Tigran Keosaian: Rabbit over the Void (Zaiats nad bezdnoi, 2006)

reviewed by Michael Ransome © 2007

Rabbit over the Void is in many respects an intriguing and surprising film. Directed by Tigran Keosaian and released in 2006, its publicity called it a “romantic comedy, telling an unforgettable story of love.” The mood of its opening, however, is far from comic, as the film presents the first of an extended series of unexpected turns repeatedly to challenge audience expectations.

The film is set in Soviet Moldavia in 1971 and has two story lines that eventually merge into an improbable happy ending. The first takes place in the world of one of the five Gypsy “Barons” that live in the USSR (Sergei Gazarov), whose comfortable life in the Bessarabian steppe has been struck by the tragedy of the death of his “favorite wife.” The backdrop to the film's opening titles is a drive by the Baron in a horse-drawn trap early on the morning of his wife's funeral, accompanied by his daughter Anna (Valeriia Lanskaia). Halting on the banks of a river overlooking the beautiful scenery of the region, the Baron fights to hold back his tears and his daughter offers him a comforting embrace, apparently a little surprised by her father's emotion. To the accompaniment of the beautifully haunting leitmotiv of Aleksei Rybnikov's soundtrack, an intriguing moment of tragic poignancy, setting the characters of the film in the immensity of the beautiful landscape, makes an unpredicted start to this “romantic comedy.”

Meanwhile, in the magnificent buildings of the capital of the republic, the head of the civic administration, Semën Grossoi (Iurii Stoianov) is trying to cope with his own potential tragedy, the impending visit of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “our dear Leonid Il'ich” (Bogdan Stupka). The comic theme emerges much more clearly as the local Party boss, Ivan Smirnov (Vladimir Il'in) gives a detailed briefing on how best to greet his former comrade-in-arms, Lënia, whose life he famously saved during the war. Smirnov suggests that his friend is “an encyclopedia of Soviet pleasures,” and advises the provision of the usual rich feast, folk music, and dancing, plus Brezhnev's personal favorite, ice hockey—a real challenge in the republic's searing heat. A crowning delight, he adds, would be an array of multi-colored balloons.

The audience is on familiar ground as it enjoys Grossoi's obvious discomfort in confronting the biggest challenge yet of his four years in public office—a period during which, Smirnov claims, he has not changed in the slightest from the “Moldavian shepherd boy” he always was. Grossoi sets off to sample some local wines for the feast, summoning his driver from the massed rank of gleaming official Volgas that dutifully await their masters' bidding. Again, however, events do not unfold quite as might be expected. Grossoi's vehicle is indeed a Volga, but it is a rare convertible version, in grey rather than official black. As he drives along the sunlit streets, he is able cheerfully to greet everyone he sees and the responses he receives in return suggest genuine personal affection for him. This is not an unattractive apparatchik accompanied by official escorts, nor does he enjoy the “Chaika lane” privileges that might have been expected at this time. When the two plot strands touch for the first time as Grossoi happens upon the funeral cortege of the Baron's wife, Grossoi's driver has to brake abruptly and wait patiently as the mourners process by. Although the welcome he then receives at the local vineyard reverts to type and is a suitably unctuous greeting for the local representative of Soviet power, nevertheless there have already been sufficient incongruities in the character's portrayal subtly to undermine any sense of certainty about how events might develop.

The film continues gently to play with its audience's expectations as its plot lines converge. For example, while the Gypsy wake, with its music and drinking, arguably proceeds as expected, not so is Anna's extreme action to secure the affection of one of the musicians, Lautar (Vartan Darakchian). Although it is her mother's funeral, Anna shows little desire to mourn and when Lautar's interest strays to another Gypsy beauty, she unexpectedly burns the premises down to attract his attention. As the love story develops, her father's reaction to the musician's interest in his daughter again might be what is to be expected of a Baron dealing with a pauper whose mother was Romanian and not even a true blood Gypsy. Lautar's response, however, is far from predictable: he steals Brezhnev's car, and then subsequently enlists the great man as his matchmaker!

