Issue 67 (2020)

Anton Kolomeets: The Tutor (Vash repetitor, 2018)

reviewed by Olga Klimova © 2020


repetitorAnton Kolomeets’s debut film The Tutor was first shown at the Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi in 2018, along with seven other debut films, including Vladimir Bitokov’s Deep Rivers (Glubokie reki, 2018), Aleksandr Gorchilin’s Acid (Kislota, 2018), and Nataliia Pershina Dead Swallows (Mertvye lastochki, 2018). The film did not receive any special praise from film critics besides an acknowledgement for being well-constructed and visually mature, which is rare for recent graduates of film schools (Kolomeets graduated from Vladimir Khotinenko’s class at the Film Institute VGIK in 2014). Kolomeets started working on the script for his film in the last year of his studies at VGIK, but only after meeting Valerii Todorovskii—a prominent Russian film producer and director best known for his films The Land of Deaf (Strana glukhikh, 1998) and Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008)—he was able to realize his plans for his first full-length feature film. Some critics have attributed the good quality of the film to the fact that Tutor was produced and supervised by Todorovskii, although Kolomeets, in one of his interviews, has shared that even though his producer was quite involved in the process, his suggestions were mainly of a non-regulatory nature (Ostasheva 2018). As Kolomeets and Todorovskii were expecting to receive financial support from the Ministry of Culture, they started shooting two-and-a-half years after the initial idea. Kolomeets’s film has traveled to several international film festivals and won the official Jury Award for the best picture at the 4th BRICS Film Festival in Brazil, the award for the best debut film at Golden Sphinx Film Festival in Smolensk, and other awards at local Russian film festivals.

Tutor is one of many other films and TV series—such as Bo Widerberg’s All Things Fair (1995), Doi Nobuhiro and Katayama Osamu’s Terms for a Witch (1999), Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), and Marina Migunova’s The Lovers (2006)—that explore the topic of the forbidden relationship between a teacher and a student. Despite the obvious narrative theme of the socially unacceptable affair, Kolomeets refuses to define his film as a film about “forbidden love.” Rather, he describes his film as “a story of the destruction of various illusions about oneself” (Ostasheva 2018). In this regard, Tutor may also be considered as a melodramatic Bildungsroman. At the film’s narrative core are the two protagonists, who belong to two different generations and exist in two entirely different worlds: a seventeen-year-old high school student, Savva, and a foreign-literature tutor in her mid-forties, Anna Germanovna. Savva lives with his parents in a large, bright two-level apartment and is getting ready for his entrance exams to the international post-secondary French school. Anna lives alone in a small, dark apartment and offers private tutoring lessons, mainly to undergraduate and graduate students. Their lives get intertwined after Savva’s parents leave for Italy for a month, and he finds Anna’s contact information on the website “Your Tutor” (“Vash repetitor”). They start meeting regularly in Anna’s apartment to discuss French literature in preparation for Savva’s exams. The mutual attraction between the two develops gradually, erasing the generational gap between the teenager and his middle-age tutor. The personal distance between the two of them gradually decreases as they start having more engaging and emotionally charged discussions of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary.

repetitorFlaubert’s novel becomes the tool of seduction, and the literary “forbidden” affairs of Emma Bovary lead to Anna and Savva’s own transgression and their relationship changing from purely academic to more intimate, and eventually sexual. In the scene where Savva reads excerpts from the novel, describing Emma from different perspectives by the men in her life, the camera begins to identify with Anna’s gaze. The close-ups of Savva’s lips while he is reading the novel, of his hands holding a pencil over the open book, and of his hair that is still wet from an earlier plumbing accident signal the formation of Anna’s physical attraction to her student. This scene parallels with another scene earlier in the film, where the camera makes a very similar movement, this time from Savva’s point of view. It focuses on Anna’s neck, ears, and her hands holding a pen. Thus, the two characters are already linked to each other not only through their interest in foreign literature and their admiration of Emma Bovary, but also through the shared physical desire.

