Issue 25 (2009)

Aleksei Balabanov: Morphia (Morfii, 2008)

reviewed by Masha Salazkina © 2009

morfiiTo say that Aleksei Balabanov’s new film is bleak and demanding will not come as a surprise to most audiences familiar with the director’s work. The new film is as graphic in its depiction of violence performed on human bodies as its preceding Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007), as ideologically controversial in its use of ethnic slurs as Brother (Brat, 1997), and as visually stylized as Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei, 1999)—the film to which Morphia is closest in terms of its historical context. It is also more subtle than either one of those films (at least in the first two thirds of it), visually more accomplished in its stunning color palette, painterly lighting design, and expert sound mixing. Yet it may also be Balabanov’s most pessimistic—and ideologically conservative, in the technical sense of this term—movie to date. 

Morphia is based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s semi-autobiographical early stories and the script was written by late Sergei Bodrov Jr. The film has been discussed in terms of the triple “B” star power (Bulgakov, Bodrov, and Balabanov). As one may expect from auteur cinema, the latter wins—thus your appreciation (or tolerance) of this film will inevitably depend on where you stand vis-à-vis Balabanov’s diverse and yet remarkably consistent aesthetic and ideology.

morfiiThe first opening sequences set the tone. The film begins with the arrival of a train at a lonely God-forsaken Russian provincial outpost in the midst of snow, birch and pine trees. The young doctor Poliakov (Bichevin), wearing unmistakable “intelligentsia” round glasses, is picked up by a bearded peasant on a horse carriage. But while the picture is familiar to the point of cliché, the soundscape is immediately impressed upon the spectator with force: mixed ambient sound and an Aleksandr Vertinskii song overwhelm the dialogue and create a clear subtext—the Black Pierrot (as Vertinskii was known), who was a sign of decadence and cosmopolitan chic that is out of synch with the Russian provincial countryside, while contributing to the overall sense of nostalgia and melancholy that is so prominent in Vertinskii’s own treatment of “Mother Russia.”A title card stylized in the manner of pre-Revolutionary films with art nouveau font and “old” spelling announces the year “1917.”

The young doctor’s attitude towards the Revolution is indicated right away—with his demand to be referred to not as barin (landowner) but as grazhdanin (citizen). Picturesque nostalgia and melancholy are mixed with the sense of impending gloom, and inevitable downfall, with the bell (or clock) striking as the film title appears.  

morfiiThe doctor’s introduction to the small cast of nurses who will join him in the noble—and, as the film will make clear, utterly futile—goal of helping the villagers, and the tour of the hospital sets the tone for much of the visual style of the film. The interior shots consist of darkened interiors with expert light design, intended to emulate gas and candle light, creating a “painterly” atmosphere. While the color scheme is muted, the light creates sharp contrasts enhanced by the alternation of darkened interiors with snow-covered planes the equally drab and indistinguishable whiteness of the winter. This initial “tour” allows for what will serve as a display of delicately fetishized “authentic” objects, akin to a tour of a museum with objects placed for our marveling; authenticity in the service not of the aesthetics of realism, but a higher level of stylization.

morfiiMusic is re-introduced diegetically with the hero’s attention brought to the gramophone with a collection of Russian music favored by the doctor’s German predecessor, and again Vertinskii comes in—this time with his most recognizable cabaret selection. This gramophone and its musical selection will remain at the center of the doctor’s existence, another instrument of re-animation, linked to the framed photograph of doctor’s object of desire, a singer from Moscow, which he places next to it. The gramophone’s function in the film is uncannily similar to Fanon’s description of the Radio Algeria that “is one of the means of escaping the inert, passive, and sterilizing pressure of the ‘native’ environment. It is, according to the settler’s expression, ‘the only way to still feel like a civilized man.’ It also gives him the feeling that colonial society is a living and palpitating reality, with its festivities, its traditions eager to establish themselves, its progress, its taking root.” (Fanon 1965: 71). The Russian “intelligent” is in exile while “civilizing” the natives—but it is even more telling that Poliakov listens in fact not to a radio (which would transmit “living” simultaneous broadcasts) but rather a gramophone, an endless re-play of the dream of the metropolis.

morfiiFor the rest of the film the gramophone music (mostly Vertinskii, with occasional songs by Varia Panina, another popular “city romance” singer of the time) acting as an aural equivalent of the play of lights in the otherwise dark and gloomy wasteland (the “Egyptian darkness” in Bulgakov’s words) of the Russian countryside. The choice of Vertinskii over Verdi’s Aida (in Bulgakov’s original) to accompany the scenes of Poliakov’s affair with morphine is characteristic of Balabanov’s perchant for “popular music” (popsovye pes’ni toi epokhi, as he refers to the choice of the soundtrack in an interview on the official movie website). They provide not only “historical authenticity,” but in many ways structure the film. Despite being historically anachronistic (most of Vertinskii’s songs used in the film were written in the 1930s), both the choice and the mixed diegetic and non-diegetic use of music is most telling. The frenzied and yet repetitive waltz (the piano introduction from another of Vertinskii’s songs, this time performed in contemporary—and intentionally amateurish, at once vulgarly sentimentalized and yet automatized—rendition) which serves as a leitmotif throughout the film, sometimes diegetically inserted, but more often as a generic soundtrack, clearly refers to the “there and now” of the narrative, its repetitive structures at once violent and dispassionate, naïve and ironic, and eventually simply nauseatingly mechanical and devoid of affect. The gramophone music, on the other hand, indicates another realm of the diegetic universe of Morphia—that of utopian escapism via morphine, sex, revolution, or entertainment.

morfiiWith the very first vignette, “The First Injection,” we are introduced to what will be another stylistic staple of the film: the casual, graphic treatment of bodies in pain, suffering in death, so direct that at times it provides a horrifyingly comic effect. The first death (which precedes and causes the first injection) is treated in medium shot, with the camera first moving languidly and then finally fixed unflinchingly on the scene with a dispassionate view enhanced by slow editing which merely allows a methodical change of the angle on the body (and the medical procedures) on display; this stands in slight dissonance with the drama unfolding on the screen, the screams, the doctor’s and nurses’ futile attempts to resuscitate the body. This almost medical distance of the camera parallels with that of the characters in the next sequence, where their casual conversation is framed off-center with the body occupying an equal framing in the background, for what feels like an interminably long time.

