Issue 32 (2011)

Vera Storozheva: Compensation (Kompensatsiia, 2010)

reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2011

compVera Storozheva’s film Compensation is about the perennial Russian problem of the “second family.” Two sisters living in Tambov have just lost their mother. Their father, Sergei, left ten years earlier and since then they have struggled with poverty and illness: the younger sister has a congenital heart condition that needed surgery and medication, and as a result, the family could not afford music school for the older daughter; and in the meantime, the mother has been dying of cancer. By chance, the sisters stumble onto information about their father, now a successful businessman living in Moscow with his second family (gorgeous wife, talented daughter). He is profiled by journalists, his Moscow apartment comes straight off the pages of glossy magazines, he drives an SUV—in other words, he is the very picture of glamour and success that, for the last ten years, he has mistaken for happiness. The daughters, now orphaned, decide to go to see their father, presumably to be reunited with him, reforming the happy family broken so many years before. They borrow keys to an empty apartment and, like all stock Russian film characters, arrive in Moscow from the provinces. Unsurprisingly for the viewers, when the two sisters, dressed in pretty pastel summer dresses with ribbons in their hair, suddenly show up at his front door, the father does not welcome them with open arms.

At this point, the film turns into a story of revenge and “compensation.” The oldest daughter, Lena—a tough tomboy with short hair who used to be an “Elf”—comes up with a plan to kidnap their half-sister and demand a ransom of two million “u.e.” [uslovnaia edinitsa, equivalent approximately to one dollar] that will help to alleviate the pain of their broken home and unhappy childhood. The police get involved, the father proves to be a good guy, the new wife proves to be a bad guy, and in the end there is remorse and the fatal outcome of bad decisions. And throughout, the film returns to the same unanswered fundamental question: why did the father leave the mother ten years before? Who, in other words, is to blame?

compThe answer turns out to be easy: the blame is laid squarely at the feet of woman. Indeed, what is striking about this film is that Vera Storozheva, whose career includes a role in Kira Muratova’s  Aesthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1989), writing credit for Muratova’s Three Stories (1997), and her own directorial debut with Sky. Plane. Girl. (Nebo. Samolet. Devushka, 2002), manages to give us a classically misogynist film where everything, from camera work to the basic plot structure, echoes Laura Mulvey’s famous 1975 formulations about visual pleasure in narrative cinema, specifically in the ways it handles the representation of women (and the question of the male gaze). It is worthwhile, therefore, to remind ourselves of the basic elements of Mulvey’s argument:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance […] pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness (Mulvey 1989: 21)

Beyond the split produced by a power imbalance and the active/passive dichotomy, Mulvey argues that the female figure poses a “deeper problem”—she connotes something that the look (male, active) continually circles around but disavows, because her ultimate meaning is “sexual difference.” Classic narrative films employ two standard narrative tactics to get out of the double bind posed by woman: the first “avenue of escape” is the preoccupation with the re-enactment of the originary trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object. For this first “avenue of escape,” pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt, while for the second avenue the pleasure is “fetishistic scopophilia,” which builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself.

compStorozheva’s film reproduces Mulvey’s structure in two ways: by giving us two contrasting images of motherhood (the long-suffering mother and the harlot-like second wife) on the one hand; and by turning Olia, the new wife, from the object of desire into a criminal, on the other. Though we never see Lena and Christina’s mother (except in a family photograph, through the lens of childhood nostalgia), we recognize that her illness and death are a sign of her fundamental goodness: her body destroys itself from the inside as a metaphor for internal pain and sacrifice. While this sounds like an exaggeration, this is fundamentally an unsubtle film: Christina, the middle sister, for example, has a “heart condition,” which serves as a pretty basic metaphor for her kind nature and the ability to empathize with the suffering of others. (We are first introduced to her as she is saving a lab bunny from certain death.) As she explains to her frightened half-sister Nadia, death came for her once, when she was very young, but passed her by because she wasn’t “good enough” yet. They only take people who are really good, she says. It doesn’t take a big interpretive leap for us to understand that in the film’s terms, the mother’s death also reflects her overall goodness. (We are, in other words, in the world of fetishistic overvaluation, where a good mother is a dead mother.)

