New Films 






Kira Muratova, The Tuner [Nastroishchik] (2004)

reviewed by Nancy Condee©2005


Muratova’s Well-Tempered Scam

 [T]heir neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. 

—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

At the heart of Kira Muratova’s newest film, The Tuner (Nastroishchik, 2004), is her characteristic and enduring love of predation—predation for its own sake.  Of course, any talk of “the heart of Muratova’s work” is a judgment of anatomy rather than sentiment, as any admirer would attest.  Author of sixteen films over forty-two years, Muratova is best known in the West for her political rehabilitation during the perestroika period and the un-shelving of her so-called provincial melodramas, Brief Encounters (Korotkie vstrechi, 1967/1987) and Long Farewells (Dolgie provody, 1971/1987).  With The Tuner, she has produced an extraordinary new film that offers a complex assessment of the human subject, civilization, and the creative act.  

Muratova and Litvinova on the set 

Let us attempt a plot summary.  A former nurse, Liuba (Nina Ruslanova), seeking marriage through newspaper personal ads, is bilked by a stranger whom she mistakes for her new date.  Liuba’s elderly, well-to-do girlfriend, Anna Sergeevna (Alla Demidova) is defrauded in a different fashion: having placed a newspaper ad for a piano tuner, she is entrapped by Andrei (Georgii Deliev), who is not only an excellent tuner and musician, but also a reasonably good petty thief and scam artist.  Andrei and his current lover, Lina (Renata Litvinova), attempting to further secure the women’s trust by returning Liuba’s money, which had been scammed yet again by a second potential husband cum con-artist, place their own fake personal ad in a newspaper so as to locate the suspect.  Having returned Liuba’s stolen money, Andrei finally swindles both Liuba and Anna Sergeevna through an elaborate bank forgery scheme—in a word, a portrait of normal human nature ŕ la Muratova.  

               Muratova’s tight and intricate narrative is punctuated by familiar cinematic devices, red herrings, and pranks immediately identifiable—even beyond cinema production—with Muratova’s sui generic style.  I will mention three: first, her inclusion of a “cultural intermezzo by an amateur artist-enthusiast.  Aficionados of Muratova’s work will remember this device, most memorably Aleksandra Svenskaia’s trumpet solo performance of “Strangers in the Night” in Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1989) and declamatory lyrics by the amateur poet, Gena (Leonid Kushnir), from “Boiler Room No. 6,” the first novella of Three Stories (Tri istorii, 1997).  In The Tuner, this device takes the form of a girl singer-songwriter performing on public transport and a number of other charmingly inept musicians (a clarinetist, two tuba players, random, elderly singers, and Andrei’s spontaneous “Uzbek” improvisation).  This is the utopian dimension of Muratova’s creative act: irredeemably unprofessional, yet utterly complete, self-sufficient in itself, the flawless conjuration of an inner hallucination. 

A second kind of stylistic punctuation is Muratova’s episodic, anonymous eccentrics, who can be traced from the nameless old man at the roadside café (Brief Encounters), whose children had been killed by the fascists; to the nameless old man in the post office (Long Farewells), who dictates a telegram to his children; to the nameless young man whose strict mother would not admit him after 11.00 pm (Sentimental Policeman [Chuvstvitel'nyi militsioner, 1992]); to the disapproving, nameless neighbor-woman of “Ophelia” (the second novella of Three Stories), who repetitively intones “There is no toilet here” [“zdes' net tualeta”].  These figures, like the rapturous amateur artists described above, are also allocated their cameo roles in The Tuner: a deaf-mute, retarded woman, fed by Lina; a toga-clad wine-seller, who offers rosé for free; a rowdy, but harmless neighbor boy who harasses Andrei; a nameless blind man who is granted the film’s final lines.  When we were younger, we might have mistaken these vignettes as evidence of a certain redemptive pathos in Muratova’s work; now retrospectively, we observe them with cooler eyes as minor sightings in Muratova’s game preserve of the human species.  The deaf-mute of The Tuner is an amusing freak, no more or less a child of the universe than the “homicido-philiac” Litvinova. 

A third recognizable decoration is Muratova’s fascination with doubles, twins, and buddies: the reader might remember Vera and Zoia from Getting to Know the Wide World (Poznavaia belyi svet, 1979); Liliia and Violetta (Passions [Uvlechen'ia, 1994]); the two Mashas (Asthenic Syndrome); El'vira and Al'bina in the novella “Ophelia” (Three Stories).  Just as we think that this decorative line must have been discarded, two sets of twins make their appearance at the very end of The Tuner. 