This cinematic method is applied to all the medical procedures in the film, and the casual and unflinching attitude is even shared by some of the patients, although, of course, not “the simple folk,” whose only escape from suffering and pain, with rare exceptions, lies in death or by simply exiting the frame. In sharp contrast stands a woman smoking a cigarette with an exquisite cigarette holder during a gynecological examination. Such casualness quickly becomes sexually connoted, so it comes as no surprise that the next scene starts in bed. Sex scenes are shot with the same level of clinical detachment.  Not surprisingly, the screened “attractions” (in Eisensteinian sense of the term) of the film—as commented on with varied degrees of awe and outrage by the reviewers and bloggers—include a birth scene, an amputation, a tracheotomy, a toilet scene, and a fellatio. The line between pleasure and pain, between patients and doctors, between living bodies and the dead ones is constantly blurred or simply rendered irrelevant, and subjectivities remain equally elusive. There is hardly any attempt at audience interpellation through character psychology, and affective audience response is exhausted half-way through the movie, which thoroughly invites the audience to disassociate its involuntary bodily responses to a never-ending visual stream of graphic bodily imagery (not surprisingly, reported a 43-year-old man fainting during one of the films screenings).

morfiiFor a film whose narrative documents change—the fall of the young, talented doctor with his naïve belief in the power of rational thought—its temporal structure is equally alienating. The passage of time is very difficult to discern, with inter titles such as “1917” or “Winter” providing only the broadest possible framework. Temporal bridges between vignettes remaining either intentionally vague or misleading (for example, “Winter” as an intertitle would traditionally suggest an implied temporal ellipsis— while through the dialogue it becomes clear that the events on the screen take place the following morning). Thus rather than indicating individual “vignettes,” or discrete episodes, the intertitles break down individual episodes and provide very little sense of structure. Editing within each episode likewise offers only a weak sense of temporal continuity (giving no indication of how much time passed in between each shot), adding up to the general impression of the tedium and timelessness of life in the Russian provinces. Occasional references to the Revolution in the first two parts of the film give very little sense of its exact chronology, making it hard to measure historical time in relation to the characters’ life. When the brutality of the Revolution finally enters the diegesis, it can only be measured against Doctor Poliakov’s own loss of humanity.

morfiiUltimately, the story of the doctor’s decline, physical and moral, comes as no surprise in the diegetic universe populated by bodies in various state of decay, automatons and disembodied voices from gramophones, and equally repugnant representatives of all social classes constituting a veritable pantheon of Russian cultural stereotypes: ignorant and superstitious peasants, violent and stupid gentry; corrupt, arrogant and vulgar aristocracy, over-sexed and/or saintly self-sacrificing women, conniving Jewish revolutionaries. It may be true that Balabanov’s philosophical vision extends beyond political allegories, being more akin to Kafka’s. Nevertheless, however “subtle” the political context of the film may have been understood to be (especially by foreign reviewers), the revolutionary “decay” of the national body caused by utopian escapism and weakness of the Russian intelligentsia has not only been the overarching metaphor of much of Balabanov’s work (with Of Freaks and Men providing the most obvious example) but is perfectly in line with the ideology of CTB, which Balabanov created with Sergei Sel’ianov. Sel’ianov brought his version of the history of Russian cinema to the screen in his film The Russian Idea (Russkaia ideiia, co-directed with Oleg Kovalov, 1996). His understanding of the role that cinema played in creating a mass utopia which destroyed the nation (that is to say, from Alexander the II to Stalinist peasants to the revolutionary avant-garde) by either acting as an instrument of escapism or, more dangerously, as an instrument of messianism of progressive ideology, can serve as a key to the ending of the film, which brings together its main motifs: the “darkness” (in the sense of ignorance) of the unwashed masses, the weakness of educated man, the imminence of death and destruction, and of cinema’s complicity with all of it. After all, as Balabanov said in an interview, the film “is a story of Russian man.”

Maria Salazkina
Colgate U

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Works Cited

Fanon, Frantz, “This is the Voice of Algeria,” in A Dying Colonialism, New York: Grove Press, 1965.

Morphia, Russia, 2008
Color, 112 minutes
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Scriptwriter: Sergei Bodrov jr.
Cinematography: Aleksandr Simonov
Art Director: Pavel Parkhomenko, Anastasiia Karimulina
Sound: Mikhail Nikolaev
Editing: Tat'iana Kuzmicheva
Cast: Leonid Bichevin, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Andrei Panin, Svetlana Pis’michenko, Katarina Radivoevich, Iurii Gertsman, Aleksandr Mosin, Irina Rakshina, Sergei Garmash, Iulia Dainegta, Aleksei Poluian
Producer: Sergei Sel'ianov
Production: CTB Film Company

Aleksei Balabanov: Morphia (Morfii, 2008)

reviewed by Masha Salazkina © 2009

Updated: 12 Jul 09