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Sergei Ursuliak, Long Farewell [Dolgoe proshchanie] (2004)

reviewed by Nancy Condee©2005


As Much Happiness as Unhappiness

...человеку, кроме счастья, так же точно и совершенно во столько же, необходимо и несчастье.
—Ф.М. Достоевский, Бесы


Sergei Ursuliak (1958- ) describes himself as a “retro-director” [retro-rezhisser]. Indeed, his earlier work—of which the best-known are Russian Ragtime [Russkii regtaim, 1993], Summer People [Letnie liudi, 1995], Composition for Victory Day [Sochinenie ko Dniu Pobedy, 1998]—repeatedly turns to the thematics of the era gone by. A graduate of Moscow’s prestigious Shchukin Theatrical Institute (1975-79), where he studied acting with Evgenii Simonov, Ursuliak became affiliated with the Satirikon theatre for more than a decade (1979-91), then turned away from acting to begin the profession that—in retrospect—he had always wanted to pursue.

This biographical detail oddly replicates a core concern of Ursuliak’s most recent film, the melodrama Long Farewell, based on Iurii Trifonov’s 1971 novella, the third of the latter’s Moscow trilogy. The patterns and aspirations of human experience over a lifetime, their inaccessibility and resistance to preliminary stocktaking, if I may cite another of Trifonov’s titles [1], leave the characters of both the writer’s novellas and Ursuliak’s film in a state of permanent suspension.

A young actress at the Moscow Drama Theatre, Lialia Telepneva (Polina Agureeva), makes a career for herself that leads to a love triangle involving her common-law husband—the intelligent, but unproductive historian-writer Grisha Rebrov (Andrei Shchennikov)—and a mediocre, but increasingly successful, older playwright Nikolai Smolianov (Boris Kamorzin). For the viewer unfamiliar with Trifonov’s work, it would appear at first as if this were Telepneva’s story. As the film develops, it increasingly becomes the story of Grisha Rebrov’s emancipation. And finally it becomes—“all along,” as it were—a story about the unreliability of any preliminary appraisals in life. [2]  Lialia breaks off her relationship with the playwright Smolianov; Grisha leaves her (and Moscow) for a new life, and a disjuncture of twenty-odd years finds them passing in the street without recognizing each other. [3] By now, Lialia—Liudmila Petrovna—has been forcibly retired from the theatre; she is a middle-aged ex-actress with a husband and son. Her life resembles that of her mother, Irina Ignat'evna, with its queues, domestic gossip, and materialistic pragmatism. Grisha Rebrov has become a successful scriptwriter, a fate that in some respects echoes one stage of Trifonov’s own career. [4]  Life had rendered this couple unrecognizable to each other, or perhaps they had never recognized each other from the outset. 

   

In this respect, Ursuliak aptly captures Trifonov’s interest in change both through time and through layers of psychological depth, these two categories being consistently interwoven in Trifonov’s work. Ursuliak likewise shares Trifonov’s curiosity about the ways in which—organically, without any discernible change—humans and the sites they inhabit are inevitably rendered foreign to the eye. The city of Moscow, in this manner, becomes a global metaphor for the human psyche over time: where, in earlier years, a rich variety of dahlias were tended in greenhouses, advanced pragmatism dictates that high-rise apartment buildings will be planted. As in Trifonov’s work, Ursuliak’s film is uninterested in the political events of his 1952 setting. [5]  Their common focus instead is the flow of time. For this task, Lialia and Grisha are a perfect couple: she has an extended, live-in family, but no history; Grisha has no one left in the world, yet he is a historian, moreover, a historian with a deep and nuanced memory of his own family history. Accused by his rival Smolianov of having no roots [pochva], Grisha refutes this implicit ethnic slur with his own civic account of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary roots: a Polish grandmother exiled to Siberia; a serf great-grandfather; a St. Petersburg music teacher; a young rebel-student, expelled from the tsarist-era university for political activities; a kantonist [6]; a Civil War veteran, and so forth—an honorable catalogue of resistance to imperial rule.

Yet for all the features that Ursuliak manages visually to replicate from Trifonov’s work, the film is more homage than adaptation. Not only are several narrative threads dropped from the film—the subplot of Bob Marevin, for example—but the work as a whole is geared toward a popular audience: in the shift from book to screen, the work becomes a melodrama—a descriptive category, to be sure, rather than a normative one—about an educated, urban milieu, rather than a psychological diagnosis from inside that milieu. Moreover, in terms of the historical conditions in which the respective texts are produced—Trifonov’s 1971 and Ursuliak’s 2004—the absence of socialist realism as a normative constraint render Trifonov’s world something more akin to a society tale than an austere, analytic account. An appreciation of Ursuliak’s film, therefore, must ultimately set aside any expectation that he “be” Trifonov. At issue here is not the aesthetics of the fidelity criticism, but rather the unacknowledged ideological expectation that Ursuliak might occupy a niche in cinema as disruptive to its status quo as Trifonov’s prose was to the status quo of his own cultural setting: Moscow, the Writers Union, the Stagnation period, and so forth. What there is to be appreciated in Ursuliak’s cinema is its visual retrospection, nostalgic contemplation, and its respectful curiosity about a generation that would be, after all, Ursuliak’s parents. Within the terms of this cinema, there is much to be appreciated.

