Issue 23 (2009)

Julia Kolesnik: Lower Caledonia (Nizhniaia Kaledonia, 2007)

reviewed by Eva Binder© 2009

Lower Caledonia is the first feature-length film by the young director Julia Kolesnik (born in 1970), whose graduation film Let's Go for a Walk (Progulka, 2002) at the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) won much acclaim and numerous prizes. She has not yet been able to repeat this success, although this new film would clearly merit more attention. Lower Caledonia was awarded the Prize of the Russian Guild of Film Critics at the 6th International Festival of Cinematographic Debuts “Spirit of Fire”, which takes place each February in the western Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiisk. In 2008 Kolesnik's film also played at other festivals in Russia. Yet the media and public interest in this film has so far remained modest.

The title of the film does not refer—as one might imagine—to the Celtic-Roman name for Scotland or to one of France's islands in the Pacific, officially called Nouvelle-Calédonie. In fact, Lower Caledonia is not a geographical area that can be found on a map. Rather it is an imaginary place, a “Neverland” for wishes and dreams, for expectations and disappointed hopes, which tie the film's protagonists to the plot location. The movie takes place in the lower reaches of the Volga. It was shot at the village of Tabul-Arash, which is about 100 kilometers south of Astrakhan and can only be reached by waterways.[1] The actual existence of the place is primarily borne out by the integrated shots of the village and its inhabitants, which emphasize the authenticity of the film location.

Kolesnik presents her storyline as a multi-layered arrangement of narratives, of jointly associative crossed plots, and of refrain-like repetitive image motifs. In accordance with her narrative structure, she works with many characters; this equips the film with an appealing diversity of voices. The main protagonist is Nikolai Vorsin, an attractive thirty-something-year-old man, who takes each day as it comes, entertaining himself in Moscow's affluent youth milieu. Women and alcohol are part and parcel of his everyday amusements. Instead of holding down a job, he lets himself be kept by women, especially by his sister Olga.

Vorsin leaves behind the fast-paced, hedonistic life of the big city and travels with his sister and her young assistant Stas to the Volga. In contrast to her brother, Olga is a committed and ambitious scientist, who plans to take advantage of the stay for her research. For Vorsin, on the other hand, the trip turns into an opportunity to put aside his habitual lifestyle and reflect upon his life. His restlessness is depicted in numerous dream sequences—at times night dreams, at times daydreams—wherein he flees into other times and worlds. This includes the world of his childhood—the vacations he spent with his father and sister—and the world of his dreams, which leads him into the mythical world of history: the battlefield of medieval warriors, wherein he encounters his own death.

Kolesnik works in her film, which as art-house production is primarily designed for a cultured and film-knowing audience, with the appeal of the return to mythology and to nature. The film begins and ends with a kind of meta-fictional commentary off-screen, which shows the main protagonist to be the narrator:

If you listen long to the sound of the wind, then you may actually see strange stories. They seem not to make any sense, nor have any meaning, and each time they begin out of nothingness. So, too, out of nowhere does the very wind appear. It only seems as if the wind is unique. It has various voices, characters, and purposes. Some you understand immediately. For others, a translator is needed.

Like the wind, which in this meta-fictional introduction emerges as if out of nothingness and tells its stories to those who can hear and understand them, characters appear as if out of nowhere again and again, who during the process of reception must be put into meaningful contexts. The associative connection of the narrative fragments, which ultimately flow into a significant story, forms to an extent the principle of the narration. A youth is one of many enigmatic characters who suddenly appear and then disappear. He promises to repair the engine of the boat in the river manned by a history professor and his assistant. An old, veiled woman, described as ved'ma (witch), moves through the steppe and perhaps causes—one does not know—a wheel of the horse-drawn carriage to break. Like a goddess dressed in a red overcoat, and in a private white jet, Vorsin's lover lowers herself to the ground in order to tell Vorsin that she will get married a fourth time.

By repeatedly invoking myths, Kolesnik plays with the pleasure for the enigmatic, for the a-logical, and for the rationally non-explainable, and puts into question, as if unsatisfactory, the idea of modern life as dominated by rational explanations. Thus, for example, the history professor—who is pursuing scholarly research by recording on a dictaphone his findings about the demographic developments of the first millennium—complains that the younger generation is deprived of romantic ideas and visions, which are indispensable for formulating scientific theories.

