Issue 62 (2018)

Timofei Zhalnin: Coupled, aka Twain (Dvoe, 2018)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko © 2018

From “F5” to “Delete”

zhalninSix years ago Timofei Zhalnin made the short film F5 (main prize in the Shorts Competition at Kinotavr in 2013), a film which could be called the manifesto of the young director. The film tells and shows not didactically, but distinctly that creative compromises do not lead to success. F5 deployed different behavioural strategies, justifying life here and now; it was a film overcoming the infantile consciousness which is convinced that tomorrow everything will be just fine.

From the creative space of F5, where two young contemporary dance performers miss their chance at an international competition, giving in to the audience’s desire for pop-music, Zhalnin goes further, moving onto the terrain of existential problems: life, love, death, and, of course, choice become the key motifs of his new film. From the glamorous stage of F5, where the cardboard sets, sparkle and tinsel change many times a day, he moves to the majestic space of the taiga, magnificent in its permanence, to the harsh Sayan mountains, against which any vanity, meanness and pretence stand out—conditions that are clear to the spectator. The protagonists of Coupled (original Kinotavr festival title: Twain) go to the mountains not to “smell the taiga,” not to comprehend the philosophical meaning of the universe (meaning comes later), but they set out to solve a rather practical issue: the young couple have no children. Nadia, the heroine (played by Tat’iana Polosina), is disillusioned with traditional medicine and wants to overcome her infertility with the help of the waters of the mountain lakes. Andrei, her husband (played by Anton Momot), who has grown up in the taiga, accompanies her.

Having refused the help of the local huntsmen, the young couple are soon cut off from the world. The river, which the protagonists would have to cross to return, becomes a kind of Styx: its waters can kill, but at the same time give a chance at immortality. Here the events begin that allow the author to define the film’s genre not only as drama, but also as an adventure movie. 

The drama has matured for a long time; the adventures are forced upon the characters and have an entirely unromantic character. From the very beginning, the film amazes the viewer by showing two young people against the background of a tremendously beautiful nature, where there is no place for romanticism, freedom, or love. That is the first trap which the director sets up for the spectator. He, Andrei, is tense and serious, while she, Nadia, is intent to encounter a miracle; as a result there follows a complete alienation of the two, where nobody hears the other. She does not hear that he wants to dump her; he does not hear her reasoning about substitute motherhood or adoption. Everyone formally carries out their duty, which has been senseless already for a long time.

dvoeStrangely enough only nature, self-sufficient and ruthless to human weaknesses and falseness, periodically returns everyone to the real affects of fear, horror, and empathy. The estranged but polite Andrei turns into a man who is furiously worried about Nadia when she falls into the water and the Spoilt Nadia vanishes, exhausted from insults and failures; instead appears a courageous, inventive, skilful girl who nurses Andrei when he is injured in a trap.

Nature, or more precisely, its state, forces the protagonists to recollect their past. Flashbacks, which have been invented and added by the director, make the film extremely truthful and dynamical; they allow us to understand the motivation of the protagonists and explain their behaviour. They also create a rhythm for the film, turning the action away from the slow insight into the taiga and the enamoured look at fantastic landscapes: just think of the horned mountain top of the Parabola Mountain (in the west Sayan range) that bewitches with its symmetry.

The first flashback happens about nine minutes into the film, when quite unexpectedly for both the spectator and the heroine Andrei says, as if pronouncing a fatal verdict: “I want to split up.” The flashback introduces us to another protagonist: Nadia’s father (Andrei Shchepochkin), who forbids the couple to hike to the lakes. Shchepochkin plays a schematic character, with whom it is senseless to argue, and if one does, it is not without risk. From his first appearance he is a Master (of earth and human fate), a Despot (in relation to his subordinates, his daughter, his son-in-law), a Power (economic, and not only). After the return to the past it is clear why Andrei chose such a ruthless way of explaining himself to Nadia: he is simply afraid of his father-in-law. This fear is explained further in the next flashback, from which we glean that Nadia’s father is the head of the large company, Kronos, which transforms Siberia’s natural resources into commodities. The name of the company is unambiguous in its reference to ancient Greek mythology: Chronos is a Titan with power over heaven, earth and the underworld. Subsequently we see both helicopter pilots and special forces comb through the area from the sky and on the ground, and we also see the improbable sizes of quarries of which He is in charge. He is in charge, manages and devours those who do not consent.

dvoeIn the second flashback Andrei is quite fearless when he opposes open extraction of resources, reminding everyone of the ecological consequences of such a practice for the taiga and its fauna, for the indigenous population, for those who live from the hunt. The hero’s speech takes us back to the traditions of Soviet “production films,” in which a young employee tended to be the non-conformist. Alas, in Zhalnin’s variant the hero’s non-conformism comes to an end within a few minutes, when the boss suggests he should head the new site. Moreover, Zhalnin sequentially shows the reasons and consequences of such conformism, which is the hero’s main motivation. In this case, conformism is not so much the dependence on political authority, but on the power of stereotypes (career growth, support of the management, beneficial marriage): it is the fear to be different. Yuri Trifonov’s novel House on the Embankment (Dom na naberezhnoe, 1976) contained the comment that “Personality is corrupted by conformism”. Indeed, together with Zhalnin we observe such a corruption of personality. Andrei’s conformist actions are not a product of blind belief and they do not come without argument; that would suggest some truth. The meanness of his conformism lies in the fact that he finds a way to agree, reconcile, accept and justify what reason and conscience would not allow him to do. The evaluation of Andrei’s career choice, about which we learn from the second flashback, is given in a small episode, in a meeting in the taiga with the local hunters, who had to go over to collecting since the animals have left due to the construction work. Understanding that the story of the elderly hunter is directly connected to his activity, Andrei answers evasively about his workplace. The benevolent, sympathetic conversation quickly turns formal when Andrei gives the hunter a corporate thermos mug from the Kronos company, which the hunter fastidiously refuses. Then Andrei is caught up by another young hunter who asks him for a job. If the elderly hunter still has some values as reference points, the young man is ready to adapt to life; most sadly, this choice is motivated by his living conditions.

