Issue 28 (2010)

Stanislav Govorukhin, The Passenger (Passazhirka, 2008)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2010

passazhirkaThe glossy and luxurious Belle Époque world of Stanislav Govorukhin’s The Passenger, populated by the mannered, epicurean officers and jolly sailors of the Imperial Russian barque Smelyi, should be the ideal setting for a light-hearted romance targeted at the kind of beautiful, young people that populate multiplexes today. The film does not lack handsome youthful faces: the names of attractive new actors Anna Gorshkova, Aleksei Koriakov, and Irina Pegova top the credits of the film. Yet the names and faces of veterans of Soviet and Russian filmmaking, including Viktor Sukhorukov, Marat Basharov, Roman Madianov, and Sergei Nikonenko (not to mention Govorukhin's cameo as the consul in San Francisco), signal that the film may not be such a departure from the director’s consistent refusal to court blockbuster audiences.

Indeed, the film turns out to be not a light romance, but a combined lyrical character study and scientific experiment. Two young women, the widow Vera Sergeevna Clark and her chambermaid Annushka, are introduced into the all-male environment of a battleship on a voyage between California and Hong Kong. The volatile results are recorded. Vera Sergeevna is deposited safely on the Eurasian continent, and the ship passes on unscathed, except for the pleasant memories she leaves behind.

passazhirkaThe screenplay, written by Sergei Ashkenazi and Govorukhin, adheres closely to its literary inspiration, the 1892 novella Passazhirka by Konstantin Staniukovich, whom Govorukhin has cited repeatedly as one of his favorite authors. Nearly every episode of the film finds a corresponding passage in the novella. Exceptions include scenes from Vera Sergeevna’s private life, when no man is around to observe her. Other added episodes serve to foreground two things: the blatantly sexual motivations that could otherwise be sublimated by the visual pleasure of genteel rituals; and the violence men are willing to commit when their desires are frustrated, as in the case of Tsvetkov’s duel. Both elements are clearly intended to heighten tension on the screen, and should they function effectively, Govorukhin’s audience can better participate in the collective relief that arises once a climactic squall has purged the demon of obsession from the ship.

passazhirkaThough no man on the ship is a stranger to the company of women, the temporary transgression of the boundary between the pleasures of port calls and day-to-day life on the Smelyi throws many of the officers into confusion, increasing the incidence of daydreaming, gossiping, and affected mannerisms among the officers and precipitating climactic moments of the film. The camera shifts among the smitten men as they act in their own individual ways upon their infatuations. It focuses in particular on young Warrant Officer Tsvetkov and his chief rival, the Captain. Despite the Captain’s superior rank, the film clearly privileges the more vital and sensitive Tsvetkov. Glimpses into Tsvetkov’s personal life of jealous observation and love letters pair the young officer with Vera Sergeevna, whose depth of characterization is otherwise matched by none of the men in the film.

passazhirkaBy contrast to the men around her, Vera Sergeevna never finds herself at a loss for what to do or say in her novel environment. Though less well-travelled than her naval escort, the general’s daughter and engineer’s widow has weathered a wide range of life experiences, having undergone all of the rituals of courtship, wealthy married life and the difficulties of impoverished widowhood before the age of thirty. Furthermore, her life has been defined by her relationships to men—there is no women-only sphere of existence comparable to that of the battleship for men—and there is no reason for her environment to confound her. Vera Sergeevna’s horizontal, woman-to-woman relationship with Annushka confirms this, as it consists mainly of the extension of Vera Sergeevna’s equanimity in gender relations to Annushka. As a result, the young servant, though less worldly and more vulnerable, can handle advances from noblemen and sailors with similarly little fuss.

passazhirkaBesides sharing experiences as Russian expatriate survivors in America and as objects of male desire, mistress and servant appear to enjoy their effects on men: Annushka’s perpetual coquettish smile does double-duty for herself and Vera Sergeevna, who by the unwritten rules of her status cannot betray the same pleasure or risk embarrassing her suitors. For almost the entirety of the film it appears that Vera Sergeevna must also enjoy only vicariously the pleasures of physical relationships like that between Annushka and the captain’s orderly Chizhikov. The ultimate overturn of this assumption may be an indulgence for the director or an extrapolation from the coded language in which the nineteenth-century source material was written. All the same, it is a gratifying development when Vera Sergeevna initiates a one-night stand with Tsvetkov (with whom she admits she has become “a little infatuated”) without endangering her future material prospects or his.

