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Maksim Korostyshevskii, Fool! [Dura] (2004)

reviewed by Vida Johnson©2005

                  

Is it possible to have two directorial debuts as a filmmaker?  Well, it seems that it is. Maksim Korostyshevskii’s first foray into filmmaking, as co-producer and co-director, was Art Nouveau Make-Believe (Igra v modern, 2003).  This tragic melodrama about a femme fatale Polish actress was one of the worst films of that inauspicious year in Russian cinema.  Despite the participation of well-established members of the Russian film industry―Iurii Arabov (script), Iurii Klimenko (cinematography), and Aleksei Uchtel' (producer)―the resulting film was a creative mess, in part because it had “too many cooks”: two directors, three scriptwriters, two producers, two directors of photography, and even two costumer designers.  As the film’s producer, Korostyshevskii fired the director and was forced to take over the project and finish directing, but he failed to rescue the film.  What then could we expect from The Fool, Korostyshevskii’s true directorial debut, where―as he himself has stated―he had total creative control, from selecting the script and the actors to the last bit of editing?  Surprisingly, and very pleasantly so, we could expect a lot!  There are a number of similarities between the two films, including a theatrical plot line and setting (Korostyshevskii graduated from a theater institute and worked previously as a theatrical producer), and the recasting of his wife, Oksana Korostyshevskaia in the lead role.  But there the rather superficial similarities end.  Where Art Nouveau Make-Believe falls apart as a film, and even talented actors give dismal performances, The Fool is a tightly scripted, well-shot, professionally directed and edited, and wonderfully acted film. 

 

The Fool’s festival premiere was in September 2004, that is, after the two major Russian film festivals (Sochi and Moscow) had taken place.  Nevertheless, at “Amur Autumn”―the II Open Russian Film Forum held in the far eastern city of Blagoveshchensk, the film earned the jury’s (consisting of lay viewers, not of professionals) top honors for director and lead actress. Oksana Korostyshevskaia’s virtuoso performance as a 32-year old woman with the mind of a child also earned her the Prize of the President of the Kino Forum, awarded by Sergei Novozhilov, an experienced festival organizer who recognized the actress’s extraordinary talent.  Film critic Aleksandr Kolbovskii noted in Itogi that―for the first time in his life―he witnessed the audience at the premiere of The Fool applaud in a theatrical fashion, even following the beat of the dance music. This, most likely, young local  reviewer, growing up in times of  poor theatrical distribution and attendance for Russian films, did not have the experience of  Soviet times when movie theaters were full and audiences interacted and empathized with their heroes on the screen.  Apparently the audience at “Amur Autumn” wanted to see their own Russian movies (svoe kino) and responded enthusiastically to a sad, yet humorously dramatic story of a pure human being’s search for love and understanding in a highly cynical post-Soviet world.  Looking over the program of  “Amur Autumn,” the reviewer notes the predominance of melodrama (to be expected in a festival clearly aimed at the masses) and the return of Russian cinema to “pure feelings.”

Russian filmmakers have recently struggled to feed the growing hunger among average viewers for a kinder, more hopeful cinema; but how could they create believable positive heroes when they are so conspicuously absent in post-Soviet reality, long on cynicism and short on faith?  For a number of years, but this year in particular, films have highlighted psychologically or physically “damaged” heroes, who, on the one hand, are individual representations of the disillusioned and “damaged” Russian society, but, on the other, are at times living embodiments of a naïve faith and goodness―and, thus, are aliens,―rejected by their own families or society in their inability to interact with the hard, cold world that surrounds them.  Some films that come to mind include Roman Balaian’s Bright is the Night (Noch' svetla, 2004), whose lovers are hearing, sight, and/or speech impaired; Valerii Todorovskii’s My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyi brat Frankenshtein, 2004), whose hero is physically disfigured in war; Gul'shad Omarova’s Schizo (Shiza, 2004), whose hero is the butt of jokes.

