Kira Muratova’s most recent film, The Tuner (Nastroishchik, 2004) begins with a scene in which Liuba, played by one of Muratova’s most trusted actresses, Nina Ruslanova, is shown waiting for a blind date. She is—to put it mildly—dressed up. She embellishes the ordinary provincial street with her jewelled 1920s-style headdress, which gleams incongruously against her lined face and against her resolutely banal surroundings [Figures 1, 2, and 3]. Her hair is invisible beneath the hard surfaces of the beads, so that her profile is reduced to the stark form of skin, bone, and beads. Harshly textured by the black and white of the film, her aging face appears in all its human fragility.
opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film, in which the play of
textures—often the textures of clothing and certainly of textile—has a vital role. This
is not unique to The Tuner; indeed, it
is a feature of Muratova’s work more generally and deserves further attention.
This juxtaposition of Ruslanova’s human skin with contrasting surfaces
prompts a consideration of what might be called the celluloid “skin” of
Muratova’s films. It invites an
analysis of her use of texture and textile in human clothing, as in the mise-en-scène,
and the layering of surfaces that constitutes one of her most consistent
stylistic devices. An analysis of
clothes in particular suggests that, far from being a formalist device, this
emphasis on texture is as part of the director’s exploration of subjectivity:
Liuba’s absurd costume in this scene is affecting; it makes the spectator
graphically aware of her very human fragility beneath
the layers with which she shields herself from the world. So, in Muratova’s work more broadly, a similar question
arises: where does the self end and the material world begin?
This analysis will focus on a selection of films that span the full length of Muratova’s long career: her first two features, Brief Encounters (Korotkie vstrechi, 1967) and Long Farewells (Dolgie provody, 1971), her little known Getting to Know the Big Wide World (Poznavaia belyi svet, 1979), and her more recent Chekhov’s Motifs (Chekhovskie motivy, 2003), and The Tuner. I will argue that there is a crucial link between the very first features—those that Muratova herself has described as “provincial melodramas”—and the most recent. This link lies in the representation of her characters’ relationships with their physical environment and, in particular, with the tactile immediacy of the material world. The fact that recent works have marked a return to black and white film stock is, as several critics have noted, not accidental: it is a means of exploiting the graphic and textural potential of the mise-en-scène. As such, it reinvigorates a feature of Muratova’s work that never really went away: the use of the surface and the texture of the material world to create a particular form of cinematic experience in her spectators—a kind of haptic perception.
Before turning to clothes, some remarks on mise-en-scène are necessary. From her earliest films on, Muratova’s sets are remarkable for their sheer clutter. From the book-lined apartment of Valentina in her first feature, Brief Encounters, to the paraphernalia-stuffed rooms of Anna Sergeevna in The Tuner, Muratova places her characters in environments that are object-filled and, even more importantly, patterned: wallpapers, table-clothes, paintings, and objects coalesce into concatenations of competing design. Figure 4, taken from the 1989 masterpiece The Aesthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1989), provides a typical example. Similarly, in the apartment shared by mother and son in Long Farewells, the camera scans a scene with a dressing gown hanging on a walls, patterned table cloths, discarded clothing, and cushions, in which, amidst the paraphernalia of habitation, there appears scarcely space for the human. How then do these collisions of patterns and textures affect the spectatorial experience and what do they say about the broader aesthetics of Muratova’s work? Should these pattern-filled frames be understood as flat or three-dimensional? Are they experienced as surface or as depth? How are they inhabited—by her characters and by her spectators?
The Russian critic Irina Izvolova has noted the importance of the sense of touch in Muratova’s work, suggesting that “the physicality of the world is not observed by the audience, but rather sensed by the characters.”[i] She cites as an example the scene in Brief Encounters where Nadia, just arrived from the provinces, first enters the urban, sophisticated environment of her love-rival, Valentina. Izvolova points out how “Nadia’s hand glides along the wall, across the back of a chair, across the bed sheet,” in a process of sensual orientation, which continues throughout the film. This observation does not apply only to Nadia, in fact. Just as her hand traces the texture of a bed sheet, so the camera observes Valentina, unable to sleep, twisted up in her sheet, her hand woven around the intricate carvings of her wooden bedstead. Thus, the spectator is drawn, inexorably, into an appreciation of the tactile qualities of the environment in which Muratova’s characters live; her women in particular are shown in intense physical contact with the world.
