Renata Litvinova: Actress and Persona

By Irina Shilova (Moscow)

It is unlikely that Renata Litvinova in her youth was troubled by the idea expressed at the beginning of the 20th century by Aleksandr Kugel', a literature and theater critic, that “an actor's personality is more important than the roles he plays.” Litvinova's multifaceted talents—literary and cinematic—revealed themselves during those complex years when the very concept of “personality” had lost its original meaning. Those years began with the period of perestroika, when first Soviet and then Russian filmmakers started to prefer “biographies reduced to appearances,” Sergei Eisenstein used to say; when the struggle against realistic and psychological representations of human personality on-screen was first started and then resolutely won; when the representation of personality yielded to a demonstration of typological givens and acquired the traits of the aesthetics of a masquerade. And those years, which brought massive harm to domestic filmmaking, in a strange way coincided with Litvinova's presentations of herself or, more accurately, of how she wanted to see herself.

There have been classic moments in various periods of the history of world cinema, when directors—seeing the concealed possibilities in someone—took on the role of Pygmalions or other great sculptors, chipping away from “blocks of stone” everything that was extraneous, creating new standards of human and artistic specimens who became known as film stars. So it was with Greta Garbo, with Bette Davis, with many of Fellini's heroines, to whose “raw material” he gave character, appearance, and style. I'm not sure about feelings and ideas, but in terms of face, figure, and clothing, the director's advice was an act of creating a new personality. In just this way, Georgii Tovstonogov discovered in Tat'iana Doronina an actress with a unique intonation, with a special slowed-down plasticity, with an expressivity that he either perceived in her natural being or he subordinated or that was completely hidden in her, but all of which the actress subsequently retained in her successful roles.

Litvinova made herself. She made herself counter to existing templates or even their absence, counter to viewers' expectations, counter to—so it would seem—those possibilities that nature had given her. She emerged from the absolute necessity to participate in mass masquerades, sharply differentiating herself from all social brands. From her very first role, she was less an assembled than an exceptional phenomenon.

Beautiful, feminine, refined, fantastical, she could have remained simply a living artifact, a disposable phenomenon for exclusive use in cinema. But her meeting with Kira Muratova proved to be a genuinely Great Event. The director saw not only the actress' fantasticality and beauty, but most of all her otherness, her absence of grounding in reality, her breathing foreignness, which set apart the invented from the living, the artificial from the fleshly. But even before her meeting with Muratova, in Dislike (Neliubov' ; dir. Valerii Rubinchik, 1991), which was based on her own script and which became an insightful assertion of her on-screen biography, the thirty-four-year-old actress revealed in part her understanding of the goal of her search for the self. In Dislike, the heroine endlessly looks at photographs, newsreels, and films featuring the American star Marilyn Monroe. The bewitching cold eroticism; the child-like sense of the world, which, it would seem, preserved forever the beauty of the face and figure, virtually unsusceptible to the aging process; the eternal infantilism attracted everyone able to perceive the harmony of form. Perhaps it was this prompt that gave Muratova the “foundation” for cultivating the on-screen personality of the actress, although this is unlikely. The prompt for Muratova was in discovering the personality's motivations, in imparting a special meaning to the Litvinova phenomenon.

For some reason the title of Eisenstein's article, “However Odd—Khokhlova!,” comes to mind. This great actress' star appeared on the horizon at a time when filmmakers were seeking their own road, which included every conceivable bounty—from the aspiration to create a new world on-screen to all of the forms inherent in the art of acting. Khokhlova had no equals in this game. The director Lev Kuleshov granted her inconceivable freedom because he knew about the law inherent in an actor's soul; he recognized the cultural basis of personality, which precisely grasped the permissible boundaries of its own eccentric nature. For this reason, what Khokhlova accomplished remains in the history of culture as an unsurpassed example of the great Russian tradition, which runs from Gogol' and which not only tried on but also incarnated literary, theatrical, and artistic cherished traits of a national Type…

Litvinova started as a Don Quixote. Even in her very earliest films, shot on the basis of her scripts—Dislike and A Principled and Sympathetic Gaze (Printsipial'nyi i zhalostlivyi vzgliad; dir. Aleksandr Sukhochev, 1995)—Litvinova brought to the screen an image that was so unusual that it elicited consternation, bordering on irritation. Her heroines, located in a realistic space, experience every conceivable assault on their personality—the most important of which is the impossibility of love. In uncovering the absence of love—with love serving as the guardian of the meaning of life—her heroines are inevitably condemned specifically to death because of their faith that not only is love possible, but because it is the essential cure.

