Issue 72 (2021)

Oksana Mikheeva, Lika Iatkovskaia, Natasha Merkulova, Anton Bil’zho, Anna Sarukhanova: Very Feminine Stories (Ochen’ zhenskie istorii, 2020)

reviewed by Olga Blackledge © 2021

zhenskie istoriiJulia Mishkinene’s project, Very Feminine Stories, is an omnibus film, the parts of which were shot over a period of several years and presented as independent shorts at film festivals before they were assembled into the almanac. In an interview, Mishkinene revealed that the idea for this project emerged after she finished producing a short directed by Natasha Merkulova, Sisters (Sestry, 2016) (Aliev 2020)—Mishkinene and Merkulova decided to make a film about the “female world” (Anon. 2020) and gathered the rest of the parts as a collection of stories. All five parts of Very Feminine Stories feature women as main characters and in all of them men perform marginal roles.

Apart from the focus on women, at first glance, the stories told in this almanac have very little in common. The stylistically different shorts created by five filmmakers, mostly women, working in various genres, seem to celebrate different aspects of women’s lives: we see women, each of which, regardless of the world created in the film—realistic or fantastic—has her own struggles and her own story to tell.

The first story, $, as the Dollar Sign, Dot, G (Es, kak dollar, tochka, dzhi, dir. Oksana Mikheeva) is set in the high-tech futuristic world of glass surfaces and projected signs, in which the relationship between women and men is established through the bureaucratic procedure of rental. In this world, women are granted the power to rent men as husbands (not hire, but rent, like inanimate objects), yet all the details of this procedure, including the duration of the agreements as well as the categories of men they can rent, are established by unbreachable (presumably state) rules and protocols executed also by women working at the rental agency. Even though the role of the men is reduced to that of an object represented in a catalogue, the rules of rental are similar to stereotypical patterns: women choose from a pool of considerably older men, whereas men are offered younger women for choice. The system also encourages women to engage in physical and intellectual activity as well as improve their living conditions, promising a higher category and a better choice of men. The main character (Mikhalkova) attempts to cheat the system and claims that her husband, whom she has to return after 20 years of rent and with whom she has had three kids (“Because this is what he wanted.”), has died. The husband (Frolov), however, decides to betray his wife and turns himself in, lured by the expected benefits offered by the system to the men who follow the rules, and Mikhalkova’s character comes up with a plan of how to use the system to avenge her love for an undeserving man.

zhenskie istoriiIf the first story aims to create a futuristic world, the second story, Art Lessons for Adults (Uroki risovaniia dlia vzroslykh, dir. Lika Iatkovskaia), comes straight from the art world of the past. Here, postcards with Modigliani’s nudes provide the establishing shot and set the scene for the story of an unlikely friendship between forty-year-old Liuba (Tolkalina) and twenty-six-year-old Vera (Il’iashenko), who meet at an art studio. Contrary to the role of women as muses, which is typical for the traditional world of art, here the two heroines are aspiring demiurges—they attend art classes in which they (under a male teacher’s supervision) paint nude women who do not correspond to the standards of beauty in Modigliani’s paintings. Their encounter, however, is not accidental—it is a set-up, carefully planned by Liuba who, upon learning that Vera is her husband’s lover, befriends her only to break them up and reconnect with her husband. Even though it tells a rather ordinary story of female rivalry, visually the short plays with traditional notions of artists and muses by framing, at various points in the film, all of the characters, female and male, as sexual objects in ways that mimic art objects, thus problematizing the traditionally female figure of the muse.

zhenskie istoriiContrary to the glossy and refined imagery of Art Lessons, the style of the above-mentioned short Sisters resembles that of Dogma95—the hand-held camera and natural lighting create a sense of a slice-of-life documentary about two sisters: Alla (Isakova), an alcoholic, and Nina (Tolstoganova), a well-off mother and wife who tries to save her sister from addiction. The close-ups that dominate the film allow for an in-depth exploration of the characters’ emotional states and create an almost tangible bond between the sisters—their closeness is translated into an image of symbiotic relationship. The short poses the questions—what is the source of this relationship, and who in it depends on whom?—thus problematizing and conflating the very notions of relationship and addiction.

