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Kira Muratova: Chekhovian Motifs (Chekhovskie motivy) (2002)

reviewed by José Alaniz©2004

Kira Muratova's Chekhovian Motifs combines the veteran director's fascination with the disjointed, "dark" side of social (especially family) relations with her penchant for formal experimentation, this time involving classic literary/dramatic sources. In this respect, however, the 71-year-old Muratova's master stroke—her avant garde "reappropriation" of Anton Chekhov's short story "Difficult People" (1886) and his unfinished one-act play Tat'ana Repina (1889)—lies as much in her fidelity to the film's original sources as in the ways she subverts them.

First, a word about Muratova's source material. Chekhov's "Difficult People," about a heated family quarrel between a penurious student and his querulous, penny-pinching father, seems tailor-made for the "Muratova treatment." Set in the provinces, the story starts with young Petr's hesitant attempts, in the course of a nightmarish, dysfunctional family dinner, to ask his father, Evgraf Ivanovich, for money to cover school expenses. Petr is about to leave the next day for Moscow to continue his studies, but can scarcely find the courage to beg for a basic allowance from the tyrannical pater familias. Petr's mother, meanwhile, pricks her husband for letting their son return to school in worn-out clothes, wheedling him to give up more money. This excruciating scene explodes into a full-blown, hair-pulling, ruble-flying shouting match, with Evgraf Ivanovich booming, "Take it all! Grab it! Take everything! You're strangling me! … Clean me out to the last thread!" and his indignant son, finally driven over the edge, giving as good as he gets: "I can't stand these loathsome, vile reproaches! I don't need anything from you! Anything! I'd sooner die from hunger than eat one more crumb at your table! Here's your damn money, right back at you! Take it!" Petr storms out of the house, leaving his family in tears, and fantasizes of starting on his way to Moscow on foot, dying of hunger on the road, making the newspapers …

Up to this point, Muratova's Chekhovian Motifs follows its source with remarkable fidelity. Of course, the director of The Aesthenic Syndrome (1989), Passions (1994), and Minor People (2001)—films that try the audience's patience with absurd dialogue, high-pitched delivery, murderous repetition and dulling monotony—enhances the ridiculous in this scene of familial strife: the father, played by her frequent collaborator Sergei Popov (the narcoleptic Nikolai in The Aesthenic Syndrome), takes his screeching tirade straight over the top, while the weak-willed son, as rendered by Filipp Panov, comes off as a gaunt, overly-effeminate, fedora-wearing parody of Raskol'nikov. But Muratova's portrayal of the long-suffering mother departs most radically from Chekhov's more sedate original. Her irritating, incessant plea ("buy him a sweater at least. It's shameful to look at him …") is repeated no less than half a dozen times, in exactly the same tone, boring into the audience's psyche as effectively as it does the on-screen husband's. His outburst, therefore, seems not so unmotivated a reaction.

Highlighting the absurdity, young children at table carry on their own "argument," aping the adults, while an even younger infant nods off. In short, Muratova overlays her trademark surrealism onto Chekhov's basic template of the scene, at times emphasizing the mother's fish-like visage in a close-up, at others setting the camera back for a more stagy, documentary-like view of household discord. The stark black and white photography by Valerii Makhnev makes the proceedings all the more dreary, harking back to the mise-en-abîme "art film" of Muratova's notorious The Aesthenic Syndrome.
This early scene encapsulates Muratova's strategy in much of Chekhovian Motifs: she and co-screenwriter Evgenii Golubenko nip, augment, zoom into, pull back from, and re-set their 19th-century source material in modern, post-Soviet times—but do not fundamentally alter it. The film serves as a variation on, not a revamping of, Chekhov's original works. This makes them, if anything, seem more relevant than ever. As Muratova has told the journalist Dmitrii Desiaterik: "If you ask me, I won't be able to tell which parts [of the screenplay] come from Chekhov and which we wrote ourselves."

Muratova adds her own unmistakable touches: an absurdist "overture" in which a child endlessly banters with a workman (Aleksandr Bashirov) over whether he is building a "barn" or a "shop"; and lyrical interludes, one featuring a televised performance by ballerina Natal'ia Makarova and another in which close-ups of farm animals—geese, pigs, horses—linger on screen to the accompaniment of a lilting tenor, passages that recall similar ones from, among other previous works, Passions.

Much of the film's critical reception since its screening at the 24th Moscow International Film Festival, however, has centered on its second source, Chekhov's innovative one-act play, Tat'ana Repina (itself a "sequel" to a play written by the author's friend and publisher Aleksei Suvorin, also called Tat'ana Repina). Banned by the tsarist censor, the play unfolds over the course of the Russian Orthodox wedding of a nobleman and a rich widow in a provincial town. Chekhov reproduces the liturgy with exacting detail and in real time, at the same time portraying the reactions of the bored, overheated congregation, whining members of the wedding party and town gossips ("She's used to it … after all, a second marriage."). At the end, a "Woman in Black" commits suicide by poison inside the church, to protest the groom's having jilted another woman (who also killed herself with poison) in favor of his new bride.

