Issue 62 (2018)

Dmitrii Svetozarov: The Shadow (Ten’, 2016)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2018

In Michel Deville’s The Woman in Blue (La femme en bleu, 1973), a successful music critic is mesmerized by the sudden sight of a beauty in the streets of Paris and subsequently tries everything in his power to see her again. The man, portrayed by Michel Piccoli, is so obsessed with the need to find the woman in blue that he even persuades his lady friend to help him in his endless search. Finally, when his efforts prove fruitless, he takes his own life…

tenjThe entrepreneur Boris Gordin (Mikhail Porechenkov), the lead in Dmitrii Svetozarov’s The Shadow, is driven by the same relentless passion as Deville’s/Piccoli’s character. A deeply depressed romantic, this wealthy Russian businessman hopes to open a new chapter in his life when he sees an enigmatic beauty in an old photo that he accidentally spots in a house about to be destroyed by his own company and replaced by a supermarket. Since the woman in the picture, Veronika Listovskaia, was a silent-cinema star who passed away almost a hundred years earlier, Gordin mobilizes his considerable resources to find an exact double. Numerous people hang on Gordin’s every whim, so his dream finally comes true and the reincarnation of the star (Varvara Shcherbakova) enters his house and shares his bed, albeit for just one night. Gordin’s crude advances scare the young woman who is poor and unaware of her magic; she leaves him and his money to live with a young eccentric ex-convict and would-be writer who is likewise crazy about her. The oligarch is at his wit’s end and commits suicide by parachute.

tenjJust like Deville’s Parisian elegy about unattainable beauty fifty years earlier, Svetozarov’s film portrays the yearning for enigmatic, uncorrupted femininity in a man who seems to have everything, including caring lovers, devoted friends, and obedient subordinates. In both films, a classical theme provides the musical leitmotif that imbues the images with melancholic pensiveness: in Le femme en bleu, it is Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” in The Shadow, Bellini’s “La sonnambula.” However, the posh nouveau riche milieu of modern St. Petersburg constantly undermines the existential seriousness of the music, while Gordin, the quixotic seeker of ingenuity, fails to discern which of the people surrounding him are for real and which merely for hire. Throughout the film, he voices his disgust over the false values that permeate his life and those of his compatriots. The film makes it abundantly clear that the scion is in the middle of a severe existential crisis and fatigued beyond salvation. Looking for a woman who is different from the modern standard, promising depth and authenticity is in itself a symptom of Gordin’s condition. It is clear that his quest cannot but end in fiasco.

Svetozarov uses the interiors of Gordin’s grotesquely spacious and almost empty villa to convey mental torment. Conspicuously, he avoids exploiting the cityscapes of St Petersburg for that purpose. The camera transverses only boring streets, dilapidated buildings, and monotonous new quarters—spaces that offer no spiritual signs or orientation.

tenjOne of the film’s major tropes is the purported transformation of humankind in our era. When Gordin first notices the actress on the old black-and-white photo, his attention is immediately captured by the expression in her eyes and, later, by the language of her body in the footage of her few surviving silent movies. He claims to sense that these remaining shadows of her possess a power far greater than that of the women he has been with. In several dialogues, characters share the observation that such women no longer exist because “people have become different.” As for the causes of this transformation and the possibility of reversing it, the film offers no answer, nor even a hypothesis. There are indications that the retired teacher who occupies an apartment in the old building that Gordin wants to tear down is intended as an alternative—her stubborn defense of the ideals of yesteryear, based on 19th-century literature, is given considerable room. She is arguably the only character whom the film takes seriously, unlike the many who act hysterically, driven by the need for money or by mere pretentiousness. Svetozarov has his roots in this fading realm of classical humanistic education and has said so openly, with a kind of quixotic pride. In his directorial career, which began in the early 1980s, he has carved out a privileged place for himself, enabling him to alternate openly commercial projects, including hugely popular television miniseries, with more quality-conscious work. The Shadow belongs to the latter category; its box-office returns were negligible, a fact that could have hardly come as a surprise to the director who coproduced the film with his frequent partner Andrei Sigle.

tenjThe film’s most fundamental problem is its lack of inner dynamics, not so much because of its self-conscious literariness – which leads it to clichéd outcomes – as because of its weak stylistic cohesiveness. One has to wonder if years of working in TV with its unrelenting routine have not had a detrimental effect on the director’s ability to control the material of his feature. The Shadow, while not devoid of original moments, suffers from a disunity of tone, atmosphere, and acting styles. Porechenkov’s hammy oligarch, Iurii Stoianov’s clownish sidekick, Rudol’f Furmanov’s caricature of a retired police general, and Petr Logachev’s pseudo-writer Iziumov – they all seem to come from different acting schools and fail to form an organic ensemble. Most importantly, Varvara Shcherbakova’s reincarnated movie star appears not so much mysterious as disoriented. And as soon as the film begins to launch moral accusations against the owner of money and the hollowness of rampant materialism, the viewer’s curiosity about where the story might be going is squelched. In reactivating Gorky’s anti-capitalist sentiments the filmmakers took the easy way out, sacrificing the plot’s great potential.

This story of a daydreaming oligarch could have used an unconventional solution – perhaps a mystical or funny one—that would have prevented it from rehashing age-old moralism. The opening scene on the plane from which Gordin jumps, offered that chance. Had this mildly satirical romanticism and visual originality been maintained, the film could have acquired aesthetic wholeness and elegance. Alas, in most of the subsequent scenes, cinematic energy is in short supply and the conflicts are played out verbally, as if on stage. Such theatricality is especially regrettable since the film’s central object of attraction is cinema, and silent cinema at that—i.e., the purest form of moving pictures, indeed the true realm of shadows. Rather than focusing on the gluttonous filmmaker Panov, who is promised money for his ambitious dream project, the fascination of the world of Russian silent cinema might have served as a key to stylistic freshness. But these and other motifs are merely touched upon and then dropped… as if Gordin’s existential fatigue had overtaken the crew itself. 

Peter Rollberg,
The George Washington University

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The Shadow, Russia, 2016
Color, 107 min.
Director: Dmitrii Svetozarov
Script: Arkadii Krasil’shchikov
Cinematography: Gleb Klimov
Cast: Mikhail Porechenkov, Iurii Stoianov, Varvara Shcherbakova, Rudol’f Furmanov, Pavel Cherniavskii, Petr Logachev, Sergei Vasil’ev, Anna Stepanova
Producers: Andrei Sigle, Dmitrii Svetozarov
Film Company: ASDS

Dmitrii Svetozarov: The Shadow (Ten’, 2016)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2018

Updated: 2018