This engagement with the physical world can, of course, be read in thematic and symbolic terms. Here, Nadia is not simply exploring; she seeks, ultimately, to appropriate Valentina’s world, along with her lover. There is a desire for belonging implicit in her sensory orientation. There is a further, significant, level at which this use of touch must be considered, however. In the later film Three Stories (Tri istorii, 1997), as Helen Ferguson notes, Renata Litvinova (as Ofa) runs her hand slowly along the contours of a marble fireplace, sensuously tracing the three-dimensionality of the form.[ii] Where Ferguson sees this as evidence of Muratova’s preoccupation with surfaces, however, I would argue that it reveals what might be called the “haptic” quality of her cinema—that which takes her poetics beyond the surface. Laura Marks, in her theoretical account of what she calls “tactile epistemology” in cinema, argues that certain films, or more precisely filmic techniques, are capable of “treating the eye as if it were another form of sense perception”—that is, as Touch.[iii] This, I would suggest, is exactly what happens here: our eye is made to experience the touch of the marble form. This sensual perception is what Muratova’s cluttered surfaces and textures demand of the spectator, in ways that I hope to reveal.
According to Marks (herself influenced by Gilles Deleuze among others), cinema is uniquely able to offer a form of spectatorial experience that is not merely optical. Drawing the spectator’s attention to the material surface and texture of objects, certain filmic techniques can invite a different form of experience, or “looking.” In Marks’ words: “Haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture.”[iv] Interrupting the automatic process of “recognition” of the filmed object, a “haptic composition,” she suggests, “appeals to tactile connections on the surface plane of the image,” shifting the spectator’s attention from the what is represented to the surface of the image. Yet this shift of focus to the so-called surface of the image in no way suggests that such “haptic” cinematic images are not three-dimensional. Rather, the emphasis on a physical apprehension of the textural surface of the image demands an appreciation of the three-dimensional physicality of what is represented. That is, the spectator does not recognise the image, but feels it. Spectatorship becomes embodied and tactile.
How, then, are we to understand Muratova—a film-maker so consistently described as “stylized” and even as formalist—in these terms? It is clear that Muratova’s mise-en-scène is carefully composed—and often composed of a number of competing surfaces against which her characters are viewed. This visual stylization, however, should be viewed as part of a deep-rooted interest in texture. Like a cubist painting that seems to deal in surfaces and planes, but in fact invites a multi-dimensional consideration of form, so Muratova’s cinematic frame offers surfaces and textures in order to demand an appreciation of its three-dimensional, tactile qualities, so as to engage the full sensory perception of its spectator. It demands a new kind of spectatorial relationship with the image.
intense physicality is a fundamental part of Muratova’s exploration of human
behaviour—or, more precisely, of human emotion. She shows characters in interaction with the material world.
In particular, she reveals the human body in contact with
substances—textiles, decoration—that frame, shelter, and articulate it.
As such, she raises fundamental questions about the limits and location
of the self.
How, then, does clothing function? What of the textures and textiles within which human subjects are contained? In Brief Encounters, the two women are configured as opposites, as much by their clothes as by their personalities. In simple terms, our first encounter with Nadia signals her as being from a “village”—a scarf wrapped, peasant style, around her head. Valentina, by contrast, is shown in slick, fashionable suits. Muratova’s use of clothing cannot be reduced to simple social signification, however. Rather, in this early film, she exploits the potential of the contact between clothing and the human body. Nadia’s bold, youthful form, for example, is clothed in flimsy cotton dresses that emphasise her raw, almost unformed physicality. Her dresses seem not to contain her. In parallel, her glowing skin and her strong hands refuse urbanisation—remaining signals, implicitly, of her true self. By contrast, her friend from the village, also newly arrived in the city, is pictured in outfits that emphasise her desire to belong to the new environment, but which suggest, at the same time, her lack of urban savoir-faire; she is over-decorated and slightly absurd, a gentle parody of the old stereotype of the peasant (krestianka) in the city.