Muratova sutures this story with that of "Difficult People" by having the poor student, Petia, wander off into the countryside shortly after storming angrily from his house. Eventually, a New Russian in a sports utility vehicle offers him a ride if he will show him the way to the church. Petia thus becomes part of the congregation, which in Muratova's version is comprised of a Fellini-esque gaggle of giggling post-Soviet vulgarians, all spackles, tuxes, boas and minks (played by the Ukrainian performance troupe Maski Show). The bride Vera (Natal'ia Buz'ko), resembles a Russian silent film actress with her over-mascara-ed orbs, while the corpulent groom Petr (Jean Daniel), sports an earring and long black pony tail, and has a career as an opera tenor (it was in fact his singing voice that accompanied the earlier shots of animals).

Throughout this hour-long sequence, Muratova adheres to Chekhov's real-time aesthetic, intercutting the priest's and deacon's exhortations and prayers with the more base commentary of the crowd. Several critics note the "difficulty" of sitting through this unpleasant, unremittingly repetitive scene (some compare it, unfavorably, to the films of the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Liang, others to Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel [1962]). I would liken it to the apocalyptic "traffic jam" sequence from Jean Luc Godard's 1967 film Weekend (though that much-ballyhooed set piece does not last even ten minutes), and we cannot discount Muratova's own love of the French New Wave, which extends as far back as her early film Brief Encounters (1967; released 1987). The best comparisons, however, might be to other dragged-out absurdist scenes in previous Muratova films, such as the daunting Minor People.

From the earliest "actualites," through Andy Warhol's multi-hour experiments like Empire (1964) and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's work (see for example, his Close-up [1990], in which an entire trial unfolds with few cuts), and right up to Alexander Sokurov's recent Russian Ark (2002), the question of "real time" cinema has captivated such critical luminaries as André Bazin, Gilles DeLeuze and their followers. Many laud the technique for its enhancement of realism (for such realist critics, like the German Siegfried Kracauer, cinema functioned as a means to capture some ineffable "essence" of the real world, including duration), but Chekhov—and Muratova—utilize it for the opposite effect: to confuse mythic and social space/time. Rather than set the two at odds, Muratova (and Chekhov) literally jumble them all together on one stage, joining them through the structuring of the liturgy, through sound, and through dialogue (not unlike a large symphonic work made up of a dominant theme and minor variations and melodies). In one masterful shot, Muratova pans and zooms after the "Woman in Black" as she pushes her way through the crowd, around the altar and back again, all as the service continues, punctuated by complaints, laughter, the murmur of the choir.

Far from characterizing it as boldly "ground-breaking" or "experimental," I would argue that the Tat'iana Repina scene not only returns cinema, as a dramatic form, to the classical time/space unities of the ancient Greek stage, it returns cinema, as an art form, to its primal roots in religious ritual. That Muratova shot the sequence in an actual church only heightens the mood, characteristically building up this more "reverent" mood—in a departure from Chekhov—only to shatter it with farce, once the true identity of the "Woman in Black" is revealed.

Like Vladimir Sorokin's and Alexander Zeldovich's parodic "adaptation" of Chekhov's Three Sisters for their film Moscow (2000) or for that matter like Gus Van Sant's "cutting and pasting" of Shakespeare's Henry IV for My Own Private Idaho (1991), Muratova takes what she likes from her source material, updating it to fit a contemporary setting. But in the process, the mood of Chekhov's original "colors" the present. What results is an odd, disorienting, if not quite anachronistic feel to Chekhovian Motifs. This grows especially strong in the film's resolution, when Petia returns home to prepare for his departure to Moscow. After another screaming, plate-smashing bout with his father, Petia retires to his room. There, he gazes into a human skull on his desk, a vicious parody of Hamlet, since after all that work's protagonist boasted an uncomplicated, undying love for his father. A cat—animals are frequently symbols of innocence in Muratova's works—comes to comfort him. Time passes.

Outside, in the snow, a workman prepares a horse and sleigh to take Petia to the station. About to leave, the son re-enters the house to reconcile with his father. Here the film attains a powerful, transcendent poignancy: in a final image, the son stands at the threshold of a doorway leading to his father's study. Inside, the father stands cowed, while between them, on the floor, sits the infant, playing with a toy. "Goodbye," says the father, "The money's on the table …" Father and son then hold their position, stock-still, while the child keeps actively pumping his squeeze toy. Though not resembling it in composition, this image recalls Il'a Repin's well-known 1884 painting They Were Not Expecting Him in its emotionally riveting "freeze-frame" quality (except for the child, in its timeless obliviousness). An arresting snapshot on which to end a singular film from one of Russia's most original, uncompromising directors—a description, incidentally, that has fit Kira Muratova since the start of her career more than 40 years ago.

Russian Journal (Sept. 11, 2002), available at http://www.russ.ru/culture/cinema/20020726_des.html.

José Alaniz, University of Washington at Seattle


Chekhovian Motifs (Ukraine and Russia, 2002)

B/W, 120 minutes

Director: Kita Muratova

Script: Kira Muratova and Evgenii Golubenko, based on Chekhov's story "Difficult People" ["Tiazhelye liudi"] and his unfinished play Tat'iana Repina
Cinematography: Valerii Makhnev

Music: Valentin Sil'vestrov
Art Direction: Evgenii Golubenko

With: Filipp Panov, Sergei Popov, Aleksandr Bashirov, Sergei Bekhterev, Nina Ruslanova, Natal'ia Buz'ko, Jean Daniel, Georgii Deliev

Producer Igor' Kalenov
Production: Odessa Film Studio (Ukraine) and Nikola-Film (Russia)


Kira Muratova: Chekhovian Motifs (Chekhovskie motivy) (2002)

reviewed by José Alaniz©2004

29/09/04