Issue 61 (2018)

Vladimir Kott: Thawed Carp (Karp otmorozhennyi, 2017)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2018

Both venerated and patronized, the aged hold a paradoxical place in world cinema. From Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953) to Cocoon (dir. Ron Howard, USA, 1985) to Autumn Spring (Babí léto, dir. Vladimír Michálek, Czech Republic, 2003) to The Bucket List (dir. Rob Reiner, USA, 2007) to Amour (dir. Michael Haneke, France/Germany/Austria, 2012), among others, the elderly most often appear infantilized,[1] condescended to as objects of pity, and rendered into grotesque spectacle, e.g. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (dir. Robert Aldrich, USA, 1962), or into comic relief, like the rapping grandma in The Wedding Singer (dir. Frank Coraci, USA, 1998).

To a large extent such representations reflect a long-standing cultural disquiet over the subject of old age, the desire on some level to wish it away, lending fuel to Kathleen Woodward’s admonition: “one of our most urgent tasks is to understand why we have kept the subject of aging at arm’s length, that is, we must understand aging itself” (1999: x). In her feminist discussion, Woodward stresses the gendered nature of old age as a social role, an approach taken up by Sally Chivers in her more recent study, The Silvering Screen: Old Age and Disability in Cinema (2011).

karpCertainly some of the most prominent late-/post-Soviet Russian films featuring protagonists of advanced years make those protagonists women, presenting quite a wide spectrum of elderly femininity, from the reverent maternal pieties of Alexandra (dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, 2007) to the winsome pathos of Granny (Babusia, dir. Lidiia Bobrova, 2003) (in many ways a thematic remake of Ozu’s classic) to the anarchic, foul-mouthed shock of Little Old Ladies (Starukhi, dir. Gennadii Sidorov, 2003) to the uber-grotesque crones in 4 (dir. Il’ia Krzhanovskii, 2004). In short, old women in Russian cinema are even more paradoxical than their male counterparts.[2]

The tragicomic melodrama Thawed Carp,[3] based on a novel of the same title by Andrei Taratukhin (who co-wrote the screenplay) and directed by Vladimir Kott,[4] does not alter that thesis; its warm tribute to Soviet-era actresses of a certain age runs headlong into dehumanizing cultural presumptions about how the old should “make way for the young”—i.e., die already.  

Carp Diem

Elena Mikhailovna Nikiforova (Marina Neelova), a former schoolteacher, enjoys a comfortable retirement in a small village seemingly populated almost entirely by her former students—including the doctor who informs her of a life-threatening heart condition that could kill her “at any moment.” A sudden loss of consciousness brings her nebbish metrosexual son Oleg (Evgenii Mironov) racing from the city, though pressing work matters tear him away almost as soon as he arrives (he is a personal advancement trainer with big-name clients), and he leaves. The experience so rattles Elena Mikhailovna that she decides (out of self-sacrifice? pique? profound passive aggression?) to arrange, pay for and carry out her own funeral, to spare the busy Oleg too much trouble.

Farcical situational comedy ensues, in which the humble heroine petitions for her own death certificate (“Did they perform an autopsy on you?” the befuddled clerk asks); obtains the necessary paperwork to declare herself deceased at the morgue (where another former student works), in part by feigning death on a slab amidst several actual corpses; buys a modest coffin;[5] and together with some friends prepares the funeral banquet. If these cart-before-the-horse scenes do not rise to the Kafkaesque absurdity of, say, Nikolai Erdman’s play The Suicide (Samoubiitsa, 1928) or Death of a Bureaucrat (dir. Tomás Gutiérrez-Alea, Cuba, 1967), they nonetheless have their own quiet charm—as well as demonstrate that in Russia you can still get anything done with blat and well-chosen gifts of chocolate. Soon Elena Mikhailovna has brought all her affairs to order, and waits only for the big moment itself to arrive. When it tarries, she helps it along, by, you know, trying to kill herself. Ha ha.[6

At this point some viewers will have made up their minds as to Thawed Carp’s proper genre: family-friendly comedy, black comedy, horror or sick joke. It does stand out, however, for its commitment to taking the idea of responsibly preparing for death to ludicrous lengths, thus inverting the standard death denial which, Ernest Becker argued, characterizes modern subjectivity.

