Svetlana Proskurina, Remote Access [Udalennyi dostup] (2004)
reviewed by Birgit Beumers©2005
one answer to your mad world ― rejection.
— Marina Tsvetaeva
A wintry landscape. The voice of a young man tells the story of an accident, during which he—aged seven—was rescued from the river by his father, while his mother and sister drowned. At the same time, an old woman tells a story about her dog and its death. The two narratives overlap and often sound simultaneously. Neither of the speakers is present in the frame. As Svetlana Proskurina seems to be telling one story on-screen, she cedes the voice-over narrative to her sound director, Vladimir Persov, known for his year-long work with Aleksandr Sokurov.
The discrepancy between sound and image announced in these first few minutes of Remote Access permeates the entire film, and it is never resolved—in the sense of achieving harmony. The reason for the dislocation of the disembodied voices and speechless images emerges only gradually in the film. At a later point, an old woman tries to get into a car, just to sit for a moment. The car she chooses is Sergei’s, whose voice-over told the story of his mother and sister drowning, and who is waiting for his friend. The woman continues the story narrated by her voice-over at the beginning. Her story about losing her dog is audibly and visually tangential to Sergei’s words and images, and when their paths cross they have nothing in common. The woman disappears; Proskurina continues to explore Sergei’s childhood trauma.
Proskurina’s film posses an extremely fragile and subtle structure, which is not viewer-friendly by any means. The film holds diametrically opposed elements in suspense: it moves constantly from winter to summer (partly because it was shot in different seasons); it juxtaposes water (rain, river, puddles) and fire (heat, sun, the explosion); and it criss-crosses between the present and the past. The seasons, the temperature, and time acquire symbolic significance: the past is associated with a frozen state (although the accident happened in the summer) and the image of water—swirling in a vortex, streaming from a lock, and welling into the river—all signal flux rather than stasis. Water gives and takes life; it cools and chills. The ambiguity of the symbols remains carefully unresolved.
On the level of plot, the film explores the relationship between an adult couple, Vera (Elena Rufanova) and Timofei (Vladimir Il'in), and between two teenagers, Vera’s daughter Zhenia (Dana Agisheva) and the young traumatised Sergei (Aleksandr Plaksin). Vera’s relationships with her husband and her daughter are not easy: Timofei is a businessman who loves her, but has a demanding job; Zhenia is a “difficult child” at a “difficult age,” who suffers from asthma and is absorbed with herself, even as she tries to find something useful to do with her life. To this end she starts work for a telephone sex agency, where she receives a call from Sergei, with whom she develops a virtual relationship over the phone. Sergei lives with his friend Igor', whom he helps with an illegal deal; Sergei dies when Igor'’s car explodes after an explosive has been planted by his business rivals.
|Vera (Elena Rufanova)||Timofei (Vladimir Il'in) and Vera|
The separate lines of verbal and visual narrative are carefully constructed in the film; their movements, parallel and tangential to each other, form its basic structure. The human voice plays an important role in the film, whether the speaker is visually present in the frame or not. With its intonations and modulations, the voice transmits meaning in itself. Words often contradict the physical demeanour or the emotions and feelings of the speaker. For example, Vera is verbally aggressive when she goes into her daughter’s room at night, reproaching Zhenia for living the way she does. Yet shortly afterwards, in the final and wordless scene, Vera embraces and caresses her daughter, touches and smells her body in a way that reminds viewers of animals sniffing and nudging their little ones. This is the mother’s response to Zhenia’s appeal to leave her alone: otherwise Zhenia would turn into an ugly and nasty beast. Similarly, in a scene with Timofei, Vera first displays verbal aggression before physically surrendering to his embrace. While they quibble during the dinner scene, their gestures (pouring drinks for and glancing at each other, eating the food that the other has prepared) speak of their affection, of understanding and caring, of a love that once was very strong. But when Vera starts to talk about her childhood and the sea, Timofei tells her to shut up. Her words are meaningful only to her, not to him. Words may frequently betray what a character feels, but gestures and touches mean more.