The opposition between nature and culture fulfils an analogous function as that of the polarity of myth and rational thought. People's encounter with nature is conveyed by arresting shots of the landscape, combined with a dramatic soundtrack. The beauty of a lonely, quiet landscape of rivers and the steppe, captured in cinematic images, is juxtaposed to city life, which rotates ever faster and which numbs human senses by ever stronger stimuli. Thus the initial shots in the film—a group of lively youth partying in a car which races through Moscow—are also the point of departure for the main protagonist to begin his journey. Nature in Kolesnik's film is appealing and inspiring, yet also threatening. A snake bite unexpectedly ends the life of a drug dealer; a lightening bolt sets the house that Olga and her assistant are sleeping in on fire, which at a stroke burns her film, thereby destroying her scientific work.

The encounter with nature just as with myths of the past triggers the characters' reflection on themselves and on human life in general. Olga, expecting to advance her career as a result of this trip, hears that her brother thinks she would do better to finally start a family. In the delta of the Volga she encounters someone like a prince out of a fairy tale, a respectable older man, who discovers her adrift on the river and unconscious, following a boat accident. Olga's lab assistant, a hardly-out-of-puberty urban youth with red-dyed hair, at the end wakes up in a rubber dinghy, adrift on the river and announces – shouting loudly at nature – his own sense of happiness. A snake-catcher, who had arrived in this place together with his friend three years previously, expresses his desire to marry. Grishka, the protagonist's village alter ego, has the same wish. In the steppe, Grishka has put up signs with “Lower Caledonia” or “River Thames” in order to escape the melancholy of this wasteland. He admits to Vorsin that he was ready to die for his country at seventeen, but then he joined the army and, as he became older, his ideal faded away.

Love as well as the longing thereof may offer merely a weak orientation in life, but it is the only one that the film's characters have available: it is an ideal to be strived for in post-ideological times. War as an agency that offers meaning in the world, with the connected maxim of active self-sacrifice, as Kolesnik makes clear in several short dialogues, has lost its force. Likewise, the insight into the necessity of suffering cannot be the close or end of a journey of self-discovery, as in Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker.[2] As the woman Vorsin desires lets the dreamer understand laconically, “you never suffered grief”.

Vorsin's search ends in an attempt at self-mutilation, but he gets off lightly, in contrast to his dreamed visions of heroic death on a battlefield. At the end of his journey Vorsin has neither found deeper insights nor has he changed his life. Back in Moscow he picks up his cell-phone and relays to his interlocutor that he has nothing going on and is therefore totally available: “I'm not doing anything, I'm absolutely free”.

With the motif of the search for meaning, Kolesnik places herself within a Soviet cinematic tradition that was essentially established during the Thaw and whose most consistent form was realized by Tarkovsky. Accordingly, Kolesnik's film is rich in inter-textual references and allusions. Nikita Mikhalkov's film Urga (1991), for example, is recalled with the opening shot of the Mongolian horseback rider at the start and finish of the film, which visually accompanies the main protagonist's off-screen commentary. Most conspicuous and numerous are the references to Tarkovsky's films, beginning with the enigmatic black dog, who accompanies Vorsin in his dreams, and then the burning house, and finally the visual accentuation of the four elements: water, fire, earth, and air. Kolesnik's self-positioning in the tradition of her cinematic predecessors can be considered especially well done in those sequences where the director addresses in a novel and different way the search for meaning in today's context. In so doing, Lower Caledonia convinces time and again by delivering scenes and dialogues fraught with deep meaning, which unexpectedly become humoresque and absurd. Where Kolesnik's first feature-length film is clearly weak, however, is in those sequences where clichéd images replace solutions she might have come up with herself and where the superficial beauty of the imagery in connection with a dramatic soundtrack is an end in and of itself. Seen from this perspective, Kolesnik's debut is to a greater extent the product of a society oriented towards consumerism and entertainment rather than a critique of the same. Undoubtedly, Kolesnik's approach to Russia's ethnic and cultural peripheries follows this logic, peripheries which are utilized in this case by a narrative cinema concerned with aesthetic effects but entirely apolitical.

Eva Binder
University of Innsbruck

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1] See also the director's comments at a press conference during the “Spirit of Fire” festival.

2] In the final monologue of Tarkovsky's film, the stalker's wife expresses this idea as follows: “And had there never been grief in our lives, then it wouldn't have been better […]. Because then there would also have been no happiness.”

Lower Caledonia, Russia 2007
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Julia Kolesnik
Writing credits: Andrei Migachev
Cinematography: Anatolii Petriga, Anatolii Burtsev
Music: Andrei Sigle
Cast: Nikita Tiunin, Mariia Velichkina, Velimir Rusakov, Roman Artem’ev, Irina Loseva
Producer: Stanislav Ershov, Iurii Obukhov
Production: Gorky Film Studio, Studio “Kinoproba”

Julia Kolesnik: Lower Caledonia (Nizhniaia Kaledonia, 2007)

reviewed by Eva Binder© 2009

Updated: 08 Jan 09