Issue 24 (2009)

Andres Puustusmaa: The Red Pearl of Love (Krasnyi zhemchug liubvi, 2007)

reviewed by Sasha Razor © 2009

How much does post-Soviet love cost? Between the maternal and the material

Shaman: This is the red pearl of love. Those who get it possess love.
Maria: How much does it cost?
Several hundred-dollar bills are thrown on the coffee table…

redpearlThe Red Pearl of Love is the result of an international collaboration involving a Russian/Ukrainian film crew and producers (Konstantin Murzenko, Oleg Stepanenko and Elena Iatsura), an Estonian director (Andres Puustusmaa), and a Finnish cinematographer (Timo Salminen). The script was written by Murzenko at the height of Russia’s “robber-baron” capitalism of the 1990s—but the Default of August 1998 would postpone production for an entire decade.  Set in post-Soviet Kiev, its plot revolves around a love triangle consisting of Maria (Oksana Fandera), her affluent husband Fedor (Igor’ Iatsko), and lover Grigorii (Evgenii Tsyganov), a poor motorcycle stunt man.  Melodramatic by genre, the film blends a timeless Cinderella motif with the appeal of The Rich Also Cry (Bogatye tozhe plachut), a Mexican telenovela that has enjoyed so much popularity in Russia. 

Conceived in one socioeconomic context and released in another, this is a movie of extreme opposites. Given that juxtaposition between erstwhile wealth (during the film’s inception ten years ago) and current market woes, it remains to be seen how successfully this postponed international co-production can resolve any resulting conflicts between themes universal and particular. Likewise, time will tell how effectively The Red Pearl of Love has negotiated certain social contexts relating to a typology of post-Soviet heroines, such as the wives of wealthy businessmen, previously depicted in Andrei Konchalovskii’s Gloss (Glianets, 2007) or in the popular novels by Oksana Robski. To what extent these women are still relevant during a global crisis remains to be seen.

In an interview with Russian Vogue (March 2006), producer Elena Iatsura downplayed the film’s socioeconomic dimensions, emphasizing instead its universal or ever-relevant significance, expressed through a focus on human emotions. In her own words, the film is “not about a businessman’s wife [Maria] who fell in love with another man, rather about the fact that love [always] ends at some point.”  Yet despite any assertions about the universality of amorous rhetoric, the heroine’s relationship with her lover is colored by deeply entrenched, class-related tensions. For example, replying bluntly to a question concerning her social status, Maria states that she “was not born in a Mercedes.”  Using the device of a shaman’s “insight,” Maria’s past is further revealed through a series of flashbacks into her small-town childhood. It transpires that her father had abandoned the family; this early childhood trauma would spark certain insolent attitudes that persevered in Maria both throughout her adolescent and adult years. Elsewhere and similarly, Maria’s lover Grigorii doubts their relationship for reasons that stem from a belief he cannot transcend his lowly social position or provide Maria with a luxury lifestyle to which she is accustomed. Concrete times and contexts create specific traits.

Maria’s struggle to find her place in life parallels Oksana Fandera’s own biography in an episode where our heroine, overwhelmed by the pressures of drama school, is forced both to drop out of the institution and—as a result—tumble down the social ladder, too.  She takes the position of a lowly window washer at a roadside café. Fandera herself, who resisted playing a romantic heroine most of her life, also failed her entrance exam at the Theatre Institute once (see, for example, Kinoafisha). Likewise, she once won second prize at a Moscow beauty pageant, dressed only in jeans and a baggy shirt: these are precisely the clothes we see Maria wearing in the window-washing episode that ends with Maria’s miraculous “landing” into the life of wealthy businessman and future husband, Fedor.  

redpearlThe hero is described with a little less social specificity, though his general air of success is patent. Even though no concrete explanation of Fedor’s source of income is provided, he is presented as a gentle and civilized person with refined cultural tastes. Fedor makes reference to the prices of artists like Kustodiev and Aivazovskii at auction, where—in a predictably Russian fashion—portraits of fat merchants’ wives elicit higher bids than the latter’s romantic seascapes. Elsewhere we see Fedor driving to the theater with his wife in a black Jaguar or—just in case boredom lurks in their modern penthouse—he lets Maria mingle with other toned bodies in a health club. What else, he reasons, could a woman possibly fancy? These are idle thoughts from the idle rich.

