Issue 72 (2021)

Renata Litvinova: The North Wind (Severnyi veter, 2021)

reviewed by Olga Mukhortova © 2021

northwindAt the beginning of February 2021, Renata Litvinova theatrically released her new film, The North Wind, which she had been promoting through social media for the last two years. According to the film’s plot, an aristocratic family (vaguely reminiscent of Anton Chekhov’s fallen aristocracy from The Cherry Orchard) lives in the Northern Fields that could be the seamy side of the Russian flatlands with the same constant wars, eternal winters, and money hidden deep in the permafrost and rotting nevertheless. The story describes how this family, headed by the matriarch “Eternal Alisa,” celebrates the New Year over and over again for about thirty years. With multiple servants and several relatives, the family lives a rich but desperate life, seeking love. Between the two sisters, Margarita is the older; the younger, Lotta, has a daughter called Ada. The plot revolves around Margarita (the real matriarch, played by Litvinova herself), her son Benedict, and his unloved wife, Faina. This series of celebrations opens up an actual family history full of loss and death. From one holiday to the next, the family loses someone dear due to death, marriage, or war. Not every lost member is mentioned the next year. The most significant loss happens at the beginning of the film and causes other unhappy sequences and ruined lives. Fanny (played by Ul'iana Dobrovskaia, Litvinova’s daughter), the fiancée of Margarita’s son Benedict, dies in an airplane crash—like a lead character played by Litvinova in Vera Storozheva’s film Sky. Plane. Girl (Nebo. Samolet. Devushka, 2002). Benedict marries her sister in the falsehope that he will love Faina as he loved her sister Fanny.

northwindThe film’s plot seems to be the least compelling reason to go to the theater and watch this film on the big screen even under the current COVID circumstances. The film is made to enjoy visual pleasures at a far slower pace than anything else on the screen. Its two hours do not seem long compared to the recent examples of filmmaking that last several hours, or even days. However, with these 122 minutes, Litvinova crafts a piece of art that absorbs the viewer’s attention completely. Litvinova’s imaginary world of the eternal woman-centered family fashions a vivid picture that could persuade the viewer that her cinematographic world is more real than anything spinning around our pandemic reality. The costumes and art production aim to design a special place that could be real and unreal simultaneously, the location and time of in-between-ness, where time has an additional thirteen hour, especially for people to hide away from their lives in a different reality. Litvinova’s aristocratic familial rotting world turns out to be an eternal thirteen hour of torture and death, in which everyone suffers through their own personal hell, waiting for a call from a dead or lost lover, recollecting days of happiness for decades, or just dying for the glory of the Northern Fields. Death is the main reason for life and love/unlove, not vice versa.

northwindThe stunning aesthetic of death and the continual annual funeral reception, which appears as a decaying New Year’s celebration, is brought from Litvinova’s previous films: The Goddess. How I Fell in Love (Boginia: Kak ia poliubila, 2004) and Rita’s Last Fairy Tale (Posledniaia skazka Rity, 2012). All three films can be viewed as a trilogy connected by the theme of death and visual pleasure for a contemplative spectator, the main reason to watch all three films. Margarita from Rita’s Last Fairy Tale seems to be alive in her Northern Fields and waiting for a call from her Kolya. The unloved Faina from The Goddess turns into the unhappily married wife of Benedict. Every ten years or so, Litvinova-the-director revives her death characters (Litvinova first embodied death in Kira Muratova’s The Tuner [Nastroishchik, 2004], in which her character appears with a scythe several times; however, death as a metaphor and the essential meaning of a film character ripens in the collaboration between Litvinova and Muratova from the very beginning: in Passions [Uvlecheniia, 1994], Litvinova represents a nurse working in a morgue, and in Three Stories [Tri istorii, 1997 ], she creates the murderess Ophelia) and brings them to life, again and again, to discuss how death is intertwined with life and love and to ask her audience the same question: “Are you alive or dead?” This question matters even more now after a year of numerous deaths on a pandemic scale.