zhenskie istoriiAlcohol addiction is also one of the themes of the fourth short, which has the polysemic title Stiralka (dir. Anton Bil’zho, the only male director in the group), whichin Russian means both “washing machine” and “eraser.” In Stiralka, however, alcohol becomes an obstacle in the main character’s life to connecting with herself. Through what seems to be an ordinary and rather boring day of an aspiring actress Veta (Dell’) who lives with a wealthy husband—yoga, cooking, and entertaining the husband’s guest in the evening—we see flashbacks into her memories of the previous night. In the first flashback we see Veta with Liza (Sliu), a friend who gets increasingly intoxicated, and who very emotionally keeps complaining about her failing relationship with her husband. Veta is sober, and in this conversation, she represents the rational voice who provides her friend with advice, but Liza does not listen. In the following flashbacks, Veta and Liza continue partying with two men, and the events spiral out of control. Veta manages to preserve her cool until the very end, when she has to escape from a man who attempts to sexually assault her. However, her behavior and its contrast to that of Liza’s starts looking increasingly suspicious and out of place. The explanation is provided only at the very end of the short, when it becomes clear that Liza is the other side of Veta who, by erasing her memories, is trying to escape from herself.

zhenskie istoriiThe evocation of painful memories and reconciliation with them is the theme of the last short, Exhibition (Vystavka, dir. Anna Sarukhanova). Throughout the short, the main character Lena (Vitorgan) engages in internal monologue with herself while working as a living statue at an art exhibition. This short seems to echo the themes of the previous parts of the almanac—a break-up with a man, rivalry with a woman, trauma and inability to recover from a relationship, and an attempt to remain whole and talk the situation through. This short also blurs the boundaries between art and life—while participating in the exhibition, Lena meets other living statues and establishes relationships with some of them. But these relationships are very different from the ones in the previous shorts—she becomes friends with a guy named Gosha (Kudrenko), and manages to connect with Arina (Chernykh), the girl for whom her boyfriend left her. Lena is also in touch with herself—her internal monologue helps her to get through painful situations and become more mature. The point of connection for Lena and Arina becomes cinema, namely, the film Birdman (2014, dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu), a love for which they both share. It is as if the almanac suggests that cinema and life do not imitate each other, but rather exist in a symbiotic relationship—cinema cannot exist without its audiences, and at the same time provides them with an invaluable means for connectivity. 

Thus, although the stories told in the almanac are very different, all of their heroines are on a quest of establish and maintain relationships and connections. And even though these quests restrict them to the traditionally female private sphere, and the worlds of these heroines are small and seemingly unimportant, we can admire their perseverance, ingenuity, and ability to adapt and learn. Ultimately, given the fact that the film premiered at the beginning of March 2020, right before the declaration of the pandemic, this small-scale cinematic world no longer appears only female, but rather becomes a world in need of connection, one in which we all currently live.

Olga Blackledge
Bethany College

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Works Cited

Aliev, Timur. 2020. “‘Ochen’ zhenskie istorii’—Iuliia Mishkinene i Natasha Merkulova o fil’me.” Seans (8 March).

Anon. 2020. “Ochen’ zhenskie istorii.” Vokrug kino.

Very Feminine Stories, Russia, 2020
Color, 100 minutes
Directors: Oksana Mikheeva, Lika Iatkovskaia, Natasha Merkulova, Anton Bil’zho, Anna Sarukhanova
Screenplay: Oksana Mikheeva, Lika Iatkovskaia, Natasha Merkulova, Anton Bil’zho, Anna Bakuradze
DoP: Shandor Berkeshi, Ksenia Sereda, Aleksandr Martynov
Music: Andrius Mishkinis
Cast: Anna Mikhalkova, Viktoriia Isakova, Viktoriia Tolstoganova, Lukeriia Il’iashenko, Anna Sliu, Liubov’ Tolkalina, Polina Vitorgan, Kristina Babushkina, Diana Dell’, Anfisa Chernykh, Vitalii Gogunskii, Fedor Dunaevskii, Sergei Frolov, Petar Zekavica, Georgii Kudrenko, Anastasia Pronina, Grigorii Zel’tser.
Producers: Julia Mishkinene, Aleksandr Plotnikov, Andrei Epifanov, Tat’iana Petrik.
Production: Vita Aktiva Production, Cinetrain

Oksana Mikheeva, Lika Iatkovskaia, Natasha Merkulova, Anton Bil’zho, Anna Sarukhanova: Very Feminine Stories (Ochen’ zhenskie istorii, 2020)

reviewed by Olga Blackledge © 2021

Updated: 2021