Similar contextually specific references are slowly misplaced, though, initially by the theme of mysticism. We start with the contention that material wellbeing, however impressive, cannot operate as a substitute for Maria’s maternal desire: her marriage is childless and, therefore, unhappy. Maria’s visit to a gynecologist underscores her attempts to solve the problem, yet it results in an unexpected solution. The doctor informs her of many instances in which women leave their husbands… and promptly become pregnant by their next partner. Trying to investigate this phenomenon, Maria seeks the advice of a Siberian shaman (Iurii Stepanov); as the ceremony begins, he asks her to choose a stone from his pouch. Maria’s choice seals her fate: she chooses a pebble that does not exist in nature, a red pearl of love (hence the movie’s title). Somewhat dramatically, she throws down an excessive amount of money in order to acquire it.

The general theatricality of this new intrigue is paradoxical: a failed actress, Maria also fails to distinguish between reality and her imagination; she persistently resists any realistic narrative framing. After themes of mysticism, therefore, another subject serves to erase contextually specific reality: deceit and criminal illusion. This “erasure” of exactitude is further intensified through several, slowly-revealed subplots. Maria’s visit to the shaman turns out to be a con arranged by Fedor’s secretary; Maria’s fatal meeting with her future lover Grigorii also turns out to be a scam, arranged by a business partner of Fedor.  This occurs when Maria attends some motorbike races; here she meets a rider (Grigorii) and falls head over heels in love with him. He, however, turns out to be a covert stuntman paid to take a fall, simply in order to increase the race’s entertainment value.  He is also paid to seduce Maria, in other words to ruin her marriage. The entire world around Maria is a theater in which everyone wears masks: even the supposed “shaman” has a job in a theater as set designer.

These unstable dualities are mirrored elsewhere. For example, the film’s secondary narrative structure consists of a series of internal monologues by its characters, inserted throughout the film; when juxtaposed, they prompt a dialogical reading. One character—a hunchback in a play—states there is “nothing inside of him”; later on, in another place, the shaman confronts him with a claim that “There’s another being inside each man.” A similar pairing of phrases or events is evident when a drunken stranger asks Maria What’s the point of marriage?” Her subsequent pregnancy will serve to answer this question.  These pairings do not, however, lead to larger, structural synthesis. At a certain point this overarching dialogism disappears: Maria retreats and does not reveal to her husband why she is leaving him. Neither does she manage to tell the truth to Grigorii, who tragically dies while performing a stunt on a film set. These interconnected monologues or “mirror scenes” result in a bitter-sweet happy ending rather than complete harmony.  The father of Maria's child may be dead, but—nonetheless—pregnancy and maternity become a different (and universal) solution to many, if not all, of the unresolved, inner plot tensions.

redpearlOver and above mysticism and illusion, the timeless, banal appeal of moneyed wellbeing also removes this movie from any special place or time. The film’s aesthetic is heavily influenced by product placement, without actually advertising anything specific: The Red Pearl of Love appears in constant orbit around certain consumption practices. Their selection and the set designs that frame them do not recall, by way of contrast, the rigorous type of documentary materialism we would associate with Oksana Robski. The film, unlike Robski, does not name-check specific elite goods.  Instead, all products here are more closely evocative of the film’s title: some non-existent, pepper-shaped stone that mysteriously governs the life of the protagonist. By way of illustration: in a kitchen scene, an actual red pepper is placed upon the breakfast plate that has been prepared by Mariia. That same pepper suddenly transforms her visually unappetizing meal into a gourmet dish—decorated with a smiley face. The transformations continue: hidden beneath a layer of cheese, the face of a “bearded” omelet stares at Mariia and Fedor, thus reenacting Lewis Carroll’s “Pudding—Alice; Alice—Pudding” situation.