If feelings are best expressed through physical action, language becomes a powerful tool, even a weapon. The telephone sex agency’s manageress explains to Zhenia that language functions like a game, revealing unknown and unnamed forces. She maintains that “any person who listens to another―controls him.” In her test call, Zhenia remains a passive and attentive listener, and when required to talk the client through an act of oral sex, she switches to Spanish (an acquired tongue) in order to create a distance from the words she has to pronounce.
Words, then, serve not to convey feelings, but purely to transmit information. Feelings may be read between the lines, in the pitch of voice or intonation: Sergei suggests that Zhenia start a sentence so that he can complete it for her; later on Zhenia will repeat his words to herself. Indeed, Sergei and Zhenia talk on the phone about irrelevant things, telling each other what they are doing and making plans about when, where, and whether to meet. It is through intonations and incantations, pauses and silences that they establish their bond:
Shades of intonation, voice vibration, silence—pauses become an intense movement towards the unknown, yet longed-for aim…. Every now and then the sound is in tune with the picture or drifts away from it; either disrupts or tunes the fragile human communication. Director’s Commentary
Here Proskurina adopts a method developed by Anatolii Vasil'ev in his theatre (School of Dramatic Art, Moscow), whereby the actor’s intonation drops at the end of every word in order to destroy the narrative impulse and to lay bare the metaphysical quality of the word, its pure meaning. Proskurina ponders the nature of language as a carrier of information and a tool for communication, stripping words from the images we would expect to accompany them.
Telephones and mobile phones play a crucial role in this game with words. At first glance they appear to be intrusive agents into the spiritual life of the characters. Vera uses her mobile to call Timofei for help when she is locked in a toilet by the attendant, who refuses to let her out. Timofei shows a great deal of understanding and sensitivity towards his stepdaughter (almost as if she were more than that to him), whom he calls frequently. Zhenia uses the phone to stay in touch with Sergei. Igor' gives his mobile phone to Sergei when the latter takes the truck to Lithuania, so that Sergei can keep in contact. And at the end, Zhenia finds that Sergei’s phone is out of reach or disconnected—the link is broken. The phone is not simply a negative feature of modern life, but rather a sign of the helplessness of people to be without voice contact.
Zhenia and the manageress of the agency
It is the background noises of modern civilisation that provide cause for irritation. In numerous scenes the noise of car alarms or of television broadcasts “pollutes” the quietude. The TV in Igor'’s flat plays on when Sergei calls Zhenia; Zhenia has the TV on so loud so that Timofei and Vera can hear it in the next room. Zhenia, by contrast, is sensitive to disturbing noises and blocks out by padding her door with cushions the sounds of the row between Timofei and Vera that ends in their love-making. When Sergei visits his father, a children’s program can be heard in the background, possibly alluding to Sergei’s regression to a child-like state as a result of his illness.
If the phone is not so much a tool of modernity that distracts from the life of the soul as it is an indicator of how helpless people are without voice contact (one of the reasons that Zhenia wants to work in the agency is because she has nobody to talk to), then the film’s central theme is the emptiness of life. After graduating from school, Zhenia does not know what to do with herself. She reads the job adverts in the paper. One is from a man looking for a girl to come to China with him; later, when she collects from the post office the letter from Sergei in which he sends his photo, she watches and listens as a girl talks to an elderly man about travelling to China with him. The girl has responded to the ad, making Zhenia’s desperate attempt for contact not an isolated case, but a symptom of the times.
Zhenia’s and Sergei’s lives are fragile in a physical sense as well as spiritually: Zhenia suffers from asthma, while Sergei has a medical condition—his thymus gland, which normally recedes after childhood, has not regressed, thus retarding the development of his emotions. According to Sergei’s account, the disease also causes temporary muscular spasms that will ultimately lead to his death. When he talks about his condition and his trauma, he faces the camera, talking to the spectator as if to a doctor who could provide a cure.