northwindLitvinova’s aesthetics of death also has similar roots in her previous films. However, in The North Wind, it is reinforced with the probably solid financial support of Roman Abramovich (who is personally mentioned in the closing credits). Now Litvinova does not just introduce the signs and symbols of death into everyday reality, as she did in The Goddess or Rita’s Last Fairy Tale (crows or dead fish) but flips reality upside down and forms a more realistic world of death with its glorious cold castles, snow-covered airplane, reindeer, and especially with costumes and make-up. Sophisticated and high fashion costumes from Demna Gvasalia, sisters Ruban, and Nadezhda Vasil’eva construct an image of an eternal woman who is always gorgeous and always unreachable, the queen of the North Fields. Litvinova’s women are so splendid and excellent that they cannot die. These never-dying women serve as different faces of Death itself. In Litvinova’s cinematic reality, death and all suffering disappear when eternal beauty steps into a room.

northwindLitvinova also references memory and death by collaborating with the famous costume designer Nadezhda Vasil’eva, the widow of Aleksei Balabanov and associate of many of his films. However, the most remembered person in the films is obviously Kira Muratova, Litvinova’s cinematic mother. Litvinova pays homage to Muratova by resurrecting her motifs such as doubling female figures (Faina and Fanny), repetitions of the exact words throughout the whole film (the champagne prayer “fill in Champagne”), and the atmosphere of a circus and a circus character (played by Svetlana Khodchenkova). In Litvinova’s world, Muratova’s motifs live their afterlife fully and gloriously, probably because Litvinova herself could be seen as Muratova’s key motif as well as her auteur signature. Litvinova invited her cinematographic friends into a new film that she directed.

northwindMoreover, Litvinova now turns from a cinematic daughter into a director-mother when she invites her daughter Ul'iana to play the lead character Fanny and to take her place as an actress. Litvinova completely flipped her self-identifications with this move: now she is a directress first and an actress last. In The North Wind, Litvinova also repurposes Muratova’s doubling device into self-mirroring. Every female character develops one side of Margarita’s identity: Fanny presents her short-lived happiness and mutual love, Faina discovers her unloved side and suffering, Eternal Alisa demonstrates Margarita’s future, the sister Lotta explains her attitude towards wealth, while Lotta’s daughter reveals the bisexuality that runs through the family supported by Eternal Alisa.

northwindWith this film, Litvinova has proved that she has developed into an auteur with her clear-cut style of self-centeredness, self-quotation, emphasis on costume design and make-up, recurrent motifs of smoking, and the eternal dilemma of family relationships with doubling daughters and mothers. Litvinova’s women are distanced and glorified, sometimes unbelievably beautiful in their physical deformity and mental abnormality. Litvinova’s directorial style forms an attitude of total respect and love for every woman. Every actress and actor reinforce this attitude of respect and self-respect in the film. 

Olga Mukhortova,
Defense Language Institute, Monterey CA

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The North Wind, Russia, 2020
Color, 122 minutes
Director: Renata Litvinova
Script: Renata Litvinova
Cinematography: Oleg Lukichev
Production Design: Nadezhda Vasil'eva, Nina Vasenina, Sergei Fevralev
Costume Design: Nadezhda Vasil'eva
Music: Zemfira Ramazanova
Editing: Sergei Ivanov, Renata Litvinova
Cast: Renata Litvinova, Ul'iana Dobrovskaia, Anton Shagin, Sofia Ernst, Galina Tiunina, Tatiana Piletskaia, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Nikita Kukushkin, Manana Totibadze, Maksim Sukhanov
Producers: Renata Litvinova, Natalia Dubovitskaia, Nadezhda Solovieva
Production: SPPR
Release date (Russia): 6 February 2021

Renata Litvinova: The North Wind (Severnyi veter, 2021)

reviewed by Olga Mukhortova © 2021

Updated: 2021