Issue 73 (2021)

Aleksandr Mindadze: Parquet (Parket, 2020)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2021

parquetParquet is the fourth film directed by Aleksandr Mindadze and his third co-production, now with colleagues from Poland, Romania, and the UK—clear evidence of a transnational turn in the filmmaker’s career. The film premiered at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in 2020 (Petkovic 2020). Mindadze’s great talent is his ability to work together with other artists for the benefit of their mutual projects. Earlier in his career he collaborated as a scriptwriter with Vadim Abdrashitov, with whom he released eleven films. Now a director himself, Mindadze developed a new and highly productive partnership with Romanian DoP Oleg Mutu—after Innocent Saturday (V subbotu, 2011) and My Good Hans (Milyi Khans, dorogoi Petr, 2015)—and this is their third film together. For the lead roles, Mindadze invited Israeli actress Evgenia Dodina, Polish actress Agata Kulesza, and Polish actor Andrzej Chyra.

The film’s plot is fragmented, simple and complex at the same time. The performers of a tango à trois act (Elisabeth, played by Kulesza; Valencia, played by Dodina; and the lead male dancer nicknamed Cockatoo, played by Chyra) reconvene for an encore performance of their famous dance number for the 25th anniversary of a local tango club. The three rehearse hard in order to restore the original number, and in the course of the creative process they revisit their polyamorous relationship: Valencia is Cockatoo’s former wife and Elisabeth is his former lover. The fragmented plot and the non-descript setting make the viewers focus on Mindadze’s austere dialogue and on Mutu’s stunning long takes, through which the spectators are invited to reflect on art, love, life, and death.

parquetThe critic Valerii Kichin (2021) contends that the film revisits Mindadze’s key theme: a premonition of a catastrophe. In his two previous films, the catastrophes were historically specific: in Innocent Saturday, it is the Chernobyl disaster; in My Good Hans—WWII.In both films, the filmmaker could rely more on the viewers’ knowledge of extratextual facts to build up the atmosphere of the imminent calamity. In Parquet, the filmmaker sets a more difficult task for himself: the premonition of a catastrophe is not about a historical moment, but rather about human experience itself, no matter where we are. The film is set in an unremarkable hotel that could be located anywhere in the world. We might be somewhere in a former Soviet republic, because characters speak Russian, some with a distinct accent, a marker of identity in flux perhaps. The premonition of a catastrophe is highly subjective: possibly, the director’s confessional statement about aging and his desire to continue to remain productive. In the film, the aging dancers sense and resist the end of their careers and their lives. Cockatoo is terminally ill and Elisabeth dies right after the performance. Anton Dolin (2021) suggests that the film offers a poetic statement on life as a creative act in the face of one’s inevitable demise.

parquetWhile I agree in part with both interpretations above, Nancy Condee’s description of the earlier films co-authored by Mindadze with Abdrashitov provides, in my view, an insight into Mindadze’s most recent film as well. She writes that their films function “in two apparently incompatible stylistic modes. The disjuncture between these two modes lends a marked conventionality to their work, as if a glitch in the universe keeps disrupting a simple story about two things: a mishap and the effort to set things right” (Condee 2009, 144). The endless rehearsals present a fitting metaphor for the characters’ recurring attempts to recapture their long-gone youth, rectify their entangled relations, and revive their dance number in the face of their diminishing energy and failing health.

parquetThe camerawork, indeed, sets things right as far as Mindadze’s film is concerned. Combining his signature style of lengthy mobile takes with stunning close-ups of the dancers’ faces and feet, Mutu helps the filmmaker to tell this story of human relations and creative acts in the process of its own making. Mutu’s camera, in fact, dances together with the three, turning the performance into a tango à quatre. The camerawork and the general atmosphere at times evoke F. W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh,1924), with Karl Freund’s famed “unchained camera” traveling through hotel lobbies, restaurant halls, and elevators, showcasing the moments of glory and revealing the humiliation of Emil Jannings’ character. Mutu’s camera, in turn, follows Mindadze’s characters during their great dance numbers and at the same time does not spare them when they are in pain, affected by weakness or illness—something they try to hide from their relatives and the spectators. For them, Elisabeth, Valencia and Cockatoo should remain glamorous performers.

parquetIn their film, Mindadze and Mutu do important cultural work for Russophone cinema: they represent characters in their middle years as persons who have sexuality, whose sensuality is an important part of their identities—a topic, arguably, quite rare in Russian cinema.[1] Does Russian cinema even have a discourse to represent people in their mature years as sensual and sexual beings? In Soviet cinema, the tradition was the fantasy film, with non-human characters of advanced age manifesting the insatiable sensuality, such as, for example, Baba Yaga or Koshchei the Deathless. In other words, this is a tradition of representing older characters usually as fantastic, non-human, even monstrous, with insatiable sensual drives: from epic sexual arousal (Koshchei) to the appetite for cannibalism (Baba Yaga).[2]

In this respect, Mindadze breaks with this Soviet tradition of connecting sensuality with non-human characters, and instead tells stories about characters in their middle years that make them visible and empowered in a new way. In his review of the film, Dolin unwraps Mindadze’s cryptic comment that he invited performers from Israel and Poland for three lead roles because they were a better fit. A better fit means, according to Dolin (2021), something quite specific: “It is hard to encounter [in Russia], performers in their fifties and beyond who could convey the same degree of freedom[3] and openness about their sensual experiences.” The filmmaker invited actors capable of examining such themes to participate in his experiment to overcome limitations of the age range, which privileges young adults, and to tackle such themes as advanced age and desire.

