Issue 38 (2012)

Vasilii Sigarev: Living (Zhit’, 2012)

reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2012

I’m cold without winter,
Empty like after plague.
And I’m alive as before
But there is no one to tell.
Cold without winter
Empty like after plague
And I’m alive as before
But there is no one to say “We” to.

Zhak Poliakov, ‘Znamenskii’s song’.

livingA small boy peers out of the window of his family’s flat, fixated on a distant slumped figure spinning the wheels of a bicycle. A man strides across the waste ground in front of the apartment block, seizes the bike and hurls it over a wall. The boy’s shrewish mother insists that there is no one for him to look at (Vse, net tam nikogo), though the boy attempts to tell her that “He’s there again…” She orders him to get away from the window and to sit in front of the computer which she has bought for him and which she now threatens to take back to the shop. When she looks out of the window herself we see a close-up, first of the back wheel of the bike in motion, then of legs, hands, a torso and eventually the head of a portly, slightly comic middle-aged man in a cheap fur hat and with a straggly pony-tail. He rides across our field of vision, off to the right and out of view. The word ZHIT’ (To Live) appears in huge letters, filling the screen.

Suddenly we are in a different flat, occupied by a chattering young woman with thick, blond dreadlocks. She, too, is looking out of the window, and she summons her boyfriend to get out of bed and come and see “roly poly” (kolobochek), cycling along with a postcard inserted in the back spokes of his bike. Though the man is some way away they discern that he is bleeding from the mouth as if his teeth have been knocked out.

And now we are on a bus, rattling its way through the countryside. The roly-poly man is on it too, and he has his bike with him. So is a plain-looking woman with a round face, big nose and dull hair. When he gets off, this woman watches him through the bus’s dirty windows, though her smartly dressed companion doesn’t notice him at all, immersed as she is in a book.

Mists are rising over a river and the man wheels his bike towards us across a bridge. He disappears into the gloom and when we next see him he has abandoned his bike and is sitting on the ground, his shoes and trousers covered in mud. A kid runs up and steals the bike, chucking the postcard to the ground. “S dnem rozhdeniia” (Happy Birthday) flutters away in the wind.

livingWho is the man on the bike? What links these people to him and what links them to each other? This is a film about three “small,” powerless and sometimes exasperating people, people in whom cinema (including recent mainstream Russian cinema) rarely shows great interest. The boy, Artem, is like a brother to the unwanted girl in Vasilii Sigarev’s first feature film Wolfy (Volchok, 2009), who was told by her abusive mother that she was found in a cemetery. He seems incapable of doing what his mother and her boyfriend want and has neither the articulacy nor the strength to resist their bullying and threats. The boyfriend threatens to wring his neck. His mother savagely calls him "a moron" (debil), and threatens to send him to a “loony bin.” Later she will dispense the same bile and violence to his downtrodden father. The chattering young woman with the dreadlocks has a tongue stud and a grating habit of starting her sentences with an exclamatory “mama!” For some reason she answers to a masculine name, Grishka (eventually we learn that her name is Ol’ga Grishina). Her slacker boyfriend, Anton, with his ear-ring and tattoos, is constantly neglecting to take his pills. His adolescent idea of fun is to use his phone to photograph Grishka on the toilet seat and his own genitals. Later we find out that he is HIV positive. Galia Kapustina, the woman on the bus, is perhaps the most abject of them all. Saddled with an embarrassing surname (Galia Cabbage), she is a failed mother, whose lapse into alcoholism after the death of her husband and consequent neglect of her twin daughters has caused them to be taken into care. It has become her life’s mission to get them back.

These people do not know each other and they will never meet. What links them is their capacity to see the man on the bike, who, it later transpires, is Artem’s dead father, played in a performance of compelling, wordless lugubriousness by Evgenii Sytyi, the theatrical actor who has become something of a talisman in the films of Boris Khlebnikov, from Koktebel (2003) to Till Night Do Us Part (Poka noch’ ne razluchit, 2012). The unnamed loser he plays in Living, bullied and expelled by an exasperated woman relative, is a close relation of the helpless Belorussian gastarbeiter Evgenii in Help Gone Mad (Sumasshedshaia pomoshch’, 2009). As his wife tells a medical visitor at the end of the film, he had run up huge debts by gambling on slot machines, and then gone off and drowned himself, so maybe the sequence on the bridge and by the misty river was his suicide journey. Or maybe it was Artem’s imaginative retracing of the episode. It is never made explicit. Either way, Grishka, her boyfriend Anton and Kapustina can also see him, though disaster has not yet visited them. Without their knowing it, they are already in an existential border zone, their altered intuitive state engendered by the imminence of a death in their own lives. For Sigarev, Artem’s father “is a sort of messenger, who appears before everything happens.”

livingWhen Artem is finally seen sitting at his computer, which might provide the safer, more rational kind of viewing favoured by his mother, he has refused to switch it on. Like Grishka and Anton, like Kapustina and her twin daughters, he chooses to look out on to the world and the film is studded with shots of people at windows, in flats, in a village house, on bus, coach and train. But this outside world is forlorn and ominous. Artem’s father will abandon his bike and walk along the muddy riverbank to his death. Kapustina’s girls will wave from the window of the taxi-coach (marshrutka) that is bringing them back to their mother seconds before the crash that kills them. Grishka will look helplessly through the window pane of a train compartment door that she cannot open, unable to save her husband from death. Inner visions, too, are presentiments of disaster—Artem awakes from a dream with the words “Dad’s dead!” Kapustina punches herself in the face in terror, trying to dispel the sight of her daughters lying next to each other, their arms and legs outstretched.