This goodness and self-sacrifice are contrasted almost immediately with the “other woman,” the father’s new wife Olia. Played by Liubov Tolkalina, Olia is a cliché of cinematic tropes of the male fantasy of female beauty. Her glamorous outfits and expensively cut hair are a direct contrast to the two daughters from the provinces (once the pretty summer dresses fail to produce the correct response from the dad, the girls revert to their original form: jeans and a hoodie for the older, angry Lena; badly made floral dresses and leggings for the sweet-natured Christina). In a brilliantly incongruous moment, in the middle of the family crisis, Olia returns from her business trip in what can only be called an evening gown: an emerald green body-hugging off-the-shoulder number, complete with dangling earrings and high-heeled shoes. This outfit speaks to her fundamentally exhibitionist role in this film, as she is simultaneously looked at and displayed, her appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact—Mulvey’s “to-be-looked-at-ness.”

But her role as fetish object—underscored by both the father and the detective, who is equally attracted and repelled by her—cannot be sustained for long. From fetishistic overvaluation she is moved immediately into the category of the woman-as-object of investigation. And while the detective is ostensibly at the house to help solve the problem of the kidnapped daughter, he immediately begins to accost the wife instead, suggesting, despite all odds and evidence to the contrary, that she is responsible for her daughter’s disappearance.

compAnd in some movie-logic sense of course she is: it is a standard trope of cinema that a father’s cheating is tragic but ultimately explainable, whereas a mother’s infidelity does irreparable harm to the children (see for example, the recent I am Love, dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2009). Classic cinema punishes the woman for the role she has been asked to play and for the very pleasure that she provides: exhibition and display, the possibility of possession, these are tainted by the shadow of betrayal. Compensation raises this ghost in the very opening scene: when we begin the film, the father is being profiled for a magazine by a sexy and flirtatious reporter (the camera gives us a nice shot of her shapely behind as she rises from her chair, just in case we missed the sexual tension). The reporter asks about his career—back in the day, the father was just a small time operator bringing foreign cars into Russia, while now he’s a legitimate businessman. "What changed?" she asks, "Maybe your wife changed you?" The emphasis here is on the verb "izmenila"—to change, but also to cheat. So the father is able to reply, much to the satisfaction of the journalist, "I wouldn't marry a woman who cheats" (Zhena Vas izmenila? Na zhenshchine, kotoraia izmeniaet, ia by ne zhenilsia).

As awkward as that piece of dialogue is, it reveals the film’s basic mechanics: the problem of the father’s past that will come back to haunt him (to the point of absurdity: the girls arrive from Tambov in the Cadillac originally brought into the country by the father fifteen years earlier; indeed the father is able to recognize the daughters he hasn’t seen in ten years by the car they drive). But the possibility of betrayal is conveniently displaced from the father to his new wife.

From the beginning, Olia is marked as anti-maternal (and therefore evil): she reveals her upcoming business trip during her daughter’s cello recital and then scolds the daughter instead of comforting her when she refuses to play with a bad violinist. Packing for her trip, Olia walks around the room in a see-though bra and panties (and the camera follows her around, lingering in close-ups on its favorite parts), while her luggage seems to mostly consist of several matching sets of lacy lingerie. It comes as no surprise, therefore, when pictures of her naked show up on the father’s cell phone: her trip to Prague wasn’t a business trip after all!

compMulvey describes the way in which “classic Hollywood cinema” fetishizes woman: she is at once made an object of desire and an object of disgust. Because her presence speaks to a fundamental lack—impotence, helplessness on the part of the male subject—she must be investigated and found guilty. One of the most incongruous scenes in the film can only be explained if we keep in mind Mulvey’s schema. While the father sits at home waiting for the kidnappers to call, he begins to receive text messages on his phone—pictures of his wife Olia, in various states of undress. The pictures are finally followed by a phone call in which a male voice announces that he had sex with Olia just a short time before (ia imel tvoiu zhenu— that particular colloquial possessive speaking also to woman-as-object of exchange). The police meanwhile, are listening in. Thus, when the detective arrives at the house, ostensibly to help with the investigation, he begins almost immediately to accost the wife instead, demanding to know where she has been and with whom. The scene moves from aggression to flirtation and back again, the detective suddenly offering (in the midst of the investigation and with the father still in the house) to teach Olia to play table tennis, despite her protests and still dressed in her evening gown and high-heeled shoes. What follows is precisely the kind of fetishistic double bind described by Mulvey for the male subject: the detective’s aggression is clearly coming from sexual attraction, yet he must be sure to underscore that the woman he cannot resist is nothing but trash. More vitally for this reading, instead of investigating the kidnapping, the detective investigates the woman, and without too much trouble, finds her guilty.

