Issue 60 (2018)

Egor Baranov: Gogol. The Beginning (Gogol’. Nachalo, 2017)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney© 2018

gogol Egor Baranov, director of the comedy Suicides (Samoubiitsy, 2012) has turned his hand to gothic horror, with a series of films loosely based on several short stories published by the writer Nikolai Gogol’ in two collections: Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (Vechera na khutore bliz Dikan’ki, 1831) and Mirgorod (1835). Filled with nightmarish visions, rising dead, demons, witches, sorcerers, and grisly confrontations between the natural and the supernatural, Gogol’’s tales have long provided fertile material for the silver screen. His perhaps most evocative tale, Vii, found its earliest cinematic incarnation in Vasilii Goncharov’s adaptation in 1909, sadly long since lost. More recently, it found rather beautiful animated forms in Alla Gracheva’s Vii (1996), and its cheesiest version in Oleg Stepchenko’s Forbidden Empire in 2014. Other Gogol’ tales from this collection have found their way to the screen, notably in Iurii Ilienko’s opaque St John’s Eve (Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala), completed in 1968 and banned in the USSR until 1988, and Mikhail Titov’s eerily animated A Terrible Vengeance (Strashnaia mest’, 1988). Of note is also Aleksandr Rou’s bizarre adaptation, replete with its own Grinch-like figure, of the tale “Christmas Eve” (“Noch’ pered rozhdestvom”) as Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (Vechera na khutore bliz Dikan’ki, 1961). Gogol’’s tales are clearly pregnant with artistic possibility.

gogolWhile Gogol. The Beginning was released in theaters in August 2017, the project was originally conceived as a multi-part TV serial. Its release in theaters was something of a financial experiment decided upon only during production. This film comprises the first two episodes of that TV serial. The remaining installments will be released in due course as two more feature-length movies before the entire series airs on Russian television: Gogol 2. Vii and Gogol 3. A Terrible Vengeance (Strashnaia mest’); and Gogol 4. A Bewitched Place (Zakoldovannoe mesto). The experiment has apparently paid off financially so far (Boletskaia 2017).

gogol Set in 1829, the film follows the young Gogol’ (Aleksandr Petrov), a clerk in the Third Section of Nicholas I’s government in St Petersburg, whose job is to record the details of crimes committed in the city. He is known for suffering seizures in the course of this work that place him into a fugue state, allowing him to see images from the crimes during their commission and causing him to scribble down seemingly random words. It is in this state that he is noticed by a Holmesian sleuth, Iakov Petrovich Guro (Oleg Men’shikov), who has been called in to investigate a crime. Guro sees enough in this fragile and insecure young man to pique his interest that he might prove useful in his investigations. Gogol’’s fragility stems from his deep insecurities and debilitating self-criticism as a budding writer, even burning copies of his published work in a drunken fit one night.

When Guro informs Gogol’ that he is off to the village of Dikanka in Poltava province to investigate the murder of a young girl, allegedly by a demonic beast in the form of a horseman with horns protruding from his back, Gogol’—originally from that very village—jumps at the chance to escape his own demons and asks to accompany him. In the course of their investigations, Gogol’ encounters the wife of a local landowner, the beautiful but sickly Liza Danishevskaia (Taisiia Vilkova), with whom he falls in love. From the outset, Guro and Gogol’ encounter obstacles to their inquiries from the villagers, and from the local investigator Aleksandr Binkh (Evgenii Stychkin) and local officials, who believe that these two outsiders will not comprehend the ways of the village but will dismiss their fears as silly superstitions.

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The plot unfolds in a series of bizarre visions by Gogol’, in which water-sprites appear in order to offer him clues on the murders. It transpires that these kinds of unsolved murders have been happening for a long time in this region, much to Guro’s anger. Ultimately, they discover the identity of a witch, Oksana (Iuliia Frants), responsible for the murders, culminating in a fight at the village inn, during which the witch is killed by Binkh. With the murderer discovered, Guro and Gogol’ are ready to return to St Petersburg, but a final confrontation in a burning barn between Guro and the demonic beast seemingly results in the death of both. Gogol’ decides to continue the investigation on his own.