One could continue the list of stylistic trademarks—the soundtrack’s buzzing fly (repeated here from Long Farewells, Passions, and “Little Girl and Death,” the third novella of Three Stories); the special status of animals (echoed here from Asthenic Syndrome, Passions, and elsewhere)—but the larger function of the orchestrated repetitions is of greater interest here: these stable and recurrent elements assure us that we are indeed watching the same, gifted madwoman, for whom these eccentric “passions” have become the cinematic norm.  It is against these now familiar devices that Muratova contrapuntally develops her new rhapsody on the human condition.  The current rhapsody is markedly more restrained, selective, and (dare I utter the word?) disciplined than her earlier work.  


color photos taken on the set

As those who follow Muratova will know, and as she herself has commented, her work divides into two categories: the plotless and the plotted.  The plotless, a rarer category, arguably includes Asthenic Syndrome and Passions.  Among the plotted films are the two early, provincial melodramas, as well as Sentimental Policeman, Three Stories, and Chekhovian Motifs (Chekhovskie motivy, 2002).   Muratova’s latest work, The Tuner, continues this dominant, plotted lineage, one that is more merciful to her audience. 

Another set of formal distinctions is worth noting in this regard.  Muratova’s early work, leading up to the little-known documentary Russia [Rossiia, 1972], directed together with Theodore Holcombe, had been exclusively shot in black-and-white.  From 1972 onward, her “color period” extended almost without interruption (I simplify the alternation in Asthenic Syndrome) until 2002 with her return to black-and-white in Chekhovian Motifs.  Shot entirely in black-and-white*, The Tuner might confirm the emergence of a third compositional stage in Muratova’s cinema.  Of course, to expect consistency from Muratova is to reveal an unfamiliarity with her work; at the same time, it is reasonable to speculate that the shift we are seeing is one marked by a certain uncharacteristic minimalist range—a sustained plot line; black-and-white composition; a limited set of devices; a recurring troupe of known actors—that balances the stochastic quality of her unpredictable logic.  This minimalism—a relative category, of course, with respect to a highly mannered and ornamental cinema—permits the viewer more conceptual freedom, more autonomy to observe the larger connections through work that is markedly less cluttered than even her previous film.  The insistent, aural repetition so closely associated with her cinema has been exhausted and is blessedly set aside, the dolls are gone, yet the same, inexhaustible curiosity about the elusive human subject continues in her scattered and associative logic.


Litvinova: photos taken on the set

Within that associative logic, surface, paper, and the fictional self emerge as the organizing principles of this film, to which Litvinova’s relentless, Warholian surface is ideally suited.  The opening scene of The Tuner sets its characters against a backdrop of fluttering paper ads, glued to the walls of any available surface, as is customary in the public space of the former second world.   And although paper—the fluttering ads, the newspaper personals, the bank certificates, the forged papers, fake love letters, the monetary bills—is the dominant medium for the film’s many scam artists, Litvinova, as often as not, prefers to scam by cell phone, a more elegant and ethereal mode of deception.  And Muratova, we realize by the film’s conclusion, prefers celluloid.  The scam artist, the music artist, and the film artist collapse into a single shot when, in an extended take near the film’s conclusion, Muratova’s Andrei stares out at us, accompanying himself on the (now) well-tuned piano, and eventually delivers a knowing wink: I scam, you scam, he scams, she scams…  What had begun as a deceptive newspaper ad is extrapolated throughout the film to incorporate film itself.  Muratova’s Andrei is both scoundrel and kin: a tuner, thus a musician, thus an artist, thus a scammer.