Flawed Carp

The film takes its title from the live fish which Elena Mikhailovna’s acquaintance Valerka (Artem Leshchik) forces upon her, fresh-caught, lest he drink it away. This happens immediately after her startling diagnosis, linking the animal to her own impending death. All the more surprising, then, that the creature mysteriously comes back to life some days later, upon removal from the freezer.

karpBut what exactly does the carp—for many a bony, unappetizing dish—represent? The Christian resurrection symbolism seems unavoidable, though neither Church nor pastor appear among the various institutions and specialists whom Elena Mikhailovna visits on her “farewell” tour.[7] The fish, rather, seems to represent hope, new life in some bland, general sense;[8] as Elena Mikhailovna declaims, “It’s a miracle!”—though the carp’s revivification doesn’t deter her from her own grim task of self-erasure. (Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the undying fish to inspire a new lease on life for our heroine?)

If it doesn’t really work as metaphor, neither does the carp exactly become a character in the storyline, either. It’s little more than mere McGuffin, really, spending most of the film idly floating in a washbasin once it has fulfilled its plot point function.[9] Yes, it does ingest the keys to Oleg’s SUV, prompting a trip to the vet, but this business again tells us nothing about its symbolic weight—nor, really, does the spectacle of a tree set afire by lightning, which Elena Mikhailovna witnesses late at night.[10] (Once more, couldn’t we read this better as a sign from God telling our heroine not to off herself?)

More distressingly, Elena Mikhailovna, for all her likeability, appears no less opaque as a character than does the fish metaphor. What makes her tick as a person? Why exactly is she doing this (and more pointedly, why do none of her friends try to talk her out of it)? On the one hand, she seems too aware of the unfairness of her situation to be exiting this world out of blind love; one senses (or hopes one senses) an unexpressed undercurrent of rage in her. But nor does she resemble that other great dramedy would-be suicide, the Holocaust survivor Maude (Ruth Gordon) from Harold and Maude (dir. Hal Ashby, USA, 1971), who swallows her pills as an act of supreme self-control (or undiagnosed depression). In sum, we never really get much of a sense of Elena Mikhailovna’s own motivations beyond her oft-expressed desire to spare her son any bother on her account. This seems not only faulty screenwriting, but ageist-inflected moral vacuity as well, to say nothing of other-directedness to a ridiculously masochistic degree.

karpThus, while Thawed Carp’s premise might warm some hearts (she does it all out of pure love for her son!), it will repulse others with what it says about life in a brutally neoliberal 21st-century Russia: with people too busy to see their parents, the least the old can do is die off quickly and efficiently, no muss no fuss. Intriguingly, apart from the heart condition about to kill her, Elena Mikhailovna has no visible disability; she remains a hale and hearty septuagenarian (even wheeling her own coffin home). As Sally Chivers puts it, “[O]ld age requires disability to be legible within an ‘efficient’ capitalist society.” Without disability,” she argues, “old people are simply ‘in the way,’ excessive or illegible” (2011: 8), not unlike our heroine, who represents little more than an afterthought to her son—until he thinks she’s actively dying. All in all, a damning portrait of the current generation’s attitude towards those that gave them life. Clearly, what needs thawing is Oleg’s heart; it’s a measure of how the film utterly negates Elena Mikhailovna’s personhood that by the end he does indeed grow as part of his character arc;[11] she, however, remains exactly the same from start to finish.   

In some ways Kott’s film seems very close in theme to the much more controversial and less funny Loveless (Neliubov’, dir. Andrei Zviagintsev, 2017), about a neglected child who in effect does what Elena Mikhailovna tries to do (disappear forever) and for the same reason as her (he doesn’t matter to his family). This is why I find something both moving and revolting about the way Elena Mikhailovna gazes with total adoration at her son as he eats the food she’s prepared for him, as they sit together in her kitchen dappled by sunlight (“I’m so happy you’re here!”)—the same son who, remember, had previously left five minutes after arriving due to a work emergency, dropping money on the table, his mind on things other than the mother he hasn’t seen in five years (though he lives a couple of hours’ drive away). Thawed Carp walks that very fine double-edged line throughout: you can ignore its retrograde gender politics, laugh them away, or throw your shoes at the screen. 

