Issue 27 (2010)

Ivan Solovov: The Elder Wife (Starshaia zhena, 2008)

reviewed by Andrei Khrenov © 2010

solovovA mature, professional filmmaker Ivan Solovov belongs to a category of less known directors who combine quality filmmaking with an ability to cater to popular taste. He is largely ignored by the high-brow critics-aesthetes for never venturing into esoteric art-house and preferring his formulaic, simple, action-filled thrillers such as Caravan of Death (Karavan smerti, 1991), The Black Ocean (Chernyi okean, 1997), Hot Spot (Goriachaia tochka, 1998) and tearjerkers such as An Avalanche (Lavina, 2001) or The Railroad Romance (Zheleznodorozhnii romans, TV, 2003). At the same time he is wholeheartedly supported by the Moscow television channel programmers, those rating-buster seekers, who appreciate Solovov’s skillful use of the melodramatic form (also found in ubiquitous soap operas with their reassuring repetition of familiar emotional patterns, structures and tensions).

Peter Brooks aptly defines the following “everyday connotations” of melodrama: “The indulgence of strong emotionalism; moral polarization and schematization; extreme states of being, situations, action; overt villainy, persecution of the good, and final reward of virtue; inflated and extravagant expression; dark plottings, suspense, breathtaking peripety” (Brooks pp. 11-12). Some of these connotations appropriately describe the Solovov’s recent production Elder Wife. It schematizes the traditional heterosexual romance (although adding an “exotic” motive of polygamy as a catalyst) with a normative resolution that puts the woman in her place relative to the man within a strictly patriarchal universe.

elder wifeThe central character, 40-year-old Baira (Irina Rozanova), is an energetic and reliable helper, the right-hand to her husband S”ezd (Andrei Panin), an industrious and well-to-do sheep-breeder in a remote khoton (a Kalmyk settlement, formerly a nomadic camp) in the Caspian steppes. The tongue-in-cheek episodes at the beginning of the film show Baira as a strong character—relentlessly toiling under the sun, herding sheep, feeding livestock—with business acumen: she is holding negotiations with itinerary merchants instead of her husband. This seeming independence is undermined by the melodramatic turn that victimizes Baira by making her unable to bear children.

elder wifeThe integrity of patriarchal order has to be restored by S”ezd’s decision to fulfill the promise given long ago to the deceased female shaman: he has to marry her daughter Geliana (Japanese actress Beniha Eguti) who is pregnant and subsequently dumped by her city boyfriend. First Baira tries to follow the new shaman’s advice “you have to be patient” (nado terpet’!), giving her bridal dress and decorations to Geliana and doing her haircut for the colorful, crafty Kalmyk wedding with dances, songs and vodka. But she cannot bear watching he erotic games of the newlyweds as she peeps through the window. After chopping her bed to pieces, Baira leaves for the city. The action is identified not just by masculinity, but the female victim is also positioned as an active avenger. But Baira’s apparently rebellious gesture is not even subversive—she does not want to bring a second husband into the house, as she promised to S”ezd. According to her plan, an actor from the city theater would perform this part.

In the second part of the film, Baira is consistently represented as a victim, miraculously overcoming the dangers in the bustling city as she tries to get money to hire an actor. The depiction of Baira’s helplessness reaches its culmination when she’s struck by car of an industrialist’s girlfriend, Oksana, and stays in her apartment to recover. Here the theme of female friendship is introduced (deus-ex-machina narrative devices, the staples of melodrama, have become popular in Russian mainstream genres since Balabanov’s Brother-2, where Danila is saved by the TV anchor in Chicago).

elder wifeOksana, an irascible kept woman, suffers from deteriorating relations with her benefactor. Vying for a stable relationship, she is the only character who is in a position to criticize the oppressive patriarchal order. Oksana eventually decides against Baira’s return to the khoton. She relieves her frustration with her precarious status accusing all men—especially those “hillbilly shepherds” from the khotons who find a certain pleasure in an age-old ritual that makes their wives wash their feet.

The city episode foregrounds Baira’s firm position as a defender of patriarchal family values; she objects to Oksana’s charges quietly stating “it happens sometimes that wives do love their husbands” and unsuccessfully tries to persuade industrialist Max to spend more time with his suffering partner, who increasingly feels abandoned. She also rejects Oksana’s attempts to make her a stylish lady, putting on make-up and so on.

elder wifeThe logic of melodrama with its conventional, smooth flow from one scene to another introduces a familiar Cinderella motif: Max gradually develops a strong passion for the unusual, sincere and open woman from the khoton. When Prince Charming is finally ready to propose to her instead of Oksana, the new couple visits S”ezd’s place in the steppes. Seeing her abandoned husband awkwardly nursing a baby named after her and having found out that Geliana returned to the pleasures of the city, leaving the child behind, Baira resolutely changes her mind and stays with S”ezd.

