Ihor Podol'chak: Las Meninas (2008)
reviewed by Joshua First© 2009
Las Meninas is not really a film, just as its director, Ihor Podol'chak, is not really a filmmaker. Rather, it might be described better as a feature-length piece of video art by a graphic artist desiring to work with new media. A native of Lviv, Podol'chak has achieved fame for his numerous international exhibitions, and has the distinction of being the first artist to exhibit his work in space, although the latter consisted of two postcard-sized woodcuts that two Russian cosmonauts brought to the Mir Space Station in 1993. His various paintings, woodcuts and multi-media installations generally feature masochistic scenes, such as tortured and dismembered female bodies, placed within dark and unrecognizable spaces. Podol'chak’s photographic work similarly frames nude females twisted, writhing in pain, or otherwise obscuring their limbs and heads.
While his cinematic debut dispenses with much of the violence evident in his earlier work, there are several familiar motifs in Las Meninas: Most notably, we rarely see whole bodies in the film, as cinematographer Serhii Mykhal'chuk shoots most of the scenes in close-up, moving his camera from hands to legs to breasts, to a back, and occasionally to a darkened face. The interior location, in which most of the action is set, is barely lit, destabilizing the space that the characters inhabit. Also unsettling is the limited dialogue, which is pushed to the background of the film’s soundscape, with Las Meninas emphasizing instead a fork raking against a plate, the plop of pureed spinach on the same plate, a buzzing fly, the hum of electricity, scratching an itch, etc. While such counter-realist use of exaggerated sound has been used—from Jan Švankmajer to Walt Disney—for comedic effect, Podol'chak establishes the ominous presence of the mundane through this technique.
Podol'chak titled his film after the seventeenth-century Diego Velázquez painting of the InfantaMargarita and her chambermaids, but what exactly constituted this allusion is rather complex. Rutger Wolfson, the director of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, introduced the association with the painting during the Las Meninas premier: “The film is rooted in the traditions of seventeenth-century painting. I am sure that the director loves and deeply understands the art of this period. But at the same time, he combines this tradition with contemporary video art and [the style of] music videos” (see Beiker). Several other reviews and press about the film mention the painting, but none can specify what these “traditions” are and how Podol'chak combines them with “contemporary” means. In fact, as many art historians have argued, there is little that is “traditional” about Las Meninas, and its unusual quality stems not from the historical context under which Velázquez painted it or, indeed, from its very subject matter, but in its thematization of viewing positions. The mirror in the background of the painting reveals the figures of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana, and the artist himself stares from his easel in the direction of the viewer. Thus, what we see in the painting is not simply a scene from Margarita’s court, but the onlookers of a second painting in production. We, as the viewers of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, are consequently positioned as the subjects of this second painting. We might interpolate that Podol'chak employs the title to explore similar problems of representation, especially given the long history of critical discourse in film studies on scopophilic pleasure and symbolic identification. Yet, here we have only vague allusions to such themes, such as the director’s statement that 70-75% of the film was shot through mirrors, and a press release on the film that emphasized the viewer’s participation in unraveling the complex “puzzle [rebus]” on screen (see Voropaiev, Mel'nyk).That is, the film becomes an exercise, on the one hand, in overcoming technical difficulties, and, on the other, in confounding the audience. In this respect, perhaps Podol'chak’s use of visual style at times approaches the realm of a gimmick.
And despite the beautiful still-life compositions of fruit and porcelain that punctuate Las Meninas, Podol'chak’s film is no way an enjoyable viewing experience. Few spectators could make this claim, honestly, even accepting the truism that taste is subjective. According to the press release, the film revolves around an older couple terrorized by their sick, but manipulative son. While such a theme appears at times throughout the film, it is overshadowed by discussions of how to prepare fish, the lateness of a dinner guest, and other non-sensical and unfinished sentences and interactions. Most of the action takes place around the dinner table, with the camera slowly panning over the objects and the miserable humans that surround it. Podol'chak presents an elaborate mise-en-scène, which perhaps draws influence from scenes in Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Solaris or Sokurov’s Mother and Son.
