Issue 73 (2021)

Maria Ignatenko: In Deep Sleep (Gorod usnul, 2020)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2021

gorodLingering shots of a bay covered in mist, underlit indoor scenes, a camera following the characters too closely, or, on the contrary, too discretely to reveal the scene in full, inside jokes and barely audible small talk instead of fully developed dialogue, and, finally, a protagonist who hardly speaks, but whose expressionless face regularly reappears in close-ups to remind us that this is his story. Maria Ignatenko’s In Deep Sleep is not an easy watch, leaving many questions unanswered, but the combination of a poetic visual style, minimalistic soundtrack, and mythopoetic vocabulary make for an intriguing debut film.

Reduced to the cardinal functions of its plot, Ignatenko’s film focuses on Viktor, a young mechanic working on a trawler in the far north, who loses his wife, Nika, in what appears to be a drunk driving accident. Unable to come to terms with his loss, Viktor kills an older mechanic, Dmitrii, whom he suspects of having had an affair with his wife. Viktor is arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison. The last to leave the court room is an elderly, baldish woman, Viktor’s devastated mother.

Seemingly straightforward when reduced to the level of story, In Deep Sleep leaves the viewer mostly guessing as to what is really happening. While some scenes are clearly meant to visualize Viktor’s masochistic fantasies about his wife being unfaithful, others are shown in a more ambivalent way, leaving it to the viewer to interpret them as yet more of Viktor’s imaginings or as plausible reconstructions of real events. When, in an ultrashort scene, we see Nika from behind filmed with a hand-held camera as she is trying to escape a male pursuer, the status of these jumpy images remains unclear. Is this Viktor imagining his competitor grabbing Nika by the arm and then, still more possessively, keeping a tight grip on her neck, or is it a recollection of a matrimonial row in which he was embroiled himself? His own involvement in this ugly scene is quite conceivable, especially given the testimony of one of the witnesses, a friend of Nika’s, that Viktor has always been jealous and even prone to violence. Ultimately, we are left wondering whether Dmitrii was in any way responsible for Nika’s death and whether their “affair” was more than a figment of Viktor’s imagination.

gorodExcept for two realistic court room scenes that inform us first about Viktor’s crime and then his conviction, most of the action is dominated by his perception. This is done both in a conventional way by using eyelines (allowing the viewer to see what Viktor is looking at off-screen) and more radically by presenting the world as an expression of his grief and pain. Once he learns about the details of Nika’s fatal injuries, and the terrible fact of her death starts sinking in, the entire world appears to be immersed in some lethargic slumber. A bus driver, guests in a restaurant, patients in the hospital where Nika died, even pedestrians in the streets (eerily resembling corpses) are all fast asleep. Only Viktor is awake. He wanders around leaning over people lying in the snow and turning them on their backs as if to establish that they are asleep, not dead.

gorodOne way of construing this slumber is to regard it as a metaphor for what Viktor may perceive to be people’s indifference and emotional blindness; his world has fallen apart and nobody seems to care. In other words, Viktor’s being awake amidst a city asleep (the Russian title is Gorod usnul) signifies his profound disorientation and loneliness. One can also go a step further by interpreting this collective narcolepsy as a realized metaphor of Viktor’s perception that the world has “died,” because to him, life has lost all meaning. In many languages, the verbs “falling asleep” and “dying” are etymologically related (among them Russian and German); in Greek mythology, the uncanny similarity between sleep and death is reflected in the twin brothers Hypnos and Thanatos, the gods of sleep and death respectively. Significantly, the only person not asleep, besides Viktor himself, is Dmitrii, Nika’s assumed lover. In the last of the film’s three “chapters,” entitled “The One Who is Awake,” Viktor returns to the trawler, sneaks past sleeping crew members and kills Dmitrii by inflicting 17 blows with a monkey wrench. By eliminating his adversary (“putting to sleep” the one who is awake), Viktor “performs” the defiant opening line of a poem by Georgii Ivanov, which he quoted earlier: “Now, what do I need people for?” (Nu, na chto mne liudi?).

gorodIn the final scene, an extreme long shot shows Viktor walking through an icy wasteland moving away from the camera until he finally disappears. Here, the arctic scenery takes on a symbolic meaning releasing the mythopoetic potential of the north as the realm of (spiritual) death. In the Odyssey, the entrance of Hades is believed to be located at the edge of the world in a “land of fog and darkness.” Poets of the Silver Age, such as Konstantin Bal’mont and Valerii Briusov, eagerly wrote about the Arctic as a metaphysical borderland, a gateway to some “higher” reality. The Arctic desert in which Viktor finally dissolves, presents a similarly mythopoetic image in which death, sleep and northern nature are virtually equivalent, visualizing the hero’s isolation and despair.

