of the man who supplied the chemicals for the bomb and was sent to prison: she even admits to have made a mistake when asking for his pardon.

The lady-in-waiting begins her story with the robber’s version, as he finds a man tied to a tree, his heart pierced by an arrow. As the camera delves into this mediaeval world, the dead tsarevich is presented in the manner of Saint Sebastian. In a flashback into the thief’s version of the story— told by the female voice of the lady-in-waiting—the tsarevich had fought with the thief, balancing his sword while standing in a lake: the robber admits to having killed the man but not the woman. Back another stage of the story, we see the tsarevich and tsarevna on horseback when an old woman, or witch (who will later act as a medium to the other world) passes by with her cart. The robber draws the prince away from the princess with the help of reflecting mirrors; he then ties the prince to the tree while princess waits. The robber forces himself on to the princess, but she fights back with the sword for a while before she subdues. Once shamed, she can no longer look her husband in the face and kills him, at least in her version of the story.

meshok bez dnaThe forest becomes populated: alongside the witch, men with mushroom-shaped caps accompany the couple. There are also men who carry the princess in a sedan chair, and a woman with three children who sit in a coffin and pretend that it is a boat. As the princess is carried through an open field, now in her full gown and headgear (the kokoshnik) she spots three, then four balloons in the air. The princess has wings of a butterfly attached to her dress before crossing the river. She visits a hermit, or monk, in his hut, and while she enters, a snake curls over her veil—images of imminent death (crossing the river) and a fall (temptation by the serpent) abound. In the confession she makes to the hermit she claims to have killed her husband by aiming an arrow into his heart. Words tell one story, but the visual narrative that accompanies her confession shows her thrusting knives into a tree, and not at her husband. So her version of events does not align with the images. As she finishes her confession, a boy looks through the broken window into the hut: a butterfly (an accompaniment to her butterfly-shaped wings) is trapped inside.

The princess rows across the lake in a boat—having claimed at the end of her story that she wanted to kill herself after having murdered her husband. Back in the palace, the emperor wants to guess the ending and makes a reference to story No. 295 of Arabian Nights, where a Kurd claims to won the bag that is also said to belong to Ali the Persian, and the judge realises that both men lie about the bag’s content. Words are never true: they are ways of telling stories, dreams and lies; they are articulations of the imagination. Words do not serve the truth; images do. The Emperor pleats the tassels on the tablecloth (which the housemaid undoes later); from here the camera moves to a woman pleating her hair. Pleating or weaving threads can also refer to a story. As both emperor and lady-in-waiting tell the Arabian tale, the princess could not take her life in the way she told the hermit. For the characters, words have no power, yet it is also words that make the story of life.

meshok bez dnaThe emperor indulges in drinking as he grieves the loss of his mother. The lady-in-waiting weaves into her story the emperor’s hidden bottles in the cupboard, as well as the dog he imagines is a reincarnation of his mother. The dream worlds and nightmares thus become part of the story/stories told. Later in the film she opens the doors and sees the bottles inside the room. The emperor appears to live in a world of fairy tales (with a mermaid) and fiction: the photograph in the room shows three sisters, seemingly of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, while the lady-in-waiting quotes their dream of returning to Moscow. Later she cites Aleksandr Ostrovskii’s Katerina from The Storm, who kills herself. She compares the characters of the plays to the arrangement and shape of the bottles, as they can be found in the still lives of Giorgio Morandi: “Here are three dusty, tired and matte glass ‘girls’ who have not made it to Moscow about which they dreamt so much in their youth. And here, this dark bottle is stronger, the glass thicker: this is Katerina, frozen above the abyss. For those who do not know: dreams are kinder than the sickly reality” (Maliukova 2017). There are also photographs of the emperor’s mother, and they are described as agents of death: images tell a finite story, as opposed to words that allow different versions.

The lady-in-waiting is a riddled character: she claims that paradise is in childhood—the time of fairy tales: in that paradise we are all immortal. Indeed, in fairy tales characters can return to life, their bodies reconstituted by the water of death and brought to life by the water of life. In the same way the witch (or the leshchii) can bring back to life the dead tsarevich and allow him to speak his story. In that version, the prince kills himself with a knife. However, the image we see shows the prince shot by an arrow, and not stabbed to death. The tsarevna did not have an arrow either. Curiously, in each story it is the narrator who takes upon himself or herself the responsibility for the murder. In the story evoked by the witch (bringing the tsarevich back to life) somebody takes the dagger out of the tsarevich’s body and places a ruby on his forehead—an explanation for the original title of the film.