No Country For Old Women

Thawed Carp’s timeless Chekhovian themes of fraying family ties, the disappointments of life, intergenerational strife and city/countryside splits (“I am in the asshole of the world!” Oleg yells at a colleague over a cell phone beset by bad coverage), explored through the main storyline and through minor plots such as Oleg running into an old flame (now a homeless alcoholic), do not come off as subtly as in Kott’s delightful 2010 tragicomedy Gromozeka. He also replays to lesser effect elements from the previous film, as when two Goth kids ask Elena Mikhailovna to take selfies with her coffin on a public bus, mirroring an encounter from the earlier movie between some young Goths and one of the leads, a middle-aged cab driver. And Gromozeka had a character dealing with a terminal diagnosis who tries to commit suicide, too. As discussed, the new film adds to that catalogue of woe the disposability of old people.

karpIn any case, much—perhaps all—of Thawed Carp’s pleasure comes from watching long-beloved actors as senior citizens, still radiating charisma, still wielding their thespian chops with aplomb. As one reviewer put it, “this is the work of great actors” (Ukhov 2018). Marina Neelova as Elena Mikhailovna trading lines with the truly immortal Alisa Freindlikh as the trusty neighbor Liudmila Borisovna Baranova will serve as reason enough for some to buy a ticket. (For others, sadly, those names will mean nothing.) The viewing experience nonetheless is bittersweet; we tend to measure our own progress through this vale of tears to some extent by the journeys of our favorite movie stars. To recall that as a young actress Neelova starred in another age-related film about a generation gap, Monolog (dir. Il’ia Averbach, 1972), and to see her now very much on the opposite side of that chasm can only remind some of us of our own ticking clocks—a blend of intertextuality, nostalgia and memento mori. Neelova still smiles as sweetly as ever, regardless.

The real force of nature, though, remains Freindlikh. Now in her 80s, she keeps stealing every scene in which she appears, as she did in the classics Office Romance (Sluzhebnyi roman, dir. El’dar Riazanov, 1977), Stalker (dir. Andrei Tarkovskii, 1979), A Cruel Romance (Zhestokii romans, dir. Riazanov, 1984) and no shortage of other films. In Thawed Carp, we see her as a crusty, no-nonsense woman whose own will to live burns brightly, whether arguing with her wastrel grandson, berating modern technology like her cell phone’s video app, puzzling over transgenderism, or reminiscing about less complicated times, “like under communism.” She uniquely makes the stereotype of the old relic come alive, even when tossing off bromides like “Before it was simple, simple: you lived a right, moral life, or you didn’t.”

karpThat said, the film peculiarly switches from paying homage to its veteran actresses to dropping them into humiliating situations, none more so than when Elena Mikhailovna pleads with Liudmila Borisovna to smother her to death with a pillow (“I’ve already turned in all my documents!”), which she then tries to do. The scene, played out on Elena Mikhailovna’s bed, will strike some as hilarious, others as highly distasteful; I read it as Kott perversely flagellating two treasured screen icons whose careers launched long before he was born in 1973. A Hitchcockian, aberrant form of mommy worship, perhaps, which would seem to have very little to do with the film’s cheery marketing (the poster depicts Elena Mikhailovna, carp in her lap, riding along in a sidecar as Oleg drives the motorcycle, both flashing bright smiles, while the film’s slogan declares: “The Time Has Come to Thaw Out!”).

Regardless, that scene of euthanasian farce is followed, through yet another vertiginous tonal shift, by a far more somber ending, one oddly reminiscent of Mother and Son (Mat’ i syn, dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, 1997), as the carp’s thematic link to Elena Mikhailovna’s death becomes clearer. The point all along, after all, has been for Elena Mikhailovna to “make way” for Oleg’s personal growth.

In his review of Thawed Carp, Evgenii Ukhov (2018) notes that to “live to an advanced age and manage to prepare oneself for the final journey today has become easier – the healthcare system allows for it, and society has become more parsimonious towards the old.” Kott’s film betrays great ambivalence about that fact, by turns rejecting and embracing it.

A maxim by François de La Rochefoucauld holds that we can stare neither at the sun nor death for long (“Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixement”). But as mentioned, it is in our most beloved celebrities—perhaps as much as in our real-life loved ones—that we most forthrightly reckon with time’s relentless passage.