The Fool is the story of two sisters, fraternal twins, one born healthy, the other damaged at birth because of a forceps delivery.  Instead of following the recommendations of the doctors to institutionalize this baby, the mother raises the two girls at home.  But when she dies, the responsibility of caring for her mentally child-like sister, the “fool” Uliana, falls to the “older” twin, Liza, an aspiring film and theater actress, who loves her sister but blames her for her own failures.  The tension between the sisters is further exacerbated when a man enters their feminine domain, a provincial writer, Aleksandr Mushkin, who wants to write serious fiction in a time that has no need of it.  This is no typical love triangle, despite the fact that both sisters love Sasha, one as a romantic budding teenager (despite her 30 years) and the other as a mature, lonely woman hardened by life experience.  When the starving Sasha is hired to write a romance novel and when―at the same time―Uliana asks him to write her story, he begins surreptitiously taping Uliana’s naïve, optimistic, yet oddly profound observations on life and love.  Moreover, he encourages Uliana’s feelings towards him in their exchange of letters and by taking her out into the world.   In the end, the book that appears after Uliana’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage (finally explaining her excruciating headaches), is entitled My Life by Uliana Tulina.  Did Sasha’s conscience get the better of him?  Did he really let her tell her own story?  Or is Uliana Tulina simply a new pseudonym for a now successful male romance fiction writer?  Or both?  There are no simple answers in this film. 

 

 

The film’s moral center is, of course, the title character, The Fool, who is clearly one of the “holy” or “blessed” fools that have peopled Russian history and literature.  She is identified as such by her old-fashioned name Uliana, her propensity for dressing like a medieval nun, and by mixing in verbal expressions from ancient texts: “A real woman must be fragrant” (“Nastoiashchaia zhenshchina dolzhna blagoukhat' ”).  Her last name Tulina derives from the ancient town in central Russia, knows throughout Russian history for its beautifully crafted samovars.  But this Uliana was born in Soviet times, so her name may also derive from Lenin’s original last name, Ul'ianov, and as we shall see later, she worships him and idealizes the Soviet past.   But Uliana is also a thoroughly modern girl, a product of post-Soviet consumerism, a voracious reader of romance fiction who wants her sister to buy her tight jeans and “accessories” (aksessuary), and who, upon meeting Sasha, asks him if he likes McDonald’s.   From her first appearance in voice-over as she makes one of the many photo-collages of herself and her twin sister (is she an artist?), Uliana’s aphoristic pronouncements―naïve, witty, and wise—drive the film.  “This is me and Liza.  I am a fool.  Liza is smart, but she is also a fool.”  A pithy and truthful statement about Liza.  “Who said that life is beautiful.  It’s not true, life’s ‘toothy’.”  This rhymes in Russian: “Kto skazal, chto zhizn' prekrasnaia?  Ne pravda, ona zubastaia.”  On the screen we see large animal jaws overlaid on one of Uliana’s photographs. 

Uliana’s special talent is to bring verbal expressions and metaphors to life, often with both comic and sad results: when she hears in her job at a cosmetics factory that placenta is used in shampoo, she runs screaming to the bosses that people are washing their hair with human infants.  The predictable result, of course, is that she gets fired.  Her honesty, the depth of her feelings are misread, punished rather than rewarded.   Uliana’s pronouncements function as a critique of today’s Russian society, and especially of the world of the intelligentsia―writers, actors, theatrical directors.  On writing in today’s reality: “A profession is supposed to be a bread-bringer” (“Professiia dolzhna byt' khlebnaia”).  Or she quotes her mother, who represented an earlier conception of writing: “Writers are higher beings” (“Pisateli ― eto verkhovnye sushchestva”).  On acting: “An actress is a crazy woman” (“Aktrisa ― eto choknutaia zhenshchina”).  Liza’s attempts to please an inscrutable director with her impassioned readings attest to this.  Uliana quotes her sister Liza that the theater director has no talent (bezdar')—something that we observe throughout the film, without realizing that she is speaking to the man himself. Out of the mouths of babes…. 