What then is a “tuner”?  The film offers us two clues: first, early in the film, Anna Sergeevna reminds us that any good performer needs a personal tuner, someone hired to attend to the person, not the piano.  Second, as she assures Andrei, in the throes of a calculated faux-crisis, “everyone needs a tuner” [“vsem nuzhen nastroishchik”].   This is no metaphor for psychotherapy; quite the opposite.  This is an unwitting acknowledgment of life’s enduring vulnerability to the marauder; life’s availability for capture, plunder, and annihilation.   Having insinuated himself into the apartment, Andrei tunes the piano owner.  Beyond musical interludes, companionship, errands, random thievery, and extortion, he reaches the limits of his talents only as he debates with his lover the most appealing way to murder Anna Sergeevna.  This echo from Three Stories, where each “novella” is dedicated to a murder, permits Litvinova an opportunity to elaborate her ongoing cinematic persona, the Hand of God who avenges aborted children by plotting the murder of any woman who has implicated herself by being of childbearing age.  For Litvinova, murder is a reluctant calling: the female Pope, after all, kept her child, giving birth during mass.  For the tuner, however, it is not a matter of mission or even profit, but murder as another form of creative self-expression (like filmmaking), beyond good and evil.  In the end, he does not murder Anna Sergeevna, but merely swindles her and disappears.  Turning to the police, Liuba and Anna Sergeevna find that they can agree upon no common description of the criminal; a certain Gogolian indeterminacy has rendered him indescribable.  The piano owner is tuned; the tuner has left; the film is done.  


Demidova and Ruslanova (photos taken on the set)

Much of Muratova’s work over four decades has been preoccupied with the confining and disciplining machinery of society: her domesticating mise-en-scčnes include the hippodrome, the hospital, the zoo, the birdcage, the pound, the police station, the court, and the circus ring.  These diegetic sites order and dominate the unfettered human spirit, that feral misfit most closely identified with the creative act.  Outside the framework of the film, by contrast, Muratova’s own feral spirit triumphs, desecrating the script to her heart’s content, as she herself has recounted in numerous interviews (Bozhovich, "Rentgenoskopiia" 59; Muratova, "Iskusstvo rodilos'" 92).  The tuner, then, is Muratova’s diegetic saboteur who, arriving at the well-appointed apartment, and burbling in the affected, antiquated idiom of the urban intelligentsia, tunes the victim to his own tempered scale, to borrow a musical term.  He is a distant relative of little Lilia Murlykina, the precocious child in Three Stories who prepares her elderly caretaker a cup of lethally poisoned tea, but a closer relative to Muratova herself, art’s infiltrator into the enemy camp of civilization, a double-agent whose medium is cinema.   

*The film is shot in black and white. The illustrations used here are not stills, but photos taken on the set; therefore they are in color.

Nancy Condee, University of Pittsburgh

Works Cited

Bozhovich, Viktor.  "Rentgenoskopiia dushi.”  Iskusstvo kino 9 (1987): 51-70.

Freud, Sigmind.  Civilization and its Discontents.  Trans. James Strachey.  NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1962.

Muratova, Kira.  “Iskusstvo rodilos' iz zapretov, styda i strakha.”  Interview by Pavel Sirkes.  Iskusstvo kino 2 (1995): 90-98.

Muratova, Kira, dir.  Astenicheskii sindrom.  Odessa Film Studio, 1989.

―.  Chekhovskie motivy.  Odessa Film Studio and Nikola Film, 2002.

―.  Chuvstvitel'nyi militsioner.  PimOdessa-Film and Parimedia, 1992.

―.  Dolgie provody.  Odessa Film Studio, 1971/1987.

―.  Korotkie vstrechi.  Odessa Film Studio, 1967/1987.

―.  Poznavaia belyi svet.  Lenfilm, 1978.

―.  Nastroishchik.  Pygmalion Studio, 2004.

―.  Tri istorii.  NTV-Profit, with the participation of Sudzi-Film (Ukraine), Roskomkino, NTV, Ministry of Culture and Art (Ukraine), Odessa Film Studio, 1997.

―.  Uvlechen'ia.  Nikola-Film, with the participation of Roskomkino and RTV, 1994.

Muratova, Kira and Theodore Holcombe, dirs.  Rossiia.  Holcomb Films, 1972. 

The Tuner (Ukraine and Russia, 2004)

Black-and-white, 154 minutes

Director: Kira Muratova

Script: Sergei Chetvertokov, with the participation of Evgenii Golubenko and Kira Muratova (an improvisation on themes from Arkadii Koshko)

Cinematography: Gennadii Kariuk

Art Director: Evgenii Golubenko

Cast: Georgii Deliev, Alla Demidova, Renata Litvinova, Nina Ruslanova

Producer: Sergei Chliiants

Production: Russia (Pygmalion Production) and Ukraine (Odessa Film Studio, Ministry of Culture and Art)

Kira Muratova, The Tuner [Nastroishchik] (2004)

reviewed by Nancy Condee©2005