The middle of Las Meninas, however, breaks stylistically from the beginning with a sequence, appearing in rapid montage, of mirrors, body parts and cellos, evoking themes of incest (a boy appears several times on the verge of unbuckling his mother’s garter), missed opportunity or squandered talent (a woman, nude except for a corset, plays a cello, with the boy appearing in place of the instrument toward the end of the sequence), aging and the decline of the human body (the nude woman views herself as either older or younger through the countless mirrors in the shot, with the lighting emphasizing her sagging breasts and increasingly obese body). This middle sequence, so different from the first and final third of Las Meninas, was in fact made by American music video director Dean Karr, who had worked most notably on the intentionally bizarre, but award-winning video for Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”
Because this review appears in a journal issue explicitly on the subject of Ukrainian cinema, one might justifiably ask how Podol'chak’s highly unusual, and indeed international, work fits into a broader canon outlined herein. For what this reviewer could tell, there were no explicitly Ukrainian themes explored in Las Meninas. In interviews, moreover, Podol'chak constantly reiterated that he strove toward the “universal” (see Voropaiev), rather than something based on local or national material. This fact alone distinguishes Las Meninas from the most prominent films made during the two “golden ages” of Ukrainian cinema, the late 1920s-1930s and the 1960s. Yet, Podol'chak shot the film in his native Galicia, with local, non-professional actors, and his characters speak Ukrainian, a not insignificant fact considering that most films made in Ukraine during the 1970s-90s were shot in Russian. Perhaps most importantly, the Ukrainian press, and in particular the Lviv press, promoted Podol'chak as a cultural representative of “contemporary” Ukraine to Western Europe and North America. While there was predictably little attempt to engage with the textuality of Las Meninas in the mainstream Ukrainian press, its presence at Rotterdam, Trieste, and Karlovy Vary served to justify Ukraine’s position within a European cultural space (see Kosmolins'ka). As with Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv, 1965), reviewers may not have understood what the film was accomplishing on an aesthetic level, but they praised it for placing Ukraine on the international stage.
This is not to say I “understood” the aesthetic principles at work in Podol'chak’s Las Meninas. In fact, I found myself frequently taking the position of a Soviet-era film critic, who saw the “necessity for youthful experimentation,” but felt the need to warn the filmmaker not to “alienate the spectator.” I’m trying to avoid such clichés in this review. After all, there is a lot of beauty contained in the film—the oversaturated colors and its slight lack of sharpness makes for some truly exquisite imagery for the most part. Yet, the infinite and perhaps meaningless abstraction, masked with the language of “universality,” reduces Podol'chak’s debut film to an aesthetic exercise. In this respect, we might agree with one Dutch reviewer, who wrote after seeing its premier in Rotterdam, that the life of Las Meninas began and ended on that screen (see Sanders).
Joshua First, Miami University (Ohio)
Beiker, Mariia. “Rotterdam smotrit kino iz Ukrainy i Kazakhstana,” BBCRussian.com, 28 January 2008.
Kosmolins'ka, Natalka. “Ihor Podol'chak, Ihor Diurych: U tomu, shcho Ukrainu predstavliatymut' halychany, ie istorychna spravedlyvist',” Brama: Postup.
Mel'nyk, Lidiia. “Pratsiuiu z klasychnymy elementamy, iak iz vlasnymy,” interview with Oleksandr Shchetyns'kyi, L'vivs'ka hazeta on-line, 30 January 2008.
Sanders, Ruby. Review of Las Meninas, movie2movie.nl.
Voropaiev, Serhii. “Ukraintsi na Rotterdams'komu festyvali: pochyn dorozhchyi za hroshi,” interview with Ihor Podol'chak, UNIAN—Kul'tura.
Las Meninas, Ukraine, 2008
Color, 99 minutes
Director: Ihor Podol'chak
Script: Ihor Podol'chak
Cinematography: Serhii Mykhal'chuk
Art Direction: Svitlana Makarenko
Music: Oleksandr Shchetyns'kyi
Cast: Mykola Veresen', Liubov Tymoshevs'ka, Hanna Iarovenko, Dmytro Cherniavs'kyi, Ilona Arsent'ieva, Stas Arsent'iev
Producers: Ihor Diurych and Ihor Podol'chak
Ihor Podol'chak: Las Meninas (2008)
reviewed by Joshua First© 2009