The third flashback (the conversation with his colleague and mistress at the corporate party, who decides to leave the construction site and has bought a ticket for Andrei also) delivers further proof of the protagonist’s non-conformist behaviour: he delays decision-making onto later. But later there was the trap—a physical obstacle, after which hope in “later” has been lost; instead, there is his unsuccessful attempt at shooting himself. The dramatic nature of the entrapment created by the hero himself is emotionally supported by the sound composition for the film (composer Maksim Panteleev): those are the first notes of the disturbing musical theme that is reminiscent of raindrops, then of the impacts of a tennis racket in the fourth flashback, and then of the karaoke sounds (fifth flashback) on the anniversary of Nadia’s father—the anniversary when Andrei’s road to success starts. Curiously, we learn only in the second half of the film about the details of the acquaintance between Andrei and Nadia, about a choice that is not so much Andrei’s as that of the same imperious father who sees in him a proper husband for his daughter. Zhalnin, who acted not only as director but also a scriptwriter, builds a non-linear narration, thus expanding space and extending time. The time of the flashbacks equals two years from the moment of the father’s birthday and the meeting with Nadia, until their forbidden taiga hike. If in that life, on the other side of the river, everything happened quickly, then in the new life, for which the young couple had hoped (each in their own way), time has turned into eternity. Visually, this transition is determined in Andrei’s last flashback: a panorama shot of the end of the corporate party, a mountain of helmets with the inscription Kronos—in a visually obvious reference to Vasilii Vereshchagin’s well-known painting “The Apotheosis of War” (1871). Vereshchagin devoted the picture to all conquerors—past, present and future. Zhalnin devotes his film, I would argue, to all conformists—of the past, present and future.

dvoeFinally, we come to Nadia. The scriptwriter has granted her only one flashback, from which the possible reasons of her infertility emerge: the forced abortion of a pregnancy by a guy whom the father disliked. It explains also her desire to run away from the tyrant-father, imperiously and inconsiderately interfering in her life. Nadia is an ambivalent figure, a strange and naive creature (as indicated by the phrase “Let’s get away from father and go to Anapa”), poorly adapted for life; yet she is not only a victim of tragic circumstances, but also a heroine. The director equips her with a powerful intuition and, strangely enough, in the end with practical wit. She is ready to rescue Andrei once again, understanding that she can rely only on herself; therefore she asks Andrei to not go to the rescuers sent by her father. Her request sounds like God’s request to Lot’s wife: “Don’t turn around,” but Andrei “did look back.” Ultimately, she does not allow the sharpshooter to kill Andrei, in fact responding to his question “What shall we do with the guy?”, to which we hear the father’s reply also: “We don’t need him.” She does not turn around to the screaming Andrei as he is abandoned in the taiga. The rope on which he is dragged behind the motorboat that takes Nadia back to the big World will be cut off by a brutal guy from the special forces, like an umbilical cord, depriving the child of his only reliable source of love.

In the finale the phrase uttered by Nadia’s father in the second flashback acquires a performative value: “Do a man good, and then kill him.” The father has kept his word. Another phrase from the owner of Chronos remains visually on the screen, namely the engraving on the watch presented to Andrei: “Life is temporary.” This semi-criminal inscription from an oligarch and an “authority” is also effective.

For the sake of fairness, we should mention Zhalnin’s frequent use of wide angle and panorama shots of the taiga with its beauty and greatness (the excellent work of camera-woman Anna Rozhetskaia), which possibly disrupt (or distract from) the film’s action. But the authorial position remains consistent with his first film F5, and has only become more pronounced. Traditionally, a journey through nature gives people the chance to find back to each other. Zhalnin’s answer is that the button F5, which allows the erasure of everything and start all over again, no longer functions; there is just the option to delete.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

PDF Russian version

Lilya Nemchenko
Ural Federal University (Yekaterinburg)

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Coupled, Russia, 2018
Color, 94 min., Dolby 5.1
Scriptwriter and Director: Timofei Zhalnin
DoP: Anna Rozhetskaia
Production Design: Leonid Karpov
Music: Maksim Panteleev
Editing: Timofei Zhalnin, Natal’ia Kucherenko, Matvei Epanchintsev, Mikhail Segal
Cast: Tat’iana Polosina, Anton Momot, Andrei Shchepochkin, Aleksandra Mareeva
Producers: Aleksandr Kotelevskii, Andrei Novikov
Production: Film Company ARTLIGHT, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Distribution (RF): Film Company ARTLIGHT

Timofei Zhalnin: Coupled, aka Twain (Dvoe, 2018)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko © 2018

Updated: 2018