Valentina, meanwhile, urban intelligentka and bureaucrat, is clothed in the fashions of the day. Her smart town wear signals her professionalism, but it also suggests her self-protection, the boundaries she erects between herself and those she loves. In contrast to the apparent vulnerability of Nadia’s body, Valentina’s appears shielded by tailoring. As she walks the streets of the city, or casts a critical eye over her residential projects, her fashionably-cut white coat is a symbol of her embracing of “the new,” her belief in progress; in reverse, the smart polka-dot two-piece in which she is clothed when sitting with her lover acts almost as a barrier between them, a symbol of the different worlds that they inhabit, despite their love (Figure 5).
It is only when we see Valentina in her nightdress that we sense the fragility within. Thus, in this early film, clothing acts as a materialisation of mental state. Clothes matter; in the words of theorist Giuliana Bruno: “Fashion … provides a breathing membrance—that is to say, a skin, to the world.”[v]
Muratova’s second feature, Long Farewells, shows an even clearer awareness of how clothing (and makeup) configure the feminine self. It also reveals the roots of an interest in costume and masquerade, which becomes increasingly evident in her later work. Femininity is thematically central to this story of a son’s desire to escape from the small apartment he has always shared with his mother to join his absent archaeologist father. It is femininity, after all, that suffocates young Sasha. Throughout the film, Evgeniia Vasil'evna, Sasha’s mother (played by Zinaida Sharko) is shown amongst the trappings of decoration and adornment: we first meet her surrounded by the blooms of a flower shop, the cinematic frame transformed into an equivalent of a floral textile of which she is a part. In an early scene (Figure 6), Sasha walks with his mother, wearing one of her hats, both of them bedecked with an excess of clothing that symbolises his enclosure. This term, excess, is an important one in considering Muratova’s aesthetic. In this film, Sharko’s excessive femininity acts as an index of her vulnerability. Just as Liuba’s headdress in The Tuner draws our attention to the fragility of her skin, so here Muratova pictures a not-young woman in relief against the textures and textiles that surround and adorn her.
is particularly clearly expressed through clothing. Later in the film, for example, we watch Evgeniia Vasil'evna
dress for an evening out, and the spectator, alongside Sasha himself, is drawn
into a graphic encounter with her modes of self-presentation—or
self-protection. The camera lingers
on her as she makes up her mouth, her reflection in a mirror providing a
secondary view of the growing unreality of her image; we see Sasha zipping up
her black cocktail dress, conspiring in her subtle process of masquerade.
This focus on the processes of dressing, however, introduces a fundamental
vulnerability into the image of Evgeniia Vasil'evna. Always shown as excessively
tailored (even when on holiday by the sea, her suits are an index of her lack of
relaxation), she is pictured as a woman ill at ease with herself.
In stark contrast to the physical presence of a young girl, Masha, at the
same seaside resort, who takes an unselfconscious pleasure in the appeals of her
own, young, body, Muratova presents Evgeniia Vasil'evna’s tension through her
physical form and the layers beneath which she hides it.
As his mother dresses for her evening out, Sasha is shown playing with a slide projector, projecting drawings of horses against the large white double doors of their otherwise cramped apartment. Thus, his decorated mother appears against a background of competing images, a characteristic feature of Muratova’s mise-en-scène. She is part of a dense texture of visual motifs that throw her own self-imaging into stark relief. This is more than a metaphor for Evgeniia Vasil'evna’s reliance on costume as a mask or frame for the self, however. It is part of Muratova’s relentless drive to picture her characters caught within a world of material textures from which they cannot be extricated. Near the beginning of the film, in a revealing parallel with Liuba’s headdress in The Tuner, we see Evgeniia Vasil'evna watering her plants, dressed in a lace headscarf. For the spectator, the lace scarf functions as a veil—through its black shapes we see the forms and surfaces of her profile, and her skin is set in relief against the other “skins” and surfaces of the film. Throughout this film—and in Muratova’s work more broadly—we are denied access to any unadorned “self”; we might suggest, even, that such a self does not—and need not—exist.