This unintentional parody of a kitchen-based infomercial is deepened by a second example of food and drink placement, once again based on received models of consumerist behavior. Desirable forms of learned behavior are everywhere: one should drink a double Jack Daniels on airplanes, and consume champagne with caviar at sporting events. Even though “the champagne is warm and the caviar is cold”, these two items appear as the only things communicating a sense of recognizable reality. Without them, any verisimilitude—for example at the motorcycle race—is quickly destroyed by simulacra such as the muffled convulsions of cheerleaders, or clumsy stunts passed off as real. These forms of “disconnect,” of the unreal and unrecognizable, are underscored when we see superbikes racing on an oddly miniscule racetrack. This final image of misplacement could, in fact, serve as a suitable metaphor for the whole movie gravitating towards a small number of repeated procedures.  Only the gloss and veneer appear real.

Other “vehicular” references soon become the film’s central narrative tropes. Grigorii, for example, insists that Maria follow him to check out a good location for her gym; he takes off down the road at great speed on a black Hyosung motorbike, while Maria follows in a gold Audi A4 Cabriolet. As Grigorii motors along, we see an unjustifiable number of expensive foreign cars following him, as if their happy owners bribed the film crew to be included… Further down the road, two cargo trucks are approaching each other. The hero and heroine are in danger. Just as Grigorii and Mariia barely avoid a collision, the Hyosung mysteriously transforms—perhaps as a last minute set arrangement—into a vintage Soviet motorcycle.

These transformations occur not only in the material realm; they change genre, too and bring permanent big-screen-prestige to a small, modern movie. This episode with car and motorcycle ends with a rape scene amid nature. The vehicles are parked peacefully nearby; the only sound comes from an unrealistically short freight train, passing through the frame and disrupting the silence. It clearly looks as if the train has been placed in the film only as a (rather inept) allusion to Anna Karenina, thus—hopefully!—placing Pustusmaa’s ad-peppered production within the ageless Russian literary tradition.

redpearlThis general atmosphere of commercial, TV-driven culture permeates the entire film.  Most of the movie’s dialog is delivered in a rushed fashion, rarely pausing, as if the filmmakers are trying to dissuade their viewers from channel surfing. These accelerated dialogs, oriented towards the fragmented consciousness of today’s TV audiences, are likewise designed to stymie any reflexivity. Cramped close-ups and medium distance shots with blurred backgrounds both obliterate any specificity in the film’s locations. The camerawork, in fact, rarely conveys any particular point of view. Instead, it offers a disinterested examination of social veneer, conveyed through the type of cinematic craftsmanship that caters towards a primetime aesthetic.

Take one specific location: Kiev, the film’s narrative center.  The Red Pearl of Love defies all romantic stereotypes of the Ukrainian capital, all the markers of specificity. The glory of the Dnieper River, the golden domes and chestnut tree blossoms… we’re told to forget all that! We are in Puustusmaa’s Kiev, “a city of cold lights,” as the shaman puts it. This line reminds us of the song “Odin” (Alone) made popular in the early 90s by the electro-pop outfit  Tekhnologiia: “Alone, at the wide-open window/ You’re looking at the city of cold lights./ Hiding your tears in the embrace of the rain/ Feeling the weight of days frozen still.” In fact, this soundtrack of solitude would have been more germane here than the song “Vakhteram” (To Porters) by the popular Ukrainian band Boombox that was selected for the trailer. Additional Ukrainian music comes courtesy of local Black singer Gaitana, heard in the background, as well as a another number “Kokhanka”(Beloved) that’s included in the sound track.  Both these musical compositions are encountered during an episode that takes place on a riverboat, passing by the most recognizable and filmic locations in Kiev. This specificity is rare. The film’s anonymous urban settings—high rises, offices, hotels, airports, a race track, and a hospital—almost always create a neutral, unmarked cinematographic space. Devoid even of Ukrainian linguistic elements, this same space is contrasted with a landscape of passion outside of the city: Puustusmaa’s countryside is a domain of glorious Indian summers, blighted only with hints of provincial hopelessness.