This turn of events makes it possible for the film to relieve the father of all responsibility for his initial betrayal. As Christina explains to her half-sister Nadia, their father always loved their mother, but another woman came along and took him away. Yet I think Mulvey can only get us so far with a reading of this film. The film has genre problems: the trailer points us in the direction of an action film: we hear hysterical threats, guilty pleas, demands for ransom, while rapid editing gives us a sense of urgency, and the tag line stresses revenge: “Someone will have to pay,” it announces. Compensation wants to be a thriller, very much in the style of Balabanov’s Brother films, but cannot quite pull it off—indeed, as several viewers point out on, this film lacks a masculine touch, producing (female) melodrama in place of a (male) action film (an ironic statement given all the ways in which this film reproduces the standard cinematic codes of patriarchal cinema). It may be worthwhile, in that case, to consider that the film might actually be an allegory: a movie that is trying to say something about the Russia that we once loved and lost, and the fact that no one can compensate us for that particular trauma.

For their brief stay in Moscow, Lena borrows house keys to an empty apartment from one of her “Elf” friends (she later buys drugs from a “Nazgul”), and the address turns out to be on Kotel’nicheskaia naberezhnaia, in one of the most prominent Stalinist “wedding cake” buildings that we remember so well from Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, dir. V. Men’shov, 1979) and, more recently, as the address of Fred's "khata" in Hipsters (Stiliagi, dir. V. Todorovskii, 2008). The apartment belonged to an old general who recently committed suicide by hanging himself from the chandelier (when the girls arrive, the hook is still visible in the ceiling). Lena, a few years older than her sister, recognizes the men whose pictures are hanging on the walls as Soviet marshals, and Christina and Nadia later find documentary footage of WWII that they project onto the ceiling. The subtext here, besides an almost rote reference to the Great Patriotic War that no Russian film can currently live without, is of nostalgia. What was lost when the Soviet Union collapsed, but the notion of the Great Family?

Lena and Christina’s happy home stands in for the stability of the USSR, before money and commerce and traffic destroyed the fabric of its society. The father is seduced away from the family by prospects of riches—which is why the “compensation” that the girls demand is monetary and excessive. (“I don’t care if you have the money or not,” Lena yells into the phone, “you will pay us one million u. e. each, and just be glad that our mother is not alive!”) His new wife Olia is of course the new Russia: a nice-looking whore who will go to the highest bidder, who will not hesitate to betray your love and trust because she can be “had” by anyone willing to pay. It helps that the father is played by Gosha Kutsenko, known best to Russian film audiences as Antikiller (from Daniil Koretskii’s novels and Egor Konchalovskii’s films). As Eliot Borenstein argued in Overkill, pornography, detective fiction, and gangster films—all of these disparate genres that came to prominence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, addressed themselves to the notion of a shattered national identity, a loss of country and with it, a loss of self. Novels like the Antikiller series provided post-Soviet culture with a “symbolic vocabulary” for the expression of fundamental anxieties about national pride, cultural collapse, and “the frightening new moral landscape of Yeltsin’s Russia” (Borenstein 2007: 23). And while we recognize all the anxieties of the nineties in Compensation, we must also note the new Putin-era twist: “the Father” cannot be questioned, he is doing what he can, he understands and regrets and is ready to help. Gosha Kutsenko underscores this in an interview before the film’s release, stressing that both he and Vladimir Epifantsev (who plays the detective), tried to get away from 90’s stereotypes and move the characters in a new direction. The father, then, is saved from blame, and it is everyone else who in the end must beg his forgiveness. “Papa, papochka!” Lena cries into the phone in her last phone call, “Forgive us, we don’t want the money. We’re coming home now.”

Lilya Kaganovsky
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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Works Cited

Mulvey, Laura, Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989).

Borenstein, Eliot, Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007)

Compensation, Russia 2010
86 min, color
Director Vera Storozheva
Scriptwriter Natal’ia Nazarova
Cinematography Oleg Kirichenko
Cast Gosha Kutsenko, Liubov’ Tolkalina, Vladimir Epifantsev, Anfisa Medvedeva, Polina Kutsenko, Irina Gorbacheva
Production company “Paradiz” Productions, SV-Aurum

Vera Storozheva: Compensation (Kompensatsiia, 2010)

reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2011

Updated: 13 Apr 11