Camera work by Director of Photography Misha Suslov [7] subtly shifts from black-and-white to color in an intriguing pattern that defies easy explication. Color gradually infuses the shots at moments of rich, emotional intimacy, in episodes that suggest intense memory, or lyric distraction. Elsewhere, however, the shift to color signals falsity, hypocrisy, and subterfuge. It underscores the banal, ideologically “colorized” theatre of socialist realism: in the Moscow Drama Theatre performance of Smolianov’s hit play Distant Forests, a gripping saga of a young woman’s idealistic self-abnegation as she leaves Moscow for the distant Forest Protection Station in the Stalingrad Region. Telepneva’s outstanding performance as the female self-abnegator is, of course, a delicious inversion. At the film’s close, the shift from color back to black-and-white seems to suggest the reversion to a memory state, a condition that, as French producer Guy Séligmann has suggested elsewhere, drains color from the recollection. [8] Throughout these episodes, Suslov’s camera picks out apparently random details to focus the shot—an abandoned, net-less basketball hoop just over Rebrov’s middle-aged head resembles a halo, a mocking low-angle shot that underscores his inadequacy as a figure of redemption.

Iurii Egorov’s soundtrack moves from the opening extra-diegetic whirring of an invisible camera to ambient sound, periodically interrupted by classical interludes that first enhance the retrospective intensity of the shot, but are repeated too often to sustain their lyrical effect. The Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23, the film’s signature piece, is finally exhausted, and its repetition becomes a sign of the unintended philistinism that plagues the film at its weakest moments. And here is where the film is vulnerable: at its more fragile moments, it is as if one of Trifonov’s own characters, contemplative but prone to meshchanstvo, had adapted the novella, with all of the high-culture codes—Chopin, Vivaldi, Bach, Pasternak—but none of the attendant risks that had marked Trifonov’s craft. 

It is, of course, a fine line: in Trifonov’s scathing portrayal of meshchanstvo, he did not exempt his own narrator (nor, implicitly himself) from that label. It is less clear in Ursuliak’s work how far that criticism self-consciously points backwards at the film itself. In Smolianov’s Distant Forests, the play-within-the-film, the sound-production assistant urges her crew to increase the phonogram at the critical juncture of ideological pathos. Does Ursuliak intend for us to see a parallel with his own insistent use of the Mozart Piano Concerto? Are we (and he) being scripted into this microcosm of meshchanstvo? Where Trifonov had been the intelligent’s intelligent, providing a portrait of his own cohort so searing that no outsider could have been as cruel, Ursuliak promises greater appeal, but in the appeal to a broader audience, the master’s hand has become heavier.

Indeed, it must be acknowledged, the film has gained considerable recognition, garnering prizes for the director, the lead actress, the supporting male role, and the film itself. [9] The cast, drawn in part from actors from Petr Fomenko’s studio at the Moscow Theatre, are strong, and Polina Agureeva’s performance is particularly disturbing: both heartless and defenseless; both corrupt and victimized, she has constructed an intriguing and credible character. In sum, Ursuliak’s film is, perhaps, precisely the kind of cinema the industry requires: educated, nostalgic, and with broad appeal. To Ursuliak’s credit, he has retained Trifonov’s fatalism. The film manages to move towards its closing shot with no breath of redemption. After all, as Grisha Rebrov reminds us, paraphrasing Dostoevskii, “in life, a person needs as much happiness as unhappiness.”

Nancy Condee, University of Pittsburgh


Long Farewell (Russia, 2004)
Black-and-white and color, 106 minutes
Director: Sergei Ursuliak
Script: El'ga Lyndina and Sergei Ursuliak, based on Iurii Trifonov’s novella of the same title
Cinematography: Misha Suslov
Art Director: Grigorii Shirokov
Cast: Andrei Shchennikov, Polina Agureeva, Boris Kamorzin, Tat'iana Lebed'kova, Konstantin Zheldin, Genrietta Egorova
Producers: Evgenii Uliushkin, Sergei Ursuliak, and Aleksei Aliakin
Production: Film-Pro


Works Cited

German, Iurii. “Izgoniaiushchii d'iavola.” Interview with Serges Tubiana, Charles Tesson, and Guy Séligmann. Introductory remarks by Nina Zarkhi. Iskusstvo kino 6 (1999): 120-29.
Gillespie, David. Iurii Trifonov: Unity through Time. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Ivanova, Natal'ia. Proza Iuriia Trifonova. Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 1984.
Koleskinoff, Nina. Yury Trifonov: A Critical Study. Ardis: Ann Arbor, 1991.
Surkova, O. “V poiskakh utrachennogo.” Rev. of Sergei Ursuliak, dir. Dolgoe Proshchanie [Long Farewell, 2004]. Iskusstvo kino 10 (2004): 59-64.
Trifonov, Iurii. Kak slovo nashe otzovetsia… Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1985.
―. Prodolzhitel'nye uroki. A. M. Gor'kii Literary Institute Series “Pisateli o tvorchestve.” Moscow: Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1975.
Trifonov, Yury. The Long Goodbye: Three Novellas. Tr. Helen P. Burlingame and Ellendea Proffer. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1978.
Woll, Josephine. Invented Truth: Soviet Reality and the Literary Imagination of Iurii Trifonov. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.