On the whole, Ignatenko’s decision to play out the hero’s inner drama metaphorically and without any emotional excess works pretty well. Viktor looks absolutely petrified during most of the film (a peculiarity that Nika’s friend erroneously attributes to his “lack of sensitivity”). The only time he shows signs of distress is when he grabs his head immediately after killing Dmitrii. Except for the murder, the story’s potentially most dramatic events (the moment Viktor learns about Nika’s fatal accident and his arrest) are not shown, forcing us to fill in the blanks ourselves. Viktor’s extreme possessiveness, for example, though mentioned specifically by Nika’s friend in court, is never unambiguously established and needs to be inferred from glimpses of sexual harassment and exploitation elsewhere in the film. Even then, the number of ellipses and non-diegetic inserts (mostly of rotten fruit introducing a vanitas theme into the film) makes it impossible to solve the riddle as in a classic whodunnit.

gorodRecollection or dream, hypothetical reconstruction or fantasy, the constant uncertainty we feel in according the “right” ontological status to what we see is already triggered in the film’s prologue in which an older man’s voiceover (probably not Viktor’s) reads a poem from Maria Semenova’s fantasy novel Wolfhound (Volkodav, 1995). Though the last line (“You lose heart and can go no further”) conveys some of the desperation that Viktor falls victim to, it is the fragmentary nature of this poetry reading that prepares us for the fuzzy and convoluted story we are about to witness. The voiceover omits several lines and then concludes with the words “that’s about it,” acknowledging that his memory has failed him. Similarly, we can assume that Viktor’s memory has blotted out some of the more painful and embarrassing moments in his relationships with Nika and Dmitrii, and that the fragmentary, scrambled structure of the film thus “mimics” his trauma.

gorodIn Deep Sleep is a film that imposes itself on the viewer primarily as an audio-visual experience. The long and studied shots of a car park or hospital room are like visual haikus that register a specific configuration of objects and seem to arrest the film’s story-time, if only for a few seconds. Throughout the film, the sound appears to be entirely diegetic (thumping engines, humming equipment, murmuring water), although its source is not always easy to determine. For most of the film, we only hear a continuous, indefinable roar in the background adding suspense to what is happening on the screen.

Slow paced, murky and atmospheric, In Deep Sleep is the brain child of a film maker who rejects conventional esthetical categories and “industrial” production methods. As a graduate of the Moscow School of New Cinema, where she now also teaches, Maria Ignatenko values complete independence, a distinctive feature of “parallel cinema” (the underground movement that emerged in the late 1980s) to which she considers herself indebted (Petrik 2020). Ignatenko allowed herself and her small team considerable time to complete the project (two years) and consciously chose to work with real sailors instead of professional actors. This not only adds to the unpolished, authentic feel of the scenes taking place on board, but also is a sign of the maker’s independence, her ability to ignore more conventional methods of film production.

Otto Boele
University of Leiden

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Works Cited

Petrik, Gordei. 2020. “Mariia Ignatenko: 'V Rossii parallel’noe kino sushchestvuet',” Seans 16 September. 

In Deep Sleep, Russia, 2020
Color, 71 minutes.
Director and Scriptwriter: Maria Ignatenko
DoP: Veronika Solov’eva
Production Design: Liudmila Dupliakina
Sound Production: Roman Kurochkin
Editing: Maria Ignatenko
Cast: Vadik Korolev, Dmitrii Kubasov, Liudmila Dupliakina, Galina Lebedinets, Vasilisa Zemskova
Producers: Katerina Mikhailova, Konstantin Fam
Production: Kinokompania “Vega Film”

Maria Ignatenko: In Deep Sleep (Gorod usnul, 2020)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2021

Updated: 2021