Svetlana Proskurina: Best of Times (Luchshee vremia goda, 2007)

reviewed by Stephen Hutchings© 2008

The narrative in Svetlana Proskurina's latest film is deceptively simple. Two middle-aged women, Katia and Valia, are looking back on a distant youth in which, together with a man called Valentin, they formed a tragic love triangle. Valentin's true love is Valia, but after a separation caused by Valentin's imprisonment for the maiming of a violent neighbor in the communal apartment they all share, Valentin begins a relationship with Katia who has been jealous of Valia all along. He marries Katia, but years later his path crosses again with that of Valia, for whom his love is rekindled with new passion. Unable to leave Katia, and apparently abandoned by Valia, he eventually kills himself whilst engaging in a desperate, solitary variant of Russian roulette with a rifle, in which only one of two compartments is loaded. Valia returns to his home only to find Katia mourning her dead husband. The two women then become imprisoned in a relationship based on mutual hatred, but tinged with a bizarre affinity attributable to their shared grief. They take up residence together in the same home, forced to live out the rest of their lives beset by obsessive memories of the man they loved, conveyed in the film through extended flashbacks. Set in an unidentified seaside resort, the film moves between three time planes: that of the characters' early youth, that of Valentin's unhappy marriage to Valia, and that of the ruined lives of the two women in the present, the most tense moment of which comes when Valia takes the rifle and fires the blank compartment at Katia.

On the basis of this skeletal, myth-like plot, Proskurina constructs a complex, subtle film that is sensual, oppressive, and emotionally charged by turn. It can be viewed on a number of interlocking levels. At its most fundamental, it is an exploration of the contradictory nature of human relationships, of desire, and of the violent impulses towards the other and the self, which underlie it, whether in their male-female, male-male, or female-female dimensions. Thus, in the first disconcerting scene of intimacy that we witness between Valentin and Valia, we are led to believe that Valia has been drinking the blood flowing from the wounds to Valentin caused by the assault of his violent neighbor. Perhaps still more strangely, Valentin forms a bond of kinship with the neighbor that extends beyond his own shocking, revenge attack on the man when he blinds him in one eye with a chess piece. Meanwhile, the two older women are filmed in a violent struggle with one another, in which all their pent-up mutual resentment comes to the fore. At the same time, each of the characters in some way displays a masochistic violence towards the self, the culmination of which is Valentin's suicide.

For Proskurina, the dialectic of violence and passion, self and other, forms the essence of the erotic. This is most in evidence during Valentin's first sexual experience with Katia, with its mixture of aggression and passion, self-inflicted suffering and intense pleasure (the camera lingers at length on a scene in which Katia writhes on the beach in a manner both tortured and seductive, inviting Valentin to possess a body now caked in thick, glutinous sand). The extreme sensuousness that this scene embodies transcends sexual desire between man and woman, and extends to the landscape, the fabric of everyday noises, and the relationship between the two. Best of Times is above all an exploration of the sensual qualities of sight and sound. The long, nostalgic takes of windswept grass, and the background sounds of the sea and the constant rumbling of trains, linger with the viewer long after the final credits have rolled, indicating Proskurina's long-acknowledged debt to Tarkovskii and Sokurov.

But Proskurina's vision is her own, rather than Tarkovskii's or Sokurov's, and is unmistakably feminine in its sensibility: under her directorship, the camera gently caresses the world rather than captures it. This is true even of those scenes in which the camera dwells erotically, but without aggressive purpose, on the taut, seductive bodies of the young female characters (here Proskurina seems to be subverting the visual regime of phallocentric male cinema, in which the erotic display of a female body is usually a prelude to the male act of love). Moreover, her portrayal of men is, at times, unforgivingly harsh: Valentin's tender, masculine charms and tragic predicament cannot hide his essential weakness and lack of moral fiber. Having betrayed Valia with Katia as soon as he is parted from her, he later can bring himself neither to leave Katia, nor abandon Valia. His attitude is pathetic in its passivity: “It just doesn't work for me” (“U menia ne poluchaetsia”), he tells Katia when she asks him to stop loving Valia. The scene in which the two older women tug at the rifle of the morally compromised (and now dead) male hero, likewise undermines the object's phallic power.