Getting to Know the Big Wide World was Muratova’s first colour film, and it marked what the director herself described as the beginning of her interest in “dekorativnost'.” In her book on Muratova, Jane Taubman quotes the director on her decisive encounter with the designer Rustam Khamdamov, with whom she worked on this film:
When he told me that a necklace shouldn’t be filled with beads, but that here and there the thread should show through, that was a revelation for me, like Newton’s apple… And I thought, “That’s how simple it is to show the construction of the world—that beads, it turns out, are threaded on a string.” That’s when I began to be interested in the external side—costumes, ornamentalism.[vi]
It is in perhaps in these terms, then, that we must approach the so-called “ornamental” in Muratova’s work, in general, and this film, in particular. The ornamental is there, Muratova seems to suggest, in order to reveal the frailty of the structure—we show the beads, in order to be aware of the string. In parallel, Muratova uses clothing, texture, and decoration, to draw the spectator into a tactile appreciation of the make-up of the world and of her characters. Her surfaces are there, one might suggest, in order to conjure up what they conceal—to reveal the world and, in parallel, the human body in their full sensory presence and fragility.
Getting to Know the Big Wide World is supposedly a construction movie. Like so many films of its time (following Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands campaign), and indeed of the Soviet period, it tells of a band of young people, whose project is to construct themselves a factory and a new life in the middle of nowhere. The protagonists—Liuba, Misha, and Nikolai—form a classic love triangle, characteristic of Soviet films during the Socialist Realist period. But in this case, the resolution of the romantic plot has nothing to do with social or ideological imperatives. Liuba falls in love with the unconventional Misha, whose long hair, simple manner, and love of milk distinguish him from any archetype of a “positive hero.”
Muratova’s purpose in making this film was avowedly aesthetic. Taubman cites her at her most intriguing:
A building site is chaos—a sphere where culture has not yet been created, where there’s no concept of beautiful/not beautiful, where there’s no aesthetic (it remains to be created). Chaos may seem terrible, but to me it’s wonderful because there are as yet no postulates at all. There’s no style, so stylisation is impossible. I wanted to create a culture, a beauty, outside existing canons.[vii]
rebuttal of “stylisation” challenges obvious readings of the film, which
appears to be extremely stylized, but works well for my purposes.
Muratova is not interested in stylization per se, but in the use of the aesthetic, of costume and color, in
order to reveal an alternative vision of the world and to reveal beauty where it
might be least expected.
Thus, clothes, textures, and color provide the visual surface of the film, marking its separation from the construction genre of which it is supposedly a part. The heroine, another Liuba, is played by the younger Nina Ruslanova. She is a plasterer, but we encounter her first as something of a diva, fully made-up and dressed in midnight-blue velvet, on her way to a Komsomol wedding feast. We encounter her first, indeed, through a strategy of dislocation. We hear her disembodied voice, divorced from the film’s visual track, as she rehearses the speech about love that we will later hear her give at a Komsomol wedding feast; her body comes, in a sense, to meet the voice. But the spectator must first piece that body together—from shots of her shoes, then her legs—before any vision of Liuba’s full physical self is offered. This defamiliarisation of physical form has the inverse effect of increasing the spectator’s sense of Liuba as a sensual being, forcing the gaze, as Laura Marks would have it, to move “on the surface plane of the screen for some time before the viewer knows what he or she is beholding.”[viii] Liuba is sensed physically before she is recognised.