meshok bez dnaThe lady-in-waiting has extraordinary abilities: she splices the wallpaper and peeks into other worlds, past and present, distant and close; she takes a break in the narrative and lies on the skin of a white bear; it is the head of such a bear that drapes the housemaid’s bed and it is between the bear’s teeth that she places her cigarette when she leaves the room; and it is also a bear (in the style of Ivan Shishkin’s bears, or Mishkas) that roams the forest alongside the robber and the prince and princess. The lady-in-waiting sees other worlds also in the chandelier, using her cone-shaped newspaper that forms both a buffoon’s nose and a kaleidoscope, to see the mushrooms performing gymnastics, the children row in a coffin that they pretend to be a boat, and the urine of one of the children serving as magic potion for the witch. Having ended her story—which has no resolution and does not identify the murderer—she takes a drink from her flask, runs to relieve herself and leaves the palace to walk away and along a snow-covered road. The film also tells her story of her arrival and departure, of her journey into another world into which she takes along the emperor, at least for a short time relieving him of the burden of work, grief and worry, and giving the servants and empress a moment of respite.

Filmed in black and white, without color coding for the changes between the story’s and emperor’s world, Khamdamov distinguishes the two worlds through detailed texture and fabrics. The palace environment is stale, arranged, and artificial; only the emperor in his dressing gown looks relaxed and at ease. The housemaid and the man-servants are impeccably dressed and corseted, while the empress and the lady-in-waiting wear elegant black robes. On the other hand, the tsarevna and the tsarevich are dressed in rich, embroidered costumes, magnificently decorated with jewels and gems and entirely “out of this world” for a setting in a forest and open fields where mushrooms roam, bears loiter, and witches and hermits retreat. The two settings juxtapose closed and open space, a summer and winter landscape, one with reflecting surfaces (the water of lake and river, but also mirrors) where the other (the palace) only offers windows with a detached view onto the outside. The costume design makes use of materials from a range of Khamdamov’s earlier films, including the kokoshnik from Unexpected Joys but also some fabrics from Eisenstein ‘s films and others that were found in the costume department at Mosfilm (Khamdamov in Leznikov 2017). The music from Edward Elgar’s “Cello Concerto in E Minor” (1918–19), which gained popularity in Jacqueline du Pré’s recording in 1965, accompanies the narrative, as does his “Enigma Variations” (1899). These scores sit alongside the noises of nature and of the fabric that make a more prominent soundtrack than the musical score.

The Bottomless Bag is probably Khamdamov’s most accomplished film, visually drawing on his rich portfolio as an artist but also infusing the narrative with references to artistic styles rather than specific artworks, and using the musical score not as a dominant compositional feature of the film (as was the case in Vocal Parallels). Moreover, the narrative complexity undermines the power of the word and de-stabilizes its role as a means towards truth, empowering it with the creation of immortal worlds: the worlds of dream and imagination, and of the fairy-tale that never ends.

Birgit Beumers

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Works Cited

Beumers, Birgit. 2010. “Die Blume im Staub. Das Zeit-Bild in Rustam Chamdamovs Anna Karamazoff.” In Das Zeit-Bild im osteuropäischen Film nach 1945, ed. Jurij Murašov and Natascha Drubek-Meyer. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau Verlag, pp. 225–243

Dolin, Anton. 2017. “‘Meshok bez dna’ Rustama Khamdamova: labirint chuzhikh fantazii.” Meduza. 27 June.

Leznikov, Petr. 2012. “Priamaia rech’.” Interview with Rustam Khamdamov. Seans 6 September.

Maliukova, Larisa. 2017. “V lartse poteriannogo paia.” Novaia gazeta 27 June. (print edition 30 June).

The Bottomless Bag, Russia 2017
Black-and-white, 104 minutes
Director: Rustam Khamdamov
Script: Rustam Khamdamov
DoP: Timofei Lobov, Petr Dukhovskoi; Camera: Sandor Berkeshi, Sergei Tabukov, Georgii and Aleksandra Pinkhasov, Vlad Loktev, Fedor Glazachev, Sergei Mokritskii
Production Design: Irina Ochina
Costume Design: Dmitrii Andreev, Vladimir Nikiforov
Sound: Gul’sara Mukataeva, Andrei Dergachev, Sergei Sadykov, Aleksei Badygov
Cast: Svetlana Nemoliaeva, Sergei Koltakov, Elena Morozova, Andrei Kuzichev, Kirill Pletnev, Evgenii Tkachuk, Anna Mikhalkova, Alla Demidova, Feliks Antipov
Producers: Andrei Konchalovskii, Liubov’ Obminaianaia, Rustam Khamdamov
Release Date 18 January 2018 (Reflexion Films)

Rustam Khamdamov: The Bottomless Bag (Meshok bez dna, 2017)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2018

Updated: 2018