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The second half of the film is more classic Hammer Horror in style. A new murder occurs a few days later, as a woman, Khavron’ia (Beata Makovskaia), on a tryst with her lover, is murdered, ostensibly by the demonic Horseman. Gogol’’s seizure-assisted visions— aided now by his newfound forensic investigatory powers—appear to identify her cuckolded husband as the culprit, a conclusion corroborated by the autopsy of the victim by the local doctor Leopol’d Bomgart (Ian Tsannik) who attributes her death to extreme fright. Gogol’’s visions ultimately reveal the true murderer to be Khavron’ia’s own stepdaughter, Paras’ka (Mariia Miasniakova), who wanted to remove her stepmother as an impediment to her wedding. However, the bloody ghost of the stepmother eventually delivers the stepdaughter to the demon, despite the efforts of Gogol’ and others to stop her. In the film’s final scenes, Gogol’ and trusted allies in the village pledge to continue fighting the demon, but he has another vision in which his love-interest Liza may be the next murder victim. In the final scene of the film, Guro, apparently not dead from his fight with the demon, is seen standing on a hill overlooking Dikanka. He turns to face the camera.

Not unusually for the gothic horror genre, scenes in Gogol. The Beginning often seem familiar, rising even to the level of explicit nods to other films. Baranov has acknowledged drawing inspiration from the work of the dean of imaginative gothic horror, Tim Burton (Anon 2017). Moreover, the pairing of investigator and gifted sidekick inevitably brings to mind the fictional Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. The restrained dramatics of Guro and Gogol’ here, though, are more suggestive of the small-screen antics of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman than the big-screen heroics of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. There are also visual echoes of Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), although less so of his more original Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2014), and oddly so, given that Sergei Trofimov directed the camera on both Gogol and Night Watch. A couple of scenes even evoke the latest cinematic iteration of Stephen King’s novel, It (Andy Muschietti, 2017) and the Black Riders from Peter Jackon’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Perhaps the oddest plot resonances can be found with James McTeigue’s The Raven (2012). Both Gogol and The Raven feature a fragile, deeply insecure Gothic novelist as a central player in the worlds of their own artistic invention. Both actors (Petrov and John Cusack respectively) play their characters as men largely mystified by the products of their own imaginations, always a step behind the action. Both artists navigate their worlds with the help of a very modern forensic detective in an attempt to solve bizarre murders of young women. Both have a love interest as Muse that offers them some respite from their authorial self-torment. Both love interests find themselves in grave peril. Both Poe and Gogol’ seem inclined to self-medicate at difficult moments. Both films even feature a demonic Black Rider.

gogolWhile The Raven—a generally dreadful movie (and not in a full-of-dread way)—has very little to do with the actual historical Poe, Gogol. The Beginning offers a postmodern twist to the more traditional historical drama-as-biopic. This series certainly trades on the current vogue of bringing the works of Russia’s beloved 19th century novelists to the small screen. Here, though, the historical Gogol’ is a fictional character in his own drama. He investigates a phantasmagoric murder from one of his own stories that he has been unable to write yet, due to the various frailties of his ego, but which ultimately will provide the substance and inspiration for him to write it. By placing an artistically unsure Gogol’ at the center of his own tale, the story on which it is loosely based recedes into the background behind a coming-of-age-as-a-writer tale. A would-be writer of raw talent but little self-confidence finds in the investigator Guro a reassurance that his intoxicating seizure-induced visions are actually useful signs of inner sight rather than the terrifying signs of madness he fears them to be. A tentative and fragile man finds his Muse, both spiritual and physical, in Liza, who conveniently knows and admires his writings. She it is who urges him to write about the places he knows intimately like Dikanka, and a self-doubting writer thereby finds the improbable setting for the worthy novel he would eventually be able to write.

gogol Despite its high-Gothic ambience, Gogol. The Beginning is not without whimsy and humor, particularly whenever Guro is in frame. From his wry and knowing looks at Gogol’ to his cane, cigarette holders, bright vests, and tragically hip blue spectacles, he is a refreshing counter-point to Gogol’’s dour black suit and expressions that oscillate between befuddlement and timidity. Guro all but winks at the audience at times. His grisly autopsy of the young murder victim becomes a humorous scene as he busies himself cheerily with the medical disemboweling, while queasy Gogol’ tries not to lose his lunch. Guro is always perfectly attired and coiffed, largely unruffled by the mayhem swirling around him, while Gogol’ is a study in dishevelment and near-panic, ever on the point of spinning out of control when in the grip of his nightmarish visions. Guro is the promised model of tidy and modern efficiency in the face of improbably supernatural remedies and self-serving bureaucratic inertia in provincial Russia, a portrait we have in no small part courtesy of Gogol’’s own novels. The village’s resistance to the ways of outsiders from the city is well-documented in Russian history.