And unlike Tarkovskii or Sokurov, Proskurina superimposes upon her sensuous exploration of the world's outer surfaces a profound concern with the inner subjectivity of identity and of human temporality. The fact that Valentin's name can, like that of his lover, also be shortened to Valia is no coincidence, suggesting, for example, that for Katia, the two seem to be hypostases of one and the same person. When, in the very final frames of the film, Katia awakens from sleep and asks “Is that you, Valia?” it is unclear if she is referring to her female rival-companion in the present or her husband from the past. Likewise, the three temporal layers are woven together by the incessant background murmuring of the ocean and by the repetition in the present of phrases from the past; Valia's question to the young Katia when the latter stares at the blood around her mouth—“Are you going to drink blood, Katia?”—is echoed in the present when the older Valia accuses her rival of drinking the blood of her life.

Indeed, the film's temporality constitutes one of its several productive paradoxes. Just as the space in which its action unfolds remains unnamed and unidentifiable, so there is a lack of clear temporal markers enabling viewers to place it at a particular moment in Soviet/post-Soviet history. This chronotopic abstraction contrasts with the attention to fine, sensuous detail characteristic of Proskurina's aesthetic. The only exceptions are the chess-playing communal apartment neighbor whose obsession with his status as a hero of the Second World War locates the film's early scenes at some point in the post-Stalin period (simultaneously casting aspersions on one of the key elements of Stalinist mythology), and, much later, the curious mention of a dream featuring Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev (the harbinger of post-Soviet liberalism). Nonetheless, the attention to period detail, particularly of the domestic variety, is meticulous, and it would be possible to place the action in time on this basis alone.

Such fleeting (yet significant) political references to the Soviet period define Proskurina as an archetypal post-Soviet director who, in wishing to transcend the burdens of the past, cannot help but evoke it. But it is ultimately the universal, human concerns that form the core of Best of Times. Connected with its tendency towards temporal abstraction is one of the film's defining traits: the spare, strangely detached, even mechanistic, nature of the dialogue, an achievement all the more remarkable given that Proskurina adheres to her now trademark principle of using virtually unknown actors, who, here, enhance the natural authenticity with which the knowingly stilted dialogue is contrasted. At times, the exchanges between the characters seem to be taking place in an endless temporal loop, in which each knows what the other is to say next since the entire scene has been replayed a thousand times. This adds to the oppressive sense of inevitability, tragedy, and existential hopelessness pervading what is, on other levels, a richly evocative fabric of music, sound, and image. The dichotomy between these two qualities finds visual expression in the juxtaposition between the soft, muted colors, in which most of the film is shot, and the occasional scene featuring vibrant, colorful contrasts between foreground and background.

To conclude, Best of Times, then, is a profound, unsettling film that also manages to impart an intense cinematic pleasure of the senses and emotions liable to modulate from viewer to viewer depending on age, gender, and cultural background. An older, Russian, female viewer is likely to derive a sensual joy quite different from that of a younger, western, male viewer. Such modulation, however, speaks to the film's multi-layered complexity rather than to any lack of universal appeal. Proskurina first came to prominence with Playground (Detskaia ploshchadka, 1986), Accidental Waltz (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. She later received plaudits from the critics for Remote Access (Udalennyi dostup, 2004), chosen for the competition program of the Venice International Film Festival in the same year. Her latest film cements her growing reputation as one of the most distinctive voices in post-Soviet cinema.

Stephen Hutchings
University of Manchester

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Best of Times, Russia, 2007
Color, 93 minutes
Director: Svetlana Proskurina
Scriptwriter: Ivan Vyrypaev
Cinematography: Oleg Lukichev
Art Director: Dmitrii Alekseev
Music: Andrei Sigle
Cast: Mikhail Evlanov, Dana Agisheva, Irina Evdokimova, Elena Levinskaia, Iana Esipovich, Aleksandra Kulikova, Natal'ia Sedykh, Viktor Sukhorukov, Tat'iana Ipatova
Producer: Stanislav Ershov
Production: Gor'kii Film Studio, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema, and the participation of Vaitek Industries Ltd. and KinoPROBA Studio

Svetlana Proskurina: The Best of Times (Luchshee vremia goda, 2007)

reviewed by Stephen Hutchings© 2008

Updated: 19 Jan 08