 

Not just Uliana, but all of the protagonists speak in aphoristic expressions from Natal'ia Nazarova’s tightly scripted text, which possess much self-deprecating humor, especially when acted by a fine cast.  Clearly both the scriptwriter and the director know the hard realities of artistic production in today’s Russia from first-hand experience, yet in their hands the critique is not bitter, but rather sad, funny, and all so true.  Commenting on today’s art world, the writer’s friend, a painter says: “In order to remain an artist, I must destroy myself as an artist….  Air, an artist needs air” (“Dlia togo, chtoby ostat'sia khudozhnikom, mne nuzhno pogubit' sebia kak khudozhnika… Vozdukh, khudozhniku nuzhen vozdukh”).  Amazingly, the most trite (poshlye) expressions in this film acquire a moving emotional force.

 

The most pointed satire is aimed at the world of writing and the theater.  Our hero, the writer who won a provincial prize, and whose weighty novel was rejected (“You are no Tolstoy!”) is reduced to seeking employment in the romance novel business.  When offering to write a story he read in the paper about a young man who has killed his grandmother, he is told: “Our readers don’t read Dostoievskii.”  The publisher later admonishes him: “There is too little action, too little… The plot is standing still.”  So Sasha works on developing a real-life love story for his subject, Uliana.  The publisher’s last instruction—“we don’t need a happy end, let the Fool die”―eerily foreshadows the film’s ending.  Has pulp fiction replaced real feelings and even real lives? 

Sasha’s last name, Mushkin, is clearly a play on Dostoevsky’s hero Myshkin, another “holy fool” in the novel The Idiot.  But Sasha is a small, provincial writer, so the word “mukha”, the lowly household fly comes to mind as well.  Viewers both judge Sasha for selling out his talent and for exploiting Uliana, and sympathize with his plight and his awareness that there are no great writers now, that he may not be talented after all.  Yet he yearns for fame nevertheless, for “fame equals freedom.”  In response to this, his girlfriend Liza significantly quotes her sister, the Fool, verbatim: “I want to be loved.  I want people to know that I live, breathe, and that my name is Liza Tulina.”  That is why she seeks fame and recognition as an actress.  Looking straight at the camera, at the viewers, Liza encapsulates her life and all her strivings in these words.  Earlier in the film, when the Fool tells Sasha to write her story, she says exactly these words, ending with her own name, Uliana Tulina.  What had seemed comic and poignant then, is now no longer funny.  The film, then, is more than a pointed, humorous, and rueful social commentary on today’s Russia or the plight of its artists; it invites us to ponder the meaning of human existence and the value of an individual human life.

Near the end of the film, running alone on a bridge where Liza and Sasha had met at the film’s beginning, Uliana cries out: “People, I love you, and you love me, please?!”  Because of the Russian word order and the even intonation, it is difficult to say whether this is a statement of fact or a plea, or both.  Uliana’s most poignant pronouncements have to do with love and the human condition: “They say that people die from love, but why can’t we live from love?”;  “People look a lot like angels, but someone has stolen their wings.”  No character in a post-Soviet film could say these lines with a straight face.  Uliana’s innocence, her child-like nature allows viewers to reflect on her words without the usual embarrassment generated by banal, sentimental melodrama.  The film allows both an ironic distance that is so necessary in contemporary cinema and a total emotional engagement with the heroine and her story.   Lest we forget that this is also as a real life drama, the film is framed by unflinching black-and-white, close-up, documentary-like footage of childbirth and―at the end―of the sheet-covered body of the heroine, with an identifying tag on her bare toe, shot in close-up.  The unceremonious, harsh presentations of these events also provide a commentary on the value of an individual human life in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.  Has much changed then, the film asks?  Critics will undoubtedly complain about the graphic nature of these shots and argue that they are at odds with the ironic tone and full-color, dynamic visuals of the rest of the film.  Yet they are necessary.