 

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The film’s settings are quite beautiful, with an almost painterly quality to them, here, bustling port scenes à la Turner, there, romanticist scenes à la Constable. Group scenes of village members seem especially carefully composed to convey a portrait of village life as represented in a number of Russian novels of the period. These scenes in the film are often suffused in greens and blues, lending an ethereal quality to the whole. As such, these are more than a nod to Gogol’s novels which often linger on detailed descriptions of beautiful and eerie local landscapes.

 

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Some of the most creative scenes in the film occur whenever Gogol’ plunges into a nightmare-scape of hellish visions. Witches dance around a campfire and appear to him in their true form, driving him into a stupor of torment and fear. In a peculiar and vivid encounter with the dead witch in a street lined with grotesque monsters—a fiery incubus gets a cameo—he has to deal with the witch’s demand that he give up Liza for Liza’s sake. In some of these later scenes, Gogol’ himself seems to appear as some kind of demon, perhaps foreshadowing a later plot development in the series.

 

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Unfortunately, this creative drive is not sustained in the final battle between Gogol’ and his aides and the now-demonic Khavron’ia as she tries to stop them from saving her step-daughter from the Black Horseman. As multiple Khavron’ias fly Gogol’ and co. in circles above their heads, I could think only of the levitating spells from the Harry Potter films. When she suddenly “disapparates” to escape, I wondered whether these were intentional homages.

 

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The whimsical nature of Gogol. The Beginning is best captured, perhaps, by a recurrent motif that might strike writers as an inside joke. Gogol’’s lack of confidence in his own abilities as a writer is a motif in this film, but so too are references to his vain attempts to garner the approval of the great Alexander Pushkin, whom he tried to meet on at least one occasion, as he told Liza. He finally gets the chance to meet his hero while in a drug-induced vision, and, as invariably happens when we meet our heroes, the experience is not always what we would like it to be. Initially pleased that Pushkin recognizes him and gives him the chance to pitch his new tale, Gogol’ tells him about the Dikanka tale he is currently experiencing. Pushkin greets this with derisive mockery, laughing in Gogol’’s face. This is doubly poignant in light of Pushkin’s actual 1836 review of Gogol’s tale Dikanka in the journal Sovremennik. At turns positive and patronizing, Pushkin offered snide praise of Dikanka’s humor by an author who “is still advancing,” and generously forgave Gogol’ for the “unevenness and incorrectness of his style and the incoherence and improbability of some of the stories” (Harris 1984, 209). In the film, Pushkin turns into a pig just before Gogol’ awakens, so perhaps the literary critic, if not Pushkin, gets his just desserts.  

Pushkin would undoubtedly have sniffed, or worse, at this movie version of the novel. Gogol’, however, would surely have been genuinely delighted at the visceral and hallucinogenic possibilities offered up by this new medium of cinema. The director Baranov noted that Gogol’ was a great prankster (ozornik) and would have loved the idea of being the hero of the picture (Anon 2017).
This film ends appropriately with a cliffhanger. Will there be more murders in Dikan’ka? Will Guro return and who, in fact, is he? Is Gogol’ what he seems to be? Will Liza escape her fate? Will the Black Horseman return? He will…  And where did Khavron’ia disapparate to? Tune in next time for the thrilling sequel to Gogol. The Beginning!

Frederick C. Corney
The College of William & Mary

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Works Cited

Anon. 2017. “Dom s privideniiami i Dikan’ka v Pskovskoi oblasti: gde i kak snimali serial ‘Gogol’,” Tass. Informatsionnoe agentstvo Rossii, 5 May.

Boletskaia, Kseniia (2017) “Serial o Gogole sobral za pervye vykhodnye v chetyre raza bol’she svoego biudzheta,” Vedomosti, 5 September 2017.

Harris, Laurie Lanzen (1984), Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, vol. 5 (Gale)


Gogol. The Beginning, 2017
Color, 107 minutes
Director: Egor Baranov
DoP: Sergei Trofimov
Screenwriter: Natal’ia Merkulova, Aleksei Chupov, Kim Belov, Filipp Koniashov, Tikhon Kornev, Aleksei Karaulov
Editor: Aleksandr Ivanov
Sound: Mikhail Alekseenkov, Nikita Ershov
Music: Ryan Otter
Producers: Aleksandr Tsekalo, Artur Dzhanibekian, Valerii Fedorovich, Evgenii Nikishov
Production: Telekanal TV 3 and Sreda Production Company

Egor Baranov: Gogol. The Beginning (Gogol’. Nachalo, 2017)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney© 2018

Updated: 2018