In her blue velvet, Liuba is incongruous—appearing almost to be in costume, taking part in a masquerade, amid the mud and emptiness of the wasteland where her car has broken down. This curious incongruity continues—reaches an apogee, perhaps—at the ensuing wedding scene where she finally delivers her speech. A kind of outdoor wedding festival, the Komsomol meeting features hundreds of brides and grooms, and an extraordinary density of white dresses in all imaginable shapes. As such, it offers a hilarious and affecting glimpse of the human dream of happiness in all its comic absurdity. Weddings, of course, provide opportunities for costume par excellence, and this scene in Getting to Know the Big Wide World was the precursor to two others in Muratova’s later work. The Tuner, too, features a wedding, and again, as this older Ruslanova/Liuba and her friends wait outside the registry office, we encounter a comic multiplicity of different wedding outfits (other brides going in and out of the building) that recalls the proliferation of the Komsomol wedding feast. Here, as in the earlier film, the subtle balance between parody and sympathy is maintained: the wedding dresses are symbols of aspiration, of romantic hope, that exist in fragile equilibrium with the film’s broader awareness of the duplicity of men and the implicit impossibility of love. In somewhat different terms, Chekhov’s Motifs offers what is perhaps Muratova’s most striking, and longest, wedding scene: an Orthodox service filmed in painfully real time. In this film, the wedding provides the opportunity for an extravagance of costume almost unmatched in the director’s oeuvre, as an extraordinary sequence of guests make their way into the church, clothed in highly-stylized glamour. During the lengthly ceremony itself (Figures 7, 8, and 9) the guests’ excessive costume mirrors their excessive behaviour, gossiping and fidgeting, in comic-grotesque contrast to the ostensible solemnity of the service. In parallel, the exaggerated texture and patterns of their costumes are set against the simplicity of the white-robed bride herself.
Muratova’s recurring interest in weddings stems, perhaps, from a recognition that they are moments when the human self, and its dreams, are most graphically on show. In Getting to Know the Big Wide World, this question of self-display and theatricality is central. At the beginning of the film, as we have seen, Ruslanova’s costume and makeup provide colour—standing out against the greyness of their surroundings. And this continues throughout the film, as Liuba represents glamour, often in the most unexpected of circumstances (on the construction site, for example, her hat or her lipstick will form a slash of colour, marked against the drab backdrop of the walls she plasters). This initially incongruous emphasis on color and shape develops, in the film, into a thematic focus on costume, a kind of mise-en-abîme of the film’s so-called dekorativnost' or “ornamentalism.” A subplot features the young group’s preparation for an amateur dramatic event, and in one scene they take delivery of a trunk containing theatrical costumes. As they unpack it, we see them playing with hats and fans, taking pleasure in the possibility of self-transformation. In another sequence, we see Liuba caught in the headlights of Misha’s van. Like a novice actress caught in a theatrical spotlight, she shades her eyes as she tries to approach. He turns the lights on and off, capturing his beloved in their glare, and the sequence is extended beyond real time to become a surreal dance in which Ruslanova is the star. Initially uncomfortable, she seems ultimately to enjoy her moment of stardom, twisting and turning, as the sharp blue patterns of her typically textured sweater stand out against the drab background of her temporary mobile home.
In this film, then, costume and theatricality hint at the possibility of self-transformation, of escape, allowing for a level of romantic aspiration that the world of the construction site otherwise seems to preclude. By the end of the film, as the young labourers prepare to move their worldly belongings from mobile homes to their newly constructed apartments, Misha and Liuba’s love achieves a peculiar kind of transcendence for all its location amongst the banal paraphernalia of everyday life that surrounds them. In this sense, despite the apparent differences between this “ornamental” film and Muratova’s earlier works, we can trace a similar juxtaposition between self and ornament, self and material world. This is particularly evident in the one “interior” sequence, in the makeshift trailer where the protagonists live awaiting their newly constructed homes. Here, a concatenation of patterns and textures, and an accumulation of sheer stuff, makes for one of the most vivid examples of Muratova’s decorative interiors. Within this clutter, we see twins (a Muratova “trademark”), in floral shirts, lying on a bed. The camera looks down on them, so that their bodies become part of the mixture of textures and designs that construct the mise-en-scène. One of the twins, however, has one ankle raised, the shoe half on. This oddly human moment disrupts the visual stylization of the scene, capturing the awkward physicality of the human, breaking through the theatricality and artificiality associated with the twins.
