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Renata Litvinova, The Goddess [Boginia] (2004)

reviewed by Seth Graham©2005

 

The key is to not think of death as an end, but more as a very effective way to cut down on your expenses.

—Woody Allen as Boris Grushenko in Love and Death (1975)

 

Known for her ethereal voice, stream-of-consciousness language, and retro blonde glamour, Renata Litvinova has been something of a mass-media icon for over a decade thanks to her roles in several films by Kira Muratova and her frequent television appearances, often as a fashion commentator.  She is also a VGIK-trained screenwriter, and has written or co-written a handful of feature films, most memorably Valerii Todorovskii’s Land of the Deaf (Strana glukhikh, 1998), based on her novella To Possess and Belong (Obladat' i prinadlezhat').  She recently established an international presence with her role in Peter Greenaway’s The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part Three: From Sark to Finish (2003).  The Goddess is Litvinova’s debut as a director of acted cinema, and it showcases all of these personae—writer, actress, cult figure, Muratova protégée—in ways that illustrate both the drawbacks and advantages of being one’s own muse.  

Litvinova directs herself as Faina, a Moscow detective investigating the disappearance of a little girl.  Despite narrative and stylistic nods to detective noir in the first half, however, the investigation is ultimately incidental to the film.  Already considered eccentric by her police colleagues, Faina grows less and less interested in making sense of empirical reality and becomes increasingly absorbed by the otherworldliness represented by looking glasses and dreams (mostly of her dead mother, played by Svetlana Svetlichnaia, a legendary Soviet femme fatale in her own right, from Leonid Gaidai’s film Diamond Arm [Brilliantovaia ruka, 1968]).  Litvinova finally abandons the crime genre completely in favor of what might be termed decadent surrealism, an impressionistic visual and verbal infatuation with death and love.     

Death dominates Faina’s consciousness, and therefore the diegesis, both metaphorically and metonymically.  Litvinova’s skill as a screenwriter is most apparent in the variety of ways she manages to combine death and her other theme, love, in single images or events.  An ominous black raven leaves a row of dead fish on Faina’s windowsill, the way a pet brings trophy kills to its beloved owner.  Her mother and the other denizens of the afterlife who populate her dreams lovingly encourage her to embrace death without fear.  A woman in a cafeteria describes the details of her own will, emphasizing her imminent death not as a tragedy, but an act of devotion to her sister, the beneficiary.  Faina encounters a near-suicide, a suicide, a double suicide, and a professor able to visit the realm of the dead via intravenous drugs and antique mirrors.  This last encounter allows Faina (and Litvinova the writer/director) to complete her trajectory towards exclusive obsession with love and death or, more precisely, with death as the key to understanding and achieving love, an emotion and a concept that Faina admits has always escaped her.   

 

Litvinova’s take on her central theme, like her fashion sense, is retro, a decadent aestheticization of death that differs not only from Muratova’s own thanatological triptych, Three Stories (Tri istorii, 1997), but also from the naturalistic, matter-of-fact mortal images of numerous post-censorship Russian chernukha films.  The Goddess also stands in contrast to Timur Bekmambetov’s recent Russian horror-fantasy film, Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004), a work of popular genre cinema against the backdrop of which Litvinova’s film (whose special-effects ravens cite Bekmambetov’s) appears all the more auteurist.  The influence of Muratova, her mentor in this regard, is palpable on multiple levels.  Faina herself, and the bomzh Doppelgänger who holds her place in the living world during her sojourn in the realm of the dead, amounts to a distillation of Litvinova’s previous screen personae in Muratova’s Passions (Uvlechen'ia, 1994), Three Stories, and The Tuner (Nastroishchik, 2004).  As the demiurge of this world, Litvinova has imbued even the supporting characters in The Goddess with recognizable elements of her own image, especially Faina’s mother, who wears Ofa’s red dress from Three Stories.  Other Muratovian touches include the use of still-life or slow-motion shots of urban detritus (dirty dolls, the dead fish) and frequent bits of repetitive, incantation-like dialogue (“When I die, will you cry?”) uttered by characters with a surplus of affect.  Faina, by contrast, is emotionally distant; the father of the missing girl tells her she has “cold eyes.”  The heroine’s inability to connect with other people is, in fact, emblematic of the film’s major flaw: its relentless focus on Faina/Litvinova to the detriment not only of the rest of the stellar cast, but also of the more abstract thematic and emotional aspirations of the script that could not be embodied in Litvinova’s own iconic image.  

 

The title of the film acknowledges its multiple mythological and metaphysical allusions, and also evokes Litvinova’s directorial debut, the documentary For Me There is No Death (Net smerti dlia menia, 2000), in which she demonstrated an interest in a different type of deity: the screen goddess (the film is a series of interviews with leading Soviet actresses including Tat'iana Samoilova and Nonna Mordiukova).  Litvinova’s fascination with the actress as icon, and her self-cultivation since the early-1990s as one of the most distinctive and compelling screen presences of her generation, result in an imbalance in The Goddess.  All of the love-and-death-related mythemes evoked in the film are ultimately absorbed into the sheer visual and oral/aural centrality of Litvinova/Faina, who is not only both Orpheus and Eurydice in this story of traversing the boundary between life and death, but also Narcissus.  

 

 

Seth Graham, Stanford University


The Goddess: How I Fell in Love [Boginia: Kak ia poliubila] (Russia, 2004)

Color, 101 minutes.

Directed: Renata Litvinova.

Script: Renata Litvinova

Cinematography: Vladislav Opeliants.

Production Design: Ekaterina Zaletaeva.

Costumes: Natal'ia Ivanova.

Music: Igor Vdovin, Zemfira Ramazanova, Nick Cave.

Cast: Renata Litvinova, Svetlana Svetlichnaia, Viktor Sukhorukov, Maksim Sukhanov, Andrei Krasko, Elena Rufanova, Konstantin Khabenskii, Konstantin Murzenko, Kseniia Kachalina.

Producers: Elena Iatsura, Renata Litvinova, and Sergei Melkumov

Production: Bogvud kino and Slovo Productions.


Renata Litvinova, The Goddess [Boginia] (2004)

reviewed by Seth Graham©2005

15/04/05