The theme gradually grew larger and more tragic. Litvinova is the strange outcome of a new reality, which presented itself to her directly, as if without any cinematic context. Is this accurate? After all, what has accumulated in her are the many plots and images that appeared on screen as part of the clash between the experiments of human and type-cast actors. Yet, in spite of all of the long-established rules of filmmaking, she embodied a special substance of being—cosmic loneliness, an independence from moral norms, a peculiar amazement with what she encounters in contemporary reality, and a boundless indifference to prescribed ethical values that are already shaky. Litvinova discovered this personality on her own, without second thoughts and of her own choosing. To be expelled from the real, to become the abstract embodiment of the idea of otherness, to observe what is happening not from within the events themselves, but from a space that is mysterious to people—this was the special goal and special commitment Litvinova made, sensing it and sharpening it in Kira Muratova's artistry.

In the words of Lev Anninskii, in the film-novella Ophelia in Muratova's Three Stories (Tri istorii, 1997), which Litvinova wrote expressly for herself, “Ophelia, powdered to a deathly whiteness, … [is] the hellish mixture of a ‘correct idea' and an anatomically lavish body with a total absence of soul, which might have been able to reconcile and balance the ‘correctness' and the ‘abundance' of the conceptual and physical parameters of the character taken separately. The correctness of a mannequin” (258). But is she a mannequin? This plaster cast come-to-life is endowed with impressively intuitive energy and also attraction, even if is insufficient for a living being. It is no accident that in a show or in an ad, the actress is fully limited to flowery and stumbling discourses on “dead matter”—of things, fashionable footwear, conceptions of elegance in former times. She has not witnessed the spirit of these times, but in everything concerning form, she—no matter how strange it may seem—is convincing in her unexpected and penetrating judgments. She examines things like someone seeing them for the first time, seeing and discovering their functional and aesthetic meanings, which turn out to be paradoxical and unexpected. The erasure of memory makes her gaze clear in an unearthly way, unburdened with the knowledge given to ordinary mortals since childhood. Her memory is somehow ahistoric, outside of everyday life. By making strange each of her characters, or, more accurately, each of her public appearances, Litvinova fearlessly discovers phenomena that have concentrated within them what will eventually become signs of the time. A truncated being, not suspecting her misfortune—this is the object of Litvinova's attention and her on-screen “I.” At the same time, her memory is linked to some mythological, ancient tradition, which has lost its connection to fire and passion in its development, but has preserved ritualistic pagan responses to the genuine appearances of life as it is lived.

Mannered, with emphasized artificiality, she is the most hypothetical character even within the stylistics of Muratova's films. All of the other characters are in some way—through indications of professions, natural characteristics, particularities of temperament—linked to the events occurring around them. Litvinova's heroines are not tied to anything. She is not of this world; she has entered it from the wings. Muratova gives her the main right to speak in monologs, which always sound somewhat inappropriate; instead of opening up, they encrypt the meaning of what is being said, almost as if the meaning itself is concealed from the heroine. Speaking smoothly and repeating words and phrases, her consciousness slides along the surface not of what has been experienced, but of what has been seen. In the links between words, in the hesitations, in the sing-song intonation and high pitch of her voice, in the seemingly thoughtless and spontaneous variations on what has already been said—the logic of the absurd opens up: the attempt to explain one's self in words to someone else or to one's own self turns out to be unattainable, a sham that lacks discoveries and becomes just the opposite—yet another means of not understanding, not explaining.

Within the strict boundaries of Muratova's artistry, ceaselessly and subtly coming to terms with the degraded state of humanity in humans, Litvinova turns out to be the most extreme variant of the loss of humanity, marking the limits of the distortions in other characters. Her virtual mysticism—the embodied perfection of “dead matter”—can also be understood as an unexpected reaction to everything around her, as a response to the increasing gloom of life, the perversion of people, the loss of light and hope. In this world, beauty itself becomes a commodity, nothing more. And now there can only be one means of resistance: Litvinova deprives her heroine of life, turns her into a phantom that does not know the difference between hellish life and death. This heroine does not know fear, does not know sympathy. In Three Stories, according to critic Tat'iana Moskvina, she becomes “… a murderess, some kind of goddess of retribution… She does not punish, she awards death… The act of sending [someone] into non-existence is played by R.L. as an act of genuine love” (181). Her earthly being is profoundly insensitive. And even her “genuine love” possesses an unearthly meaning, for it knows neither faith, nor hope, nor love. She possesses only the gift of deliverance from what is happening to everyone in the here and now.