Endnotes 

1] Trifonov’s Exchange [Obmen, 1969], and Taking Stock [Predvaritel'nye itogi, 1970], which were completed by the third novella, Long Farewell, share several features internal and external to the texts: the Moscow setting; the retrospective glance at the 1950s; their close publication, one after the other, in the thick journal New World [Novyi mir]; and the stylistic and narrative challenges they posed to conventional norms of stagnation-era socialist realism. The novellas’ clinical habits of observation, their disinterest in a transcendent or redemptive closing mode, the ambiguity and understatement of the narrator’s position set off heated debates among otherwise liberal and tolerant critics such a Lev Anninskii. Among the best critical monographs on Trifonov’s work is Ivanova; the major English-language texts are Gillespie, Kolesnikoff, and Woll. See Works Cited for these texts, as well as Trifonov’s writings on his own work and the leading English translation. 

2] As Ursuliak comments in an interview, “У Трифонова есть мысль, что если бы люди встретили себя вчерашних, то не узнали бы себя. Мы меняемся, сами не отдавая себе в том отчета, не понимая, в какую сторону меняемся, как меняется наше мировосприятие.” See excerpts from interviews in Rossiikaia gazeta, Literaturnaia gazeta, Vecherniaia Moskva, Lenta.ru, and other sources at the Pygmalion Production website.  

3] In Trifonov’s novel, the elapsed time between the two periods is eighteen years (1952 and 1970); in Ursuliak’s film, the gap is unspecified, but is closer to a quarter century (1952 and the late 1970s). Thus, the “present day” in Trifonov’s work was indeed his own present day (the novella was published in 1971). The “present day” in Ursuliak’s 2004 film is itself a retrospective glance thirty years ago. 

4] Trifonov was the author of several film scripts, including Rafail Gol'din’s Hockey Players [Khokkeisty, 1964], Bulat Mansurov’s Slaking of Thirst [Utolenie zhazhdy, 1966], and Iakov Bazelian’s What the Tribunes Won't Find Out [O chem ne uznaiut tribuny, 1975]. Both Trifonov and his character Rebrov were also historical novelists. Trifonov’s struggles with his historical novel Impatience [Neterpenie, 1973] are refracted in his character’s attempt to write a historical novel about People’s Will revolutionary Andrei Zheliabov; in Ursuliak’s rendition, this historical figure is identified as the more familiar member of People’s Will, Sergei Nechaev, also a figure in Trifonov’s research. 

5] Ursuliak insists “Я ни в коем случае не делал фильм о сталинском времени, он о другом.” See note [2] above

6] The word derives from a practice dating from the early nineteenth century of registering male babies at birth in the military. See Gillespie 212. 

7] Misha Suslov, who is sometimes credited as Mikhail Suslov or even as Mikhail Peters, studied at VGIK and worked as Director Of Photography for more than thirty Soviet films, including work by such Soviet directors as Samson Samsonov and Iulii Karasik, before emigrating to the United States in 1975. Since Aleksandr Buravskii’s thriller Sacred Cargo [Sviashchennyi gruz, 1994] he began once again working with Russian directors and was the DOP for Ursuliak’s 1998 Composition

8] “Memories have no color,” Séligmann insists to Iurii German. “You may try to film them in color. Sometimes it seems beautiful, but after 300 meters [of stock] you already understand that you are spoiling the film” (German 127). Séligmann has produced Russian films including Iurii Mamin’s Window to Paris [Okno v Parizh, 1994], in which he played a minor role; Semen Aranovich’s Year of the Dog [God sobaki, 1993]; Otar Iosseliani’s The Butterfly Hunt [La Chasse aux papillons, 1992], and Igor' Maslennikov’s The Darkness [T'ma, 1991]. 

9] The film was awarded the Grand Prix in the Golden Pegasus competition (2004) and the Directors Prize in the Moscow Premiere competition (2004). Polina Agureeva was awarded Best Female Lead at Kinotavr, the Open Russian Film Festival (2004), and Best Female Lead in the Golden Ram competition (2004). Boris Mamorzin won Best Male Supporting Role (Golden Ram 2004). 


Sergei Ursuliak, Long Farewell [Dolgoe proshchanie] (2004)

reviewed by Nancy Condee©2005

09/10/05