It is characteristic of Muratova’s work that this revelation of humanness, of awkwardness, should coexist with the extreme visual stylization of the mise-en-scène. A key dilemma in interpreting her films is the apparent contradiction between high theatricalization and the psychological reality of her characters. Svilova interprets this as a comment on what she calls the spectacularisation of Soviet life—“Spectacle has swallowed up life.”[ix] I would suggest, rather, that we return to Muratova’s own revealing words: the purpose of stylization (the beads) is to reveal the structure of life, its essence (the string). In parallel, the purpose of costume is to reveal the fragility of the self within it. For her, the human and subjective can be accessed only through the external, through the skin of the self that exists as part of the material world.
In her most recent film, The Tuner, this is more evident perhaps than ever before. The two older women, Liuba and Anna Sergeevna (who, in the plot, are the innocent dupes of fraudster Andrei), are remarkable for the grandeur and impact of their dress. Both are usually dressed in patterned fabric (often geometric) and often embellished by further decoration (see Figures 10 and 11). They exist, moreover, amidst the remarkable, decorative clutter of Anna Sergeevna’s bourgeois apartment, stuffed full of knick-knacks, pictures, patterned wall coverings, heavy furniture, and textiles. The apartment is shot from what seems to be a distorting fish-eye perspective that makes it appear small—and, most importantly, full. Thus, the two old women appear as part of the broader stylistic project of the film, in which the density of physical environment plays a key role. They are physically contained by the material world.
No discussion of clothing in Muratova is complete without discussion of the iconic Renata Litvinova (Figure 12), heroine of most of Muratova’s latest films, including The Tuner, and it is revealing in this film to see how her physical decoration is configured differently from that of the two older actresses. We first encounter Litvinova in this film via her feet—her jewelled toe rings peeping from beneath silk sheets and a fur throw. She awakes, naked, but with all her jewelry still on—and she then proceeds to remove it. This reversal of expected structures of dressing/undressing defamiliarises: it makes us aware of her nakedness, of the body unclothed, and in graphic sensory contact with the hard surfaces of jewels and the soft textures of silk and fur.
Throughout the film, Litvinova’s body is typically stylized. When she goes out for the first time, she is dressed in an extraordinarily theatrical outfit of layers and frills—a kind of wound and elongated tutu (an echo, perhaps, of the tutu that hangs in the apartment that she shares with the “piano tuner” Andrei). The spectator is drawn into a graphic awareness of the layers of this outfit through an encounter literally “from bottom up,” when we watch as she carefully descends the ladder that leads from their home. The depth and density of the fabric and its arrangement causes a spectatorial encounter with texture, typical of the film as a whole. Similarly, the appartment (in fact an unconverted attic above a theatre) that Litvinova inhabits with Andrei, is a curious liminal space, in which, nevertheless, the paraphernalia of habitation are very evident. Underwear is draped over pieces of discarded scenery, hanging out to dry. Litvinova bathes in a freestanding tub, amidst assorted debris, that is laboriously filled for her by Andrei. Surrounded by this motley collage of surfaces, again, our attention is drawn to the surface of the human body itself—to its dressing and its nakedness. Litvinova’s, however, is not a vulnerable body. Rather, she performs as an iconic contrast to the fragile selves that inhabit so many of Muratova’s other films. She is almost an object herself, to be experienced haptically, at once surface and depth. In a sense, Litvinova has become Muratova’s most perplexing comment on human subjectivity. In this film, as in all those where she appears, she provides a bewitchingly empty symbol, a human being in which all meaning appears to be entirely external.
To conclude, The Tuner acts as an ideal summation of my key argument. First, it is a developed example of Muratova’s extraordinary mise-en-scène. Her use of the textures of the material world—furniture, textile, and clothing—to draw the spectator into a sensory, haptic form of perception. Second, it reveals how this emphasis on surface and texture acts as a key strategy by which the human body—and by extension, the human self—is thrown into vulnerable relief. Ornament becomes, as Muratova herself describes it, a means of revealing the “construction” of the world and of the self as an ongoing project. In contrast, then, to those who read Muratova’s pictorial emphasis, her love of surface, as symptomatic of an essential disregard for the human and the emotional, I would suggest that her “tactile epistemology” is, in fact, a means of encountering the “other” and the human in a different way. It is a form of humanism, but a humanism that looks with clear and uncompromising eyes at the “skin” of the world—for that is all we have.