By the time Brezhnev agrees to help Lautar, his characterization in the film has been unconventional enough to make the decision seem, within the surprising world created by Keosaian at least, logical and plausible. The formalities of the General Secretary's arrival at the airport in the pouring rain bear all the hallmarks of an official Soviet ceremony of welcome, an impression only slightly disturbed by the comic absurdity of the four accompanying Mexican musicians. The darker detail of Grossoi not being invited to join Leonid Il'ich and Smirnov in the main limousine swiftly reasserts a sense of harsh reality, deftly sketching in all the shades of power and influence commonly associated with the former USSR. But in the privacy of the limousine, the General Secretary wastes no time in unexpectedly revealing himself to be world-weary and lovesick, introducing the image of the rabbit that can laugh as he flings himself into the void.

This Brezhnev emerges as a kindly, genial character who reacts equably to the theft of his limousine and later good-humoredly excuses himself from the welcome feast to take a stroll by himself. A dream-like, surreal walk through a wooded area populated by a strange array of figures, including an official driver siphoning petrol and a ballet dancer nursing a baby, leads him to find the hot air balloon that Grossoi mistakenly substituted for the party balloons suggested by Smirnov. Having surveyed the beauty of his realm during a flight in the balloon, Brezhnev lands, meets Lautar, and rapidly agrees to help him win Anna's hand.

Accustomed as they are by this stage of the film to having their expectations of the plot challenged, even the most credulous members of the audience are unlikely to be able easily to accept the final twist in the plot. The film ends with not one, but two weddings, as Brezhnev reveals that he has lost his heart to none other than “Lizanka,” the Queen of England, and a group of trusted Gypsies is dispatched to bring the General Secretary's sweetheart to him. Having wavered between reality and fantasy, Rabbit over the Void finally ends like a children's fairytale, with a fairytale's happy ending—even if only temporary.

Though the following day Elizabeth and Lënia must go their separate ways, wedding celebrations are lavish and joyous, and the film ends with what might seem to anyone seeking a serious message to be an unsatisfactorily naïve conclusion. The film—it can be argued—begins with great promise, taking potentially fascinating historical figures, introducing the eternal and universal themes of love, bereavement, and racial identity, and even hinting at the essence of the human condition in an intriguing title. It is left to Smirnov and Grossoi to decipher the riddle of the rabbit and the void: “why can the rabbit laugh as it throws itself into the void?” asks Smirnov. Grossoi replies simply: “it can do so because it is free.”

Yet again Keosaian has played with his audience's expectations, leading viewers to hope for a profound truth and instead leaving them with an answer that might make sense in the context of the film, but makes little sense beyond it. The same is true of the effect of the film overall. While we watch it, we can enjoy some excellent acting by Il'in, Stoianov, and Gazarov in particular; we can admire the stunning landscape and climate of “Bessarabia”; we can enjoy the humor of memorable moments like the Moldavian national football team trying to play ice hockey at the height of summer, Smirnov's joy and relief when he realizes that the body in the morgue is not his lost friend, and Brezhnev's discomfort as he waits to see whether his magnificent tunic will be payment enough for the mission to bring him his beloved; finally we can be enchanted by the atmospheric music and carried away by the fairytale plot. If we expect more than that, however, we will be disappointed. Yet, all in all, that is still not an inconsiderable achievement for a film claiming only to be a “romantic comedy, telling an unforgettable story of love.”

Michael Ransome
Bristol Grammar School

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Images courtesy of Central Partnership

Rabbit over the Void, Russia, 2006
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Tigran Keosaian
Scriptwriter: Dmitrii Ivanov
Cinematography: Igor' Klebanov
Art Director: Nikolai Terekhov
Cast: Bogdan Stupka, Sergei Gazarov, Vaktan Darakchian, Valeriia Lanskaia, Iuri Stoianov, Vladimir Il'in, Mikhail Efremov, Igor' Zolotovitskii, Elena Safonova
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian
Production: Studio 2B, upon commission from Central Partnership and with the support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Tigran Keosaian: Rabbit over the Void (Zaiats nad bezdnoi, 2006)

reviewed by Michael Ransome © 2007

Updated: 02 Oct 07