parquetThe mise-en-scène of Parquet pays homage to the settings from Mindadze’s earlier films, which he co-authored with Abdrashitov: it is set in the present and points to what Condee calls “a forgotten chronology and disassembled tradition” (Condee 2009, 150). It is a dance floor in a hotel where the characters commemorate their past liaisons and accomplishments through the ephemeral art of dance and syncopated dialogues. The recollections might be true to the past, or they could be their convenient fantasies about the past. The director mirrors this instability of self-identity based on the recollections in the film’s setting: a dance floor in the reception room of a hotel, prepared for a special event. Everything will be dismantled right after the show, including our former celebrities’ star personas. The dance floor sequences—where time is suspended for carnivalistic moments and visual excess—are framed by long takes in faceless and disorienting hotel hallways, where the characters share with one another some of their experiences over the past 25 years. Meanwhile, narrative time passes and inevitably ends in death: Elisabeth passes away in the hotel hallway, and an editing cut immediately transfers us to the snowy desert of the cemetery. If the sequences on the parquet of the dance floor are portrayed via mobile/dancing camera, mimicking fluidity of movement, and identities in the process of constant change, the cemetery is represented through a long panning shot while the camera is completely static. It is the stability and certainty of the inevitable closure in human life.

parquetBut Mindadze is not making a film about a whole life disintegrating, but rather about characters working on their performance, and this process coalesces with the filmmaker’s own creative act—about the camera as his partner in dance. The last two frames are a close-up of Cockatoo at the cemetery grieving about his departed partner, and a medium shot of his grandson. Frustrated at the lack of attention, the grandson smiles sneakily, screams “Grandad!” and throws a snowball at him. In his self-centeredness and even jealous single-mindedness, the grandson embodies an artist-trickster who puts back in motion the diegesis that came to a halt.

Mindadze’s Parquet demands active engagement from the viewers and invites them to become a partner in the creative process. It is also a film one might want to watch several times, and every time discover something new. It is an invitation to a dance floor one cannot refuse.

 


Notes

1] Anticipating voices of disagreement, I would like to note here that I am aware of the rich tradition of late Soviet melodrama that deals with romances of people in their middle years and beyond: Vladimir Shredel’s Late Meeting (Pozdniaia vstrecha, 1978), Vladimir Men’shov Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1979), Iulii Raizman’s A Strange Woman (Strannaia zhenshchina, 1977) and Time of Desirеs (Vremia zhelanii, 1984), arguably even Aleksei German’s Twenty Days Without War (Dvadtsat’ dnei bez voiny, 1976)and Andrei Smirnov’s romance Belorussia Station (Belorusskii vokzal, 1971) might be included in this list. These films, in my view, with the exception perhaps of Men’shov’s film, do not deal with sexuality and in a broader sense sensuality, and, most importantly with one’s agency that includes sensual freedom. For further discussion of these films, we should also keep in mind the ideological framing of late Soviet cinema, including the institution of gerontocracy and the cult of the Great Patriotic War as part of late Soviet culture. The economy of late Soviet agency and desire is often connected to the figure of the male veteran.

2] This tradition in part continues in recent Disney-produced fantasy films for Russian distribution based on Russian folklore. See, for example, the fantastic characters in The Last Warrior franchise (The Last Warrior, 2017; The Last Warrior: Root of Evil, 2021), both directed by Dmitrii Diachenko, produced by The Walt Disney Company CIS and Yellow, Black & White).

3] In his review, Dolin (2021) uses the word raskovannost’. I translate it here as “freedom”; it means literally “being unchained.” Hence Mutu’s unchained camera serves as a powerful visual technique reinforcing Mindadze’s exploration of human sensuality and creativity.

 

Alexander Prokhorov
William & Mary

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Works Cited

Condee, Nancy. 2009. The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema. Oxford, NY: Oxford UP.

Dolin, Anton. 2021. “‘Parket’—eksperimental′naia drama Aleksandra Mindadze o tango i liubovnom treugol′nike. Beskompromissnyi fil′m, edinstvennyi v svoem rode.” Meduza 14 May.

Kichin, Valerii. 2021. “Kakadu tantsuet tango.” Rossiiskaia gazeta 27 April.

Petkovich, Vladan. 2020. “Tallinn Black Nights announces the first eight titles of its main competition.” Cineuropa 24 September


Parquet, Poland, Romania, Russia, UK, 2020
Color, 136 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Mindadze
Scriptwriters: Aleksandr Mindadze
DoP: Oleg Mutu
Production Design: Kirill Shuvalov
Costume Design: Ina Isbasescu
Cast: Evgenia Dodina, Agata Kulesza, Andrzej Chyra
Producers: Liza Antonova, Lucius Barre, Aleksandr Mindadze, and others
Production: Film Studio Passenger (Russia), AI Films (UK), Impakt Film (Poland), Reason8 Films (UK)

Aleksandr Mindadze: Parquet (Parket, 2020)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2021

Updated: 2021