repetitorDuring the press conference at Kinotavr, Kolomeets’s Tutor was attacked by some critics for its “amoral” depiction of the affair between an older teacher and a student of minor age. However, the director defended his film and pointed out that the relationship between Anna and Savva just serves as a background for the cinematic characters’ philosophical self-explorations and the director’s attempts to reflect on and resolve his own fears (“Cinema” 2018). His film, he argued, is about the realization that “there is a world of ideas, and there is a world of the reality, and the two of them do not synchronize” (“Cinema” 2018). For Savva, his involvement with a much older, very knowledgeable, and educated woman ignites a journey of maturation. In the beginning of the film, he is represented as an immature high-school student, who is grounded by his parents for partying with his friends instead of preparing for the exams. He is in search of his own identity, as various people in his life perceive him differently and have different expectations for him, similarly to the male characters’ treatment of Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s novel. Savva’s mother believes that he is an independent young man, who can live on his own for a month while his parents are on vacation in Italy. His father, on the one hand, calls him “kid” (“malysh”), on the other hand, tells him that it is his own responsibility to get into university, and thus avoiding mandatory army service. Savva’s friends want to have fun and use Savva’s parentless apartment for drinking and hooking up with girls. It is only Anna, who, after the first few meetings, realizes Savva’s potential to be insightful and able to contemplate important philosophical ideas in literature and life. Thus, their romantic relationship develops as a side-effect of their intellectual and, possibly, spiritual bonding; their physical attraction to each other becomes secondary and less significant. That is why, later in the film, the signifier of primal, physiological urges—the used condom during their rendezvous—provokes a feeling of repulsion, even physical disgust in Savva.

As sexual exploration is not the primary goal of their meetings, Anna and Savva are also drawn to each other because their interactions fill out the void that they have in their lives, as both of them do not seem to bond with other people. They are represented as loners, misfits among the people of their own generation. Savva postpones organizing a party in his apartment as he wants to enjoy some time alone without his parents and friends. Anna fails to connect with her neighbors and does not have any meaningful relationships with her own sister or her family. She originally rejects her new neighbor’s flirtations and only sleeps with him later on in an attempt to suppress her pain caused by her young lover’s betrayal. Except for some brief, meaningless encounters with other people, Anna and Savva spend the majority of the screen time either alone or in the company of each other. Throughout the film, Savva is often depicted alone on the streets, in the park, and in his apartment, standing in front of windows, or enjoying the city view from the rooftop of his apartment building. He craves for a true human connection, which is evident in the scene in the park, when he is observing a boy and his father flying a kite together, and in the scene where he is looking through the window at the children’s choir singing about love: “Teach me, God, how to love.” The teenage character is framed alone on the screen, and the close-ups of Savva’s face with sad, musing expression and naïve blue eyes are juxtaposed with shots of the boy and his father and the children and their music teacher framed together. These scenes cut to the scenes in Anna’s apartment, as it is the only place where Savva seems to be able to find some meaningful connections and learn how to love.

repetitorBesides their shared interests in foreign literature and their inability to build close relationships with other people, the two cinematic characters in Kolomeets’s film are connected to each other through imagery and objects on the screen. The white lilies in a vase in Anna’s apartment that Savva notices at his first tutoring session become the signifiers of their relationship. White lilies convey different symbolic meanings and may serve as a symbol of love, purity, unity, lust, and transience. In Tutor, the relationship between the teenage boy and his tutor is strong, passionate, but transient as the lilies in Anna’s apartment. The lilies often become a significant part of the mise-en-scène during the tutoring sessions or the intimate scenes to emphasize their specific meaning for the development of the romantic relationship between the two characters. The white lilies also function as a metonymy for Anna, and Savva’s first sexual encounter happens not with Anna, but with her “substitutes” in his bedroom. He later brings Anna white lilies to replace the old, dead ones in an attempt to save or prolong the transient status of their affair; however, these lilies also do not last long. The poisonous and potentially dangerous nature of lilies—a fact that Anna mentions upon receiving the flowers from Savva—also signals the potentially destructive nature of the unorthodox relationship between a teenage student and his much older teacher.