If coincidences and chance encounters abound in the film (the woman in the car, the girl at the post office), the premonition of events is more precise and accurate than the actual experience of the event itself. Proskurina argued at the Venice Film Festival’s press conference that Sergei’s and Zhenia’s story is like that of Romeo and Juliet: their love is so strong because it remains unconsummated. She contrasted it with the ties between Vera and Timofei, whose relationship is filled with love, but a love that fails to manifest itself in their everyday lives. Unfulfilled love is stronger than love that is put to the test of everyday life. Indeed, while capable of speaking about love (to Timofei and on the phone), Zhenia fears physical love: she runs away when she sees a couple copulating in the park.
Life may be void of meaning, but it is not void of emotion. The issue of life given and taken is addressed in Sergei’s monologues: having been given a “second life” he wants to live. When he tells Zhenia that his sister has gone far, far away and Zhenia asks him whether he wants to visit her, he is forceful in rejecting such a desire; his will to live is stronger. Here lies one of the differences between him and Zhenia: she has never faced death. Her life is meaningless and she withdraws from the outside world into the private world of her allergy and breathing difficulties (a reaction against her environment, both physically and psychologically). If Zhenia is almost autistic, Sergei opens his inner world to the camera’s eye; if Zhenia is unaware of her condition and unwilling to deal with it, Sergei is aware of his trauma and his thymus condition. Zhenia is self-contained, she has no need to speak with anybody, but carries the words, the sound, the voice of Sergei within her. It is, therefore, irrelevant whether they meet or not.
The film develops as a non-linear narrative. The scenes when Sergei addresses the camera (the pseudo-doctor) have taken place before he makes contact with Zhenia. There are flashbacks to Sergei’s childhood, to the accident. he selection of images centres around Sergei, who appears to be the central character in the film. His life is dominated by chance: by chance he is saved from the river; by chance he is one in millions to suffer a thymus problem; and by chance he is put through to Zhenia when he calls the telephone sex agency. The chance crossings of paths in this film echo the words of Pasternak’s Iurii Zhivago, who says—indeed with reference to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet―“we are on the same line in fate’s book.” The crossings of paths, of lines of fate, carry for Pasternak a religious significance, reflected in the root of the word skreshchen'e (crossing), which is derived from krest (cross): “Crossed arms, crossed legs. Destiny’s crossing.” (“A Winter Night”). Love is a chance event, but it is predetermined. Zhenia and Sergei are meant for each other: “You can wait your whole life to meet someone…” Indeed, her path and Sergei’s cross in obscure ways. When Zhenia broaches the theme of love in a restaurant with her stepfather, Timofei goes to his refresh his face. While he is in the washroom, Sergei’s friend Igor' enters. Shortly after Timofei has left the washroom, Sergei emerges from a cubicle. Zhenia and Sergei are, thus, on the same premises, but do not recognise each other or get the sense of community that they derive from their voice contact. In a similar way, paths cross when Ksenia, Zhenia’s colleague from the telephone sex agency, plays with her son in the courtyard and is watched by Sergei, who looks out of the window. At this same moment, Zhenia is collecting his letter from the post office.
These references to fragile coincidences and chance events hold together the complex threads that Proskurina weaves into her film, which belongs to art-house cinema of the highest class. Proskurina focuses on details without making the narrative line of the plot obvious: “The film creates the impression of trees, behind which the forest is visible. The film falls into details which do not gather to form a landscape,” as Valerii Kichin commented (Kichin, “Udalenniaia liubov',” Rossiiskaia gazeta 4 September 2004).