A wordless scene late in Thawed Carp brought home that insight for this viewer. Alone, in the moonlight, made up in her Sunday best, Neelova as Elena Mikhailovna dances about her funeral banquet table to the 1963 pop song “Love Holiday” (“Kanikuly liubvi”).[12] Aficionados of late Soviet cinema cannot but recall this selfsame Neelova, starring as the other woman Alla, spinning and whirling happily in An Autumn Marathon (Osenii marafon, dir. Georgii Daneliia, 1979). All these decades later, she still dances, enchantingly. But then she stumbles, dizzy. She catches herself, sits.

Neelova then gazes directly at the screen. “Look,” she seems to implore, “look at me now,” before collapsing into tears.

José Alaniz
University of Washington, Seattle


1] With the bold exception of Saraband (dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 2003) the old in movies almost never appear engaging in non-comedic sexual intercourse.

2] For Russian old men, the gamut seems to run from the saintly grandfather played by Iurii Nikulin in Scarecrow (Chuchelo, dir. Rolan Bykov, 1983) to the heartless and niggardly rich husband in Elena (dir. Andrei Zviagintsev, 2010). Many more recent Russian films about the elderly draw inspiration from Promised Heaven (Nebesa obetovannie, dir. El’dar Riazanov, 1991).

3] The film premiered at the 2017 Moscow International Film Festival, where it won the audience award. Other accolades include the Special Jury Prize at the 2017 Urals Open Festival of Russian Cinema in Ekaterinburg and Best Actress for Marina Neelova at the 2017 Festival of Russian Cinema in Honfleur, France.

4] Vladimir Kott (b. 1973), a 1996 graduate of the Director’s Faculty of GITIS (State Theatre Institute) released his first feature film, Mukha–The Fly, in 2008.

5] The cadaverous funeral home director (Aleksandr Bashirov) who gives Elena Mikhailovna the hard sell has more in common with a used car salesman (“a classic budget model!”) than the vulgar undertaker in The Second Circle (Krug vtoroi, dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, 1990) pushing product on a young man in mourning, with his father’s corpse a few feet away. The scene demonstrates the professionalization of the death industry since the Soviet era.

6] These scenes of poorly-executed self-slaughter recall another, similarly wince-inducing comedy: The End (dir. Burt Reynolds, USA, 1978). 

7] She does, however, cross herself later, after a failed suicide attempt.

8] Compare the carp to its meaning-laden comics counterpart in Leela Corman’s “The Book of the Dead.”

9] At least it avoids the fate of other cinematic carp, such as the unfortunate specimen bludgeoned to death in the family bathtub by Kopfkringel in The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, dir. Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 1968).

10] It doesn’t help that the image bears a striking resemblance to a scene in a much better-known film, released around the same time: Star Wars VIII—The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson, USA, 2017).

11] Upon learning of her scheme, Oleg displays fabulous self-awareness: “You wanted to prove to me that you have a piece of shit for a son? I already know that, Mommy dear!” This doesn’t stop him from trying to put her away in an assisted living facility to keep her under control, though. 

12] Originally a single by the Japanese duo The Peanuts, with music by Hiroshi Miyagawa and Tokiko Ivatan, the song was later featured in Tenderness (Nezhnost’, dir. E. Ishmukhamedov, 1966), with Russian lyrics by Leonid Derbenev. The song, especially under its alternate title “By the Sea, By the Blue Sea” (“U moria u sinego moria”), became a hallmark of the Soviet 1960s. 

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Works Cited

Chivers, Sally. 2011. The Silvering Screen: Old Age and Disability in Cinema. University of Toronto Press.

Corman, Leela. 2010. “The Book of the Dead.” Tablet.

Ukhov, Evgenii. 2018. “Karp otmorozhennyi: umirat’ ne strashno.” (20 January).  

Woodward, Kathleen M. 1999. Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations. Indiana University Press.

Thawed Carp, Russia, 2017
DCP, Color, 101 minutes
Director: Vladimir Kott
Scriptwriters Andrei Taratukhin, Dmitrii Lanchikhin
Director of Photography: Mikhail Agranovich
Music: Ruslan Muratov
Cast: Marina Neelova, Alisa Freindlikh, Evgenii Mironov, Natal’ia Surkova, Sergei Puskepalis, Aleksandr Bashirov
Producers: Nikita Vladimirov, Maria Averbakh
Costumes: Elena Ulianova
Sound: Antonina Balashova
Editing: Aleksandr Korolev
Production Design: Aleksandr Zagoskin

Vladimir Kott: Thawed Carp (Karp otmorozhennyi, 2017)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2018

Updated: 2018