Water is another trope that links the two characters: along with Flaubert’s novel, it also becomes an instrument of seduction. Because of a plumbing accident, both Anna and Savva get wet and the teenager has to take off his shirt. Several minutes later, in a parallel montage, the camera cuts from Savva embracing the pouring rain on the street to the close-up rain drops on Anna’s hand while she is enjoying the rain through the open window in her apartment. They first “share” this rain, and later share a bed in Anna’s apartment. In the early stage of his relationship with Anna, Savva takes a shower to get ready for his visit to her apartment, and the camera voyeuristically enjoys the young man taking a shower. At the peak of their emotional and sexual involvement, a scene in the shower returns, this time with the two lovers sharing the running water. After Savva’s realization of physicality taking over their intellectual and emotional bond later in the film, he refuses to take a glass of water from Anna—a gesture that also marks the end of their relationship. If water and the lilies function as the cinematic props that mark first unity and later the inevitable separation of the two protagonists, the voyeuristic predispositions that both Anna and Savva reveal throughout the film remain even after the couple has split up.

repetitorKolomeets has acknowledged that his film is an exercise in voyeuristic tendencies (Ostasheva 2018), and the audience is invited to consume and enjoy the images on screen together with the characters. The fluid, poetic visual style of the film dominates the narrative due to the skillful work of a young, but already experienced cameraman, Egor Kochubei, with whom Kolomeets collaborated earlier on several short films. Kochubei’s voyeuristic camera spends considerable time on daily objects, body parts, and faces, emphasizing their importance through close-ups, slow motion, and extended time. Often, the visuals in the film exist on their own, separately from the narrative structure, and convey more meaning to the viewer than the storyline and dialogues. The camera also invites the viewers to experience the haptic perception of objects and bodies on the screen together with the protagonists: Savva’s gently stroking the rug in his bedroom, his sensual caressing Anna’s neck and body, his curious touch of sun reflections on the wall in his lover’s apartment, and Anna’s tenderly fondling the young man’s hair.

Throughout the film, both Anna and Savva engage not only in haptic, but also in visual experiences of the world around them. They simultaneously take the role of an active subject of the gaze and become an object of each other’s (and the viewer’s) visual consumption. They look at each other and other people and objects directly or peeping through a half-open door, windows, or the computer screen on social media. They exchange extended, meaningful glances in the beginning of the affair, throughout the film, and even in the final “farewell” scene. From the opening scene, the viewers’ attention is drawn to the visual aesthetics of the film as they become engaged in the act of looking by appropriating Savva’s gaze. The bright blue, sparkly segments of the kaleidoscope through which Savva is looking in the establishing shot of the film, accompanied by a melodious non-diegetic music, creates an atmosphere of a dream-like, illusory scene. This bright imagery is contrasted to the real-life scenes, and the subsequent development of the romantic relationship with the middle-age tutor just continues the fairy-tale-like scenario. The director provides the viewer with his own explanation of the failed relationship between Anna and Savva in one of the teenager’s final monologues: “You wake up after experiencing something in your dream and perceive everything there as the truth. However, in real life, you do not find an analogy of this experience, and it confuses me so much.” Thus, the affair has to end, because, similarly to dreams, it follows laws different from those of the social realm.

Olga Klimova
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

“Cinema”. 2018. “29-yi Kinotavr. Den’ sed’moi…” Cineplex 14 June.

Ostasheva, Dar’ia. 2018. “Anton Kolomeets: ‘Vash repetitor’ — eto ne istoriia o zapretnoi liubvi.” (Interview). ProfiCinema 4 May.

 


The Tutor, Russia, 2018
Color, 85 minutes, 1:2.39, Dolby SR
Director and Script: Anton Kolomeets
Production Design Eduard Galkin
Cinematography: Egor Kochubei
Music: Savva Rozanov
Editing Alla Urazbaeva
Costumes: Vladimir Kuptsov
Cast: Nataliia Vdovina, Aleksei Sergeev, Anastasiia Kuimova, Vladislav Konoplev, Maksim Bitiukov, Svetlana Ivanova-Sergeeva, Olga Tsink, Konstantin Kolesnik
Producer: Valerii Todorovskii Production Marmot-Film, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Anton Kolomeets: The Tutor (Vash repetitor, 2018)

reviewed by Olga Klimova © 2020

Updated: 2020