Throughout the film, male observers delightedly christen and rechristen Vera Sergeevna or Annushka as “pure Russians” (chisteishie russkie), “one of us” (odna iz nas), “our Christian” (nasha pravoslavnaia). Certainly, Vera Sergeevna carries herself as a well-educated young gentlewoman, but her behavior points more surely to integration with the cosmopolitan elite than to innate Russianness. Her Russianness is marked by correct language, religious observance, and the simple, oft-made statement “I simply cannot believe I am in Russia. If you only knew how glad I am…” Convincing enough, but the officers on board clearly judge her Russianness, and that of her chambermaid, on the criterion of appearance as well. “Simply a picture” (Kartina!) as the artillerist says, following Annushka with his eyes. Vera Sergeevna and Annushka both “pass” because they conform to a particular standard of beauty held in common by Russian gentlemen.

passazhirkaThe title implies that the singular central element of the film will be the passenger herself—the novella itself would confirm this expectation. However, the opening shots of the film, which depict the Smelyi’s grand approach to the California coast under full sail and the routines of preparing for the harbor, make clear that, however central to the plot the titular female passenger might be, the ship will compete for the spotlight. Indeed, the episodes of courtship and genteel banter are constantly interspersed with scenes of routine shipboard activities: raising the naval ensign of St. Andrew’s cross, weighing anchor, recreational swimming, training at the cannons. The prominence of ship life hardly arises from the notion that the ship is Vera Sergeevna’s direct rival for affection—the animist notion of the feminine ship does not carry over to this film. Rather, if Vera Sergeevna is the ideal Russian woman, life on the Smelyi is her complement. It is important for what it represents in Govorukhin’s and his ideal viewer’s eyes: a beautiful, irrecoverable era. Even the weather plays into this meaning. In the development of the plot: barometric pressure drops to reflect the bitter feelings of the rebuffed suitors; tis culminates in a squall that is the only interruption in an otherwise unmarred series of sunny days. Performing beyond weathr's narrow metaphoric function in the plot, this sunshine also illuminates a dazzlingly beautiful life filled with pristine white sails, well-polished brass, colorful dresses, and the grueling choice of which immaculate uniform to wear, the parade black or the everyday white.

passazhirkaThis bright vision of the past, when every day of 1882 is a sunny day and the only challenges one has to face are the storms of individual passion, reflects also on the collective sense of well-being, nowhere near the tense and heavily-policed world of urban Russia in the eighties. The sailors live in a world apart from the officers, but it is also a clean world, with sufficient food, good batches of grog, and abundant laughter. Orderlies are on good terms with the officers they serve, and when they are the objects of an officer’s whim, the outcome is never bad. The younger officers are handsome and jovial, and if Vera Sergeevna’s presence temporarily raises tensions among the junior cadres, their seniors temper their actions paternally. The senior officers themselves, though they can be the objects of fun, take their military tasks seriously and rule the ship benignly. If Govorukhin’s recent films on historical themes, such as Bless the Woman (Blagoslavite zhenshchinu, 2004) or Not by Bread Alone (Ne khlebom edinym, 2006), have included elements critical of the Soviet past, here he has left the pre-revolutionary past completely untouched.

passazhirkaThematically, the daily-life scenes that punctuate the plot, as well as some episodes themselves, point to at least one larger meaning: this beautiful world takes work to build and maintain. Hence, Tsvetkov chides the chief engineer for allowing himself to be seen with a hole in his uniform, sailors cheerfully scrub the deck, and Vera Sergeevna often attends to her wardrobe with extreme decisiveness and effect. Govorukhin himself embodies this ethic, taking great effort to create an air of authenticity in casting, costuming, and set work. Location shooting occurred on the tall ship Kruzenshtern in the Canary Islands, and his set designer insisted on real cannons. Govorukhin is not shy about parading the efforts of his crew to create the illusion of authenticity, whether by means of the orderly Chizhikov’s explaining the purpose of every nautical item in the captain’s cabin or by means of having the camera linger on the straps which keep the piano from rolling about during a musical evening on the ship.

Someone, however, was shy about showing the film: though it had premiered in Moscow in 2008 and screened at the Moscow film festival in June 2009, the film was not widely released in theaters until November 2009.

The reason for the delay is arguably a matter of marketing and the sense that this is not a film that will attract those seeking entertainment. Govorukhin himself asserts that his target audience is “those whom ‘office plankton’ call ‘residue’” but whom he calls “Soviet viewers” (Ershov), an audience with old-fashioned tastes and greater appreciation for a call to social responsibility. The gently didactic message underlying the luxurious appearance of The Passenger—that is, “The beautiful, good life depicted here did not just happen”—is unlikely to draw any other kind of audience.

Elise Thorsen
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Ershov, Evgenii. “Vse moi fil'my provalivaiutsia odin za drugim.” Interview with Govorukhin (27 October 2009).

Passazhirka (Russia, 2008)
Color, 90 minutes.
Director: Stanislav Govorukhin
Screenplay: Sergei Ashkenazi, Stanislav Govorukhin, based on Konstantin Staniukovich’s novella Passazhirka
Camera: Iurii Klimenko
Art Design: Valentin Gidelianov
Music: Aleksei Rybnikov
Sound: Aleksandr Pogasian
Costumes: Elena Luk'ianova
Editing: Vera Kruglova
Cast: Anna Gorshkova, Aleksei Koriakov, Irina Pegova, Viktor Sukhorukov, Marat Basharov, Roman Madianov, Sergei Nikonenko
Producer: Stanislav Govorukhin
Production: Vertikal' Film Studios

Stanislav Govorukhin, The Passenger (Passazhirka, 2008)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2010

Updated: 24 Mar 10