Over and above these multiple pairs, opposites, and juxtapositions, does the film have any overt point to make? What is beneath its fascination with surface and the erasure of concrete space? Shifting from aesthetics to ethics, the film explores issues of violence as inextricability connected to a “deteriorating” feminine condition. Unlike Konchalovskii’s Gloss, however, this issue is not conveyed through bleak representational practices that emerged during the perestroika period. Only in several episodes do we see the ethical and visual severity we might associate with the chernukha tradition. On her way back from the airport, Maria notices three prostitutes at the side of the road. For a split second, she gives an unmotivated, broad smile… and then returns home to drink alone and demolish her apartment.

redpearlAfter her own encounter with sexual violence—retrospective flashbacks oddly colored in romantic overtones—Maria reacts to the roadside sight of fallen women first by adapting a masculine perspective by smiling and then directing this violence both towards herself and her habitat. Even gender-specific behavioral clichés are erased in overarching, universalizing observations. This all-consuming function of destructiveness is further emphasized in the relation of both Maria’s husband and lover to issues of domestic violence. To top it all, The Red Pearl includes an episode in which Fedor abuses an exotic African prostitute on one of his business trips. Characteristically, this episode is entitled “Tupik” (The Dead End), because Fedor never questions his behavior, i.e., a potential “exit.” We see him at the airport, leaving the site of the encounter, with no more than an inappropriate smile.

Instead of any geographic specificity or social criticism, the makers of Red Pearl sought to create an eternally glamorous motion picture with tools like a golden Audi or the nostalgically-tinged haute couture of the heroine. Any psychological transformations that Maria undergoes are conveyed—with irony—through a change in her clothing style. Dressed in tight jeans and leather boots to fit the dramatic occasion, Maria drives her golden convertible straight into golden haystacks, veering off the road, yet not sullying the film’s glamorous veneer.

This collision of slick Western machinery and Ukrainian agriculture parallels the film’s central esthetic tension. Every little detail of the movie—from its motorbikes to cheerleaders or the romantic episode in the motel—screams “The West,” yet their inclusion in (and implication for) a series of simplistic ideas recall nothing more than an afternoon Lifetime Original Movie on TV. Straddling these dramatic opposites, the fact that Maria “was not born in a Mercedes” is introduced to assuage patriotically-inclined viewers. This central concern, so important at the start of the film, reappears at the denouement.

The Red Pearl of Love ends with a reprise of its beginning: a scene by the river where Maria spent her childhood.  The importance of this closing sequence of the film should not be ignored. Red pearls are buried in the sands of oblivion; Maria and her son walk away in search of a “Father Bear, the most important of Monarchs”: a paternal figure encoded in a fairytale register, thus giving a cyclical sense of closure to an otherwise linear and predictable narrative. The movie’s credits dedicated The Red Pearl “To all devotees of the open water, to flying racers, and the friends of stones. To those who pay for them.” There’s a latent irony in that final phrase.  It brings an important question to the fore: What is the origin of the film’s celebrated glossiness, its characters’ wealth? The money simply is. And, in addition, how do this film’s delayed production and release relate to today’s financial crisis?  If we were to follow Maria’s son as he grows up, what would the future of that new cultural narrative entail? Designed as a film of universalizing observations among people of endlessly stable wellbeing, The Red Pearl already looks outdated, an aesthetic and ethical victim of a very specific time and place: Russia of the 1990s.

Sasha Razor

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Works Cited

Iatsura, Elena. “Salut, Mariia!” Vogue, March 2006.

KinoAfisha, entry on Fandera

The Red Pearl of Love, Russia-Ukraine 2007 
Color, 91 minutes
Director: Andres Puustusmaa
Screenplay: Konstantin Murzenko, Ekaterina Kutalova, Olga Stolpovskaia, Eteri Chalandzia
Cinematography: Timo Salminen
Production: Studio Filmocom
Producers: Elena Iatsura, Oleg Stepanenko, Konstantin Murzenko
Cast: Oksana Fandera, Evgenii Tsyganov, Iurii Stepanov, Natal’ia Surkova, Igor’ Iatsko

Andres Puustusmaa: The Red Pearl of Love (Krasnyi zhemchug liubvi, 2007)

reviewed by Sasha Razor © 2009

Updated: 31 Mar 09