After all, Uliana’s life is both real and symbolic in the film, for the film is not only an ironic look at the present, but also at how the Russian and Soviet pasts have shaped this present and the people living in it. Uliana herself tells her father’s story, a Soviet saint’s life: the father, a geologist, explored the far reaches of the Soviet Union for the good of his country.  She points out to Sasha on a huge wall-sized map the path of his journeys, ending her narrative unceremoniously by saying that her father drowned upon reaching his destination.  So much for the idealized Soviet man.  Uliana’s own life is a kind of post-Soviet, post-modern saint’s life: it begins, as medieval saint’s lives did, with the story of her special birth and childhood.  But she is a hodge-podge amalgam of past and present, a holy fool from medieval times, and like her 19th century compatriots and women today, a reader of romance novels.  Moreover, she has also absorbed the Soviet mythology and her aphorisms (“You can’t go to the theater with dirty shoes”) have Soviet roots.  She loves Vladimir Lenin (Ulianov) and cries out “Volodia, dear,” when her sister breaks the Lenin bust with which she regularly converses; she sings patriotic Soviet songs with a choir of retired military men, and cries out with gusto in a moment of sheer happiness: “Uliana Tulina―Soviet Union!”  Maybe the Soviet Union is gone, but an idealized version of it still lives in the hearts and minds of its citizens.

So much witty, quotable text might have overshadowed the visual aspects of the film, but Masha Solovieva’s striking and dynamic camera work and the excellent editing overseen by the director, creates one of the most interesting Russian films in visual memory.  The camera is in almost constant motion―tracking in all directions, circling the protagonists, at times swooping from above to reflect the heroine’s joy or creeping at ground level at an oblique angle and then turning 90 degrees to reflect the anguish of her migraines.  But this is not the jarring hand held camera work of Aleksei Uchitel'’s The Stroll (Progulka, 2003).  The tracking is paced to reflect the actions or moods of the characters, but primarily of Uliana herself.  The inspired physical performance by Oksana Korostyshevskaia, who convincingly mimics a ten-year old child’s movements and gestures is complemented by the dynamic movements of the camera itself.  The repeated circular zoom-in motion on Uliana’s photo collages, always about her and her sister, visually register the sisters theme in the film and the crazy, colorful but unsettled world of Uliana’s reality and imagination. 

Finally, the director deserves much credit for a well-paced narrative that holds the viewer’s attention, and does not, as so many recent Russian films, falter in the middle, or not know how to end.  Despite the predictable ending, signaled a number of times in the film, the viewer watches with interest down to the last credits, which scroll over a sonogram of Uliana in her mother’s womb.  No wonder the “people’s jury” in the Russian Far East responded to the film, to a finely acted and finely crafted post-Soviet melodrama with a thoroughly engaging and original heroine. The last word on this film must go to Oksana Korostyshevskaia, who carries the film with her brilliant performance.  Her Michael Jackson imitation is alone worth the price of admission when this film finally reaches movie theaters.

 

Vida Johnson,Tufts University


Fool [Dura] (Russia, 2004)

Color and black-and-white, 85 minutes

Director: Maksim Korostyshevskii

Script: Natal'ia Nazarova, with the participation of Maksim Korostyshevskii

Cinematography: Masha Solov'eva

Art Director: Vladimir Gudilin

Costumes: Ivan Volkov

Cast: Oksana Korostyshevskaia, Regina Miannik, Evgenii Red'ko, Aleksandr Baluev, Ol'ga Volkova, Tat'iana Liutaeva

Producer: Galina Belinskaia

Production: D'Max Film Company, with the participation of the Cinematography Service of the Russian Ministry of Culture


Maksim Korostyshevskii, Fool! [Dura] (2004)

reviewed by Vida Johnson©2005

15/04/05