The very title of her own auteur tele-documentary film, No Death for Me (Net smerti dlia menia, 2000) sounded like a confession: the role of interviewer created by Litvinova became a collective response to what was accepted as real life. The interviews she conducted with famous actresses—Nonna Mordiukova, Vera Vasil'eva, Tat'iana Okunevskaia, Tat'iana Samoilova, Lidiia Smirnova—were tough; the questions posed were perhaps too candid, too importunate, and even shocking. Less an interview than a duel was seen on-screen. She did not want to hear the usual, rehearsed answers; she wanted confessional, honest, sincere ones. But she heard a variety of things—gasps of indignation, disorientation, a desire not to give up the habitual havens that have become part of official biography, not to leave the shell-home that they had built for themselves or others had built for them. It turned out almost impossible to dig out the truth. This not only confirmed Litvinova's suspicions about the impossibility of opening up a living person, of finding out the truth about them, but it also confirmed the correctness of the path she had chosen.

It seems, however, that it is possible to discern something else in Litvinova. With her endless bewilderment, the questioning intonation of her voice, her unearthly claims that so primitively forget the destiny of beauty and love in the real world, her creative impulses that introduce her own inventions and fantasies into the disorder of the world, Litvinova forces viewers to hear her voice, even if it comes from the sidelines; she manages to keep the viewer's consciousness focused on the eternal questions, without answers to which it is impossible to continue living. For this reason, her heroines are not judges. They have somehow fallen out of this world because of the uselessness of the link, without which the chain of existence breaks.

As time passed, the maxilmalism of Litvinova's Role gradually began to change on-screen. She managed to fit into Aleksandr Mitta's traditional, realistic film The Border: A Romance of the Taiga (Granitsa: Taezhnyi roman, 2000), while at the same time preserving her heroine's right to be strange. She adapted to the rules of ironic-vaudevillian acting in Konstantin Murzenko's April (Aprel', 2001). Finally, she produced and played the lead role in Vera Storozheva's Sky. Girl. Plane (Nebo. Samolet. Devushka, 2002). This re-make of the once popular film Once More about Love (Eshche raz pro liubov'; dir. Georgii Natanson, 1968) was shot as a demonstration of the change of epochs. While adhering to the original plot, the filmmakers introduced contemporary characters who had lost many of the romantic illusions of their predecessors. Refraining the role originally played by Tat'iana Doronina, Litvinova dries out the image, allowing the theme of death to sound more sharply in the already disturbing atmosphere of the film. The idyll becomes impossible not because of some tragic accident, but because it is inevitable—the new reality precludes the possibility of a happy ending.

Subsequently, Litvinova will create the image-maxim in Rustam Khamdamov's film Vocal Parallels (Vokal'nye paralleli, 2005), reiterating once again the values that had been displaced by the 1990s. She played an effective secondary role in Aleksei Balabanov's Dead Man's Bluff (Zhmurki 2005) and then starred in his melodrama It Doesn't Hurt (Mne ne bol'no, 2006), where the life of her melodramatic heroine is limited to three months, and in this time (specifically in this brief interval) she (in accordance with the laws of the genre so loved by viewers) is allowed to experience the grief of discovering love at death's door. And she produced, directed, wrote the script for, and acted in the film with a very provocative title: The Goddess: How I Fell in Love (Boginia: kak ia poliubila, 2004).

After these incarnations, Litvinova's artistry began to bifurcate. This is especially noticeable in three of the actress' subsequent films—in Kira Muratova's The Tuner (Nastroishchik, 2004) and Two in One (Dva v odnom, 2007), and in Marina Liubakova's debut film Cruelty (Zhestokost', 2007). These last two films were screened at the 2007 Kinotavr film festival.

In Cruelty, Litvinova plays the role of a successful, will-less woman who has made her place in today's world, whose loneliness is relieved by a sexual relationship with a married man. The relationship brings no joy and has no future. All of the former affected traits that made the characters played by Litvinova unique and unearthly are markedly reduced. Instead of the earlier sharpness of her roles (virtually taken to an ideal)—carelessness, fatigue, and inertia come through quite clearly in this film. Here, neither the maquillage is developed to perfection, nor is her striking plasticity, nor is her “designer” clothing. Her heroine does not live; she merely exists, for she is incapable of love, which, even if for only a brief moment, lit up the life of the heroine of It Doesn't Hurt. In this new role, a different temptation awaits Litvinova. A criminal narrative line breaks into the colorless days that lack happiness: an adolescent girl at first blackmails her because of her relationship with the neighbor, then gets her involved in her insane plans, for which Litvinova's heroine pays not with her life, but with a jail sentence.