Baira’s successful crusade for traditional family values is accentuated by the distinctive juxtaposition of the primeval forces of Nature (succinctly presented by the bucolic representation of rural life in the khoton) and the cruel money culture demonstrated through the urban space of any big city in Central Asia. That space includes the bustling market place where Baira encounters her fellow-shepherd, now an arrogant policeman extorting bribes from the vendors (brilliantly acted by Aleksandr Bashirov), as well as the day laborers’ pick-up places for both male migrant workers and female sex workers (“tochka”).

elder wifeThe film contains a plethora of animal images that refer to a utopian, harmonious existence; they are often intercut with the scenes meaningful for the action, sometimes creating an ironic commentary. Baira’s infertility is visually compensated through medium shots showing her nursing a pet sheep like a baby—and later someone else’s girl. Her defiant decision to find a second husband in the city and to bring him home is cross-cut with scenes of the unruly sheep breaking the fence and dispersing in the fields. A love scene between husband and wife in the khoton’s barn starts right after their unsuccessful attempts to assist the coupling of the sheep.

An omnipresent jesting camel whose head seems to show up—as if by a miracle—at every moment of intimacy between Baira and S”ezd adds another carnivalistic comment on the awakening of erotic desire. But the ultimate visual equivalent of the powerful natural forces is provided by the recurrent sweeping panoramic shots, taken from a helicopter, of horses wildly running though the steppe that seems to resonate with the breathing of the Kalmykian steppe. They do not serve to articulate the transgressive female desires always punished in melodrama: Elder Wife does not expose the contradiction between desire and duty; on the contrary, in the end Baira is “rewarded” by her own return to family roots.

The production realities were more prosaic. Solovov recalls: “The shooting took place on location in Kalmykia: on a farm close to the capital Elista and in Lagan’, a port on the Caspian sea near Astrakhan. We had lots of difficulties: 50 C degrees heat, dust, wind, lack of water, snakes, the need to constantly clean and disinfect the cattle that we’ve been filming to get rid of the ticks whose bites could be lethal for humans…”

elder wifeAnimals as totemic symbols also serve as markers of Baira’s religious devotion. For example, a wolf cub, a sacred animal for Mongols, follows the heroine in both scenes where Baira prays—first on the obo, the pile of stones honoring the local spirits, before her departure from the khoton; and then in a Buddhist temple in the city (this expressive symbol seems to have been borrowed from Sergei Bodrov Sr’s Mongol [2007]). Bearing in mind that Kalmyks are Western Mongols, like the Buryats who acted in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Urga (1991). As in Urga, the visual codes and tropes of Elder Wife limn a melodramatic tale of paradise lost and found, focusing on the issue of the Eurasian roots of the Slavic nations nurtured for centuries by Mongolian blood. According to the scenario, Baira is a boldyrka, that is half-Russian and half-Kalmyk, and therefore her distrust of polygamy is justified (moreover, the local audience pointed at the historical inaccuracy—modern Kalmyks do not usually practice polygamy). In the film, the tense situation with two wives having to come to terms with each other is discussed even by the guests at the wedding ceremony who express their sympathies with the elder wife.

The scenario was intended for the shooting in one of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, but due to production budget issues it eventually had to be filmed on Russian territory in Kalmykia, so adjustments had to be made on all levels.     

This formulaic melodrama, which adheres to the basics of the popular genre, does not provide filmic expression of the female desire for true emancipation. The questioning of the status quo is no issue for Solovov. By rewarding the heroine with a familial happy-ending, the film supports the conservative morality that seems to be one of the terms for the box-office success and high television ratings. 

Andrei Khrenov
University of Washington, Seattle

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Works Cited

Brooks, Peter, The Melodramatic Imagination, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

Solovov, Ivan. “Kino—moia stikhiia,” (interview with Segrei Nekrasov) Kinobusiness, 16 November 2007.

The Elder Wife, Russia 2008
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Ivan Solovov
Screenplay: Zoia Kudria, Aleksandr Dziublo
Cinematography: Vladimir Klimov
Cast: Irina Rozanova, Andrei Panin, Aleksandr Domogarov, Lidiia Velezheva, Beniha Eguti, Aleksandr Bashirov, Ivan Shabaltas, Marat Basharov, Mikhail Bagdasarov
Production: Mentor Cinema, ObjektivArt

Ivan Solovov: The Elder Wife (Starshaia zhena, 2008)

reviewed by Andrei Khrenov © 2010

Updated: 19 Jan 10