Proskurina began her career as a filmmaker in 1982 and achieved international renown with her films Playground (Detskaia ploshchadka, 1986) when it was shown in Karlovy Vary; Accidental Walts (Sluchainyi val'ts, 1989), which won the Golden Leopard in Locarno in 1990; and Reflection in the Mirror (Otrazhenie v zerkale, 1992), which was chosen for the director’s fortnight in Cannes. After this solid international take-off Proskurina disappeared from the screen until 1997, when she returned to make documentaries about Ernst Neizvestnyi, Mikhail Shemiakin, Mikhail Pugovkin, and others. She collaborated with Aleksandr Sokurov on Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002). Remote Access thus comes after a break of twelve years in making feature films. . It was chosen for the competition program of the Venice International Film Festival (2004), but received hardly any attention. Indeed, as Russian critics have noted, the film’s themes of a death in the water and the relationship between father and son sounded almost too similar to the previous year’s festival winner The Return (Vozvrashchenie, dir. Andrei Zviagintsev, 2003) (Larisa Maliukova, “Zhizn' v bezvozdushnom prostranstve,” Novaia gazeta, 22 November 2004 and Svetlana Khokhriakova, “Kak zhit' vmeste. V detaliakh,” Kultura 45, 18-24 Nov 2004). The premiere on 30 November 2004 in Mosocow’s House of Cinema stimulated only a few press reviews. The film has still not yet been distributed or released.
The director’s experience as a documentary filmmaker, as well as her work as assistant to Sokurov, are obvious in the film’s visual narrative. Proskurina is concerned with close ups and poetic images, with sounds and voices rather than a linear (and verbally driven) narrative. She often dresses her characters in pale shades and sets her scenes in dimly lit spaces. The flashbacks into childhood—the scene with the boat, the views of the lock, and of the water pouring from it—are all shot in green and grey shades, reminiscent of Sokurov’s scarce use of strong colours and preference for chiaroscuro. Only a few frames in the film are colour-intense, including the final flashback of the boy Sergei who has been dragged from the water and stands in a field against a bright blue sky and summer haystacks in background. Proskurina’s training in the Petersburg school, often characterised by slow motion development of the action and crowned by a calamity at the end, is obvious in the structure of the film.
The choice of non-professional actors is a defining feature of this film. Dana Agisheva, a student of Moscow State University’s Department of Philology, and Aleksandr Plaksin, a young man from Vorkuta who recently started an acting course at the Petersburg Theatre Institute (SpATI), are distinctively not acting or performing. Instead, they are opening up their fragile personalities and their inner worlds to the director (and by extension the viewer). Their vulnerability is contrasted with the professional duet of Elena Rufanova (whose last film role was the part of Eva Braun in Sokurov’s Moloch [Molokh, 2001]) and the comic actor Vladimir Il'in, whose characters have already resigned themselves to play-acting their social roles. Sergei’s and Zhenia’s worlds cannot be mastered by the mechanisms that a professional actor has at his disposal. This approach allows Proskurina to reveal the apathy, the emptiness, the void that dooms their every action, and that is not covered up by the gestures or words that make Vera and Timofei “sociable.” It is a void that stands at the end of so many of Sokurov’s films, including the excursion into Russian history in Russian Ark, ending with a view onto the grey fog of the Neva. In contrast to Sokurov’s pessimistic and gloomy outlook onto the void, however, the finale of Proskurina’s film is much more optimistic: her finale consists of a wordless scene between mother and daughter, sniffing, touching, and ultimately embracing each other. Without words, genuine feelings emerge and speak an honest and sincere language: a language of touch and smell.
Beumers, University of Bristol
Remote Access, [Udalennyi dostup] Russia, 2004
Color, 85 minutes
Director: Svetlana Proskurina
Screenplay: Svetlana Proskurina
Cinematography: Aleksandr Burov
Music: Andre Sigle
Sound: Vladimir Persov
Production and Set Design: Olga Nikolaeva
Cast: Dana Agisheva, Elena Rufanova, Vladimir Il’in, Aleksandr Plaksin, Fedor Lavrov.
Producer: Iurii Obukhov
KinoProba Studio, supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian
Federation, Department of Cinematography, with participation of Gor'kii Film
Studio and Fleisgroup.
Svetlana Proskurina, Remote Access [Udalennyi dostup] (2004)
reviewed by Birgit Beumers©2005