Social themes, which Litvinova avoided in the past, acquire in this film a determining significance. Yet her heroine does not fully blend in with reality and here the actress runs into trouble: her performance penetrates into the flesh and blood of people who consider themselves, if not chosen, then at least worthy, but who because of circumstances discover their own hidden desires. The new century has brought its own problems. Social divisions have led to the appearance of envious and mercenary predators against whom people are totally defenseless, people who are seemingly successful but unfortunate and no longer expect anything from life, who violate moral rules secretly, but who still remember them, knowing where the line that can't be crossed lies. In her resistance to temptation, Litvinova's heroine makes her own discovery—not for herself alone, but for an entire social group: in the absence of genuine human feelings, “the game” becomes the only way to return to living human emotions, even if the game is a criminal one. The world has not awakened and people in their dreams recall the human and moral laws that have been pushed to the periphery of their consciousness only at the moment of cruel and irreversible payback. But even death is not awarded them, the award that Litvinova's heroine's used to give people. Deprived of any kind of halo, Litvinova's heroine is virtually indistinguishable in the crowd of convicts.

In an earlier film, Muratova's The Tuner, this bifurcation of the image is also emphasized—in the actress' affected beauty, which has become her trademark, either exotically dressed up or totally undressed; and in the comical character, striking for her high-flown language, ambition, and self-love. Muratova's social portraiture is deeper and more meaningful than the social features of the character. The social is transformed in every image into something resembling generalized human types extracted from reality, types that through various epochs have preserved their intransitive qualities. Possibly for this reason, in examining each image carefully, it is possible to ascertain a chain of associations with characters from other times and other countries. Litvinova's persona would fit right in with the English burlesque and the French commedia dell'arte, yet it grows out of Chekhov's poetics, in which the absurdity of existence and the eccentricity of nature open up, giving birth to strange types of people who find themselves not in their time and not in their roles. This is what Muratova finds interesting in Litvinova: the natural in the artificial, the delimited within the limitless, the other within the other.

Muratova cannot allow Litvinova to forget how exceptional she is. No longer magically affected or fantastically alien, but still quite different, Litvinova intrudes into Two in One. In the film's second novella, Muratova has Litvinova act next to Bogdan Stupka, an actor whose range of roles has no limits. His talents extend from heroically romantic roles to psychological genres, from farcical to dramatic ones. As paradoxical as it may sound, his character in this film is an older man who has achieved everything, an aging Don Juan who cannot come to terms with his loneliness. He still needs “the woman of his life.” Sick and tired of his endless search for this woman, his daughter brings her friend to his apartment—a simple-hearted worker in a tram depot, for which role Muratova invited Litvinova. A different profile, different mannerisms, a different assignment; this is no place for refinement, elegance, or other-worldliness! Everything is different—a strange plot, and her heroine comes from an environment that is alien to Litvinova and has strange reactions to the—in turn—alien world in which Litvinova grew up and continues to live. The source of the role this time is not other-worldliness, but an exit from a cave, from its darkness. And this force—knowing neither rules nor etiquette, brutal and crude—once again renders its verdict on our reality, but from a different angle: from the thick of people unburdened by culture, education, or knowledge of the layers of eternal life.

Literary critic Naum Berkovskii has expressed the view that a nation contemplates itself, comes to know itself, admires itself in an actor. All three verbs can be attributed to Litvinova, just as all three can be rejected, because the characters created by the actress force the viewer not “to contemplate” himself but a concentrate of someone else; “to come to know” not the present transformation of a person but the eternal hierarchy—from top to bottom—of emanations of human material; “to admire” not the self but the beauty of the lost soul. That is what is unique about Litvinova, who has brought to the screen an artistic creation that carries a reckoning from the beginnings of life.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Irina Shilova
Institute for Cinema Studies, Moscow

Works Cited

Anninskii, Lev. Pozdnie slezy. Moskva: Èizenshtein tsentr and VGIK, 2006.

Eisenstein, Sergei. “However Odd—Khokhlova!” Eisenstein: Writings, 1922-1934 . Ed. and trans. Richard Taylor. London and Bloomington: BFI Publishing and Indiana UP, 1988. 71-73.

Èizenshtein, Sergei. “Kak ni strano—O Khokhlovoi.” Izbrannye proizvedeniia v shesti tomakh. Vol. 5. Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1968. 399-401.

Moskvina, Tat'iana. “Litvinova Renata, stsenarist, aktrisa.” In Noveishaia istoriia otechestvennogo kino: 1986-2000 . Vol. 2. Ed. Liubov' Arkus. St. Petersburg: Seans, 2001. 181-2.


Irina Shilova© 2008

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Updated: 09 Jan 08