What gives these characters their special sensitivity is their shared endurance of pole-axing bereavement. We can never be sure exactly when Artem’s father dies, but we see in sickening detail the later deaths of Anton and of Kapustina’s daughters, which thrust the film from seeming byt (mundanity) into the realm of tragedy. Living, then, tells three stories about family bereavement—about the sudden loss of a parent, children, a husband—about the struggle to come to terms with it and about the anger felt by those who experience it towards the people around them for whom life still seems worth living. Loneliness and the realisation that “I’m still alive but there is no one to say ‘we’ to” have driven them mad.[1] When, in the cemetery, Kapustina sees steam coming out of the mouth of one of her dead daughters she refuses to believe that it is caused by exposing the corpse to the cold air and screams that they are being buried alive.[2]

In interviews Sigarev has spoken of his initial intention to make a film about Apocalypse, and of his subsequent realisation that Apocalypse on a global scale is something that people cannot comprehend, that for each individual person, Apocalypse is the deaths of those close to you.[3]

Dying isn’t terrifying at all. The most terrible thing is when those close to you die. It was out of that that the need to make the film arose. […] It was important for me dramaturgically to construct the story of people who have lost something and try to learn to live with that loss. […] I have made a film about the fact that death will happen in any life.

livingThis is exactly what Grishka has to contend with. When Anton returns, she tells him that his death has made everything “other, strange, different” (drugoe, strannoe, po-drugomu). Earlier, she admits, she had had no interest in funerals other than idle curiosity. Now she understands that in these circumstances “someone’s world has collapsed. Everything has changed forever.” The same thought was elegantly expressed by Mikhail Ratgauz during the extensive and fascinating discussion of the film between the director and a group of critics at the 2012 Kinotavr film festival: “In my opinion, it’s absolutely not about the difference between life and death, it’s an investigation of the well which forms in the place of a loss.”

Perhaps the most powerful examination that Russian cinema has provided of life inside that well is in Kira Muratova’s The Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1989) in which the sudden death of her husband leads the heroine, Natasha to abuse his elder colleague, demanding to know why he should live when her husband has died, and, at the depth of her abjection, to pick up a stray drunk and take him back to her flat. And the shocking randomness with which death can strike – through accident, violence or suicide—and the different ways in which people react to it have been something of a preoccupation in recent Russian film. In Dmitrii Mamuliia’s Another Sky (Drugoe nebo, 2010) Ali, concentrating on the search for his lost wife, learns of his young son’s death through a sudden, shattering phone call. In Aleksei Mizgirev’s Convoy (Konvoi, 2012) the hero, Ignat had not taken his young daughter’s illness seriously and so did not take her to hospital. Now he suffers from black-outs and constantly imagines that he has seen her. In Aleksei Popogrebskii’s How I Ended This Summer (Kak ia provel etim letom, 2010), Pasha Danilov learns by radiogram that the wife and child of his older colleague have been killed in an accident. It is the inadequacy of his response to this tragedy and his failure to tell the older man that eventually brings disaster.

livingCoping with loss can take various forms. In what Serguei Oushakine identifies as the “invented tradition” of Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls (Ovsianki, 2010), a man finds solace in the solemn washing and dressing of his dead wife’s body and then in carrying it off to the lake where they had spent their honeymoon for ritual burning. An alternative strategy, applied in contemporary Europe, is simply to refuse to accept that the dead are dead; in Giorgos Lanthimos’s absurdist comedy Alps (Alpeis, 2011), the eponymous organisation will help you to do just that. The bereaved can apply to its members to impersonate their dead loved ones, aping their mannerisms and re-enacting events from their lives.

In the provincial Russia of Living, however, there is no need for such arcane transactions. The three episodes of nocturnal resurrection in Sigarev’s film are effected by the characters themselves. Galia Kapustina digs up the corpses of her daughters and wheels them home. Once back in her house the girls walk, sit and eat as they had done in life. She ritually washes them and gives them the dolls she has bought to welcome them home. Though the girls never speak, the dolls emit an inhuman babble about dancing, music and singing. For Grishka and Artem, the departed comes back without recourse to disinterment, summoned by the power of their love. The hideously wounded Anton tells Grishka that he would have contacted her earlier, but “they took my phone.” Artem’s father, meanwhile, has attempted to gain entrance to their flat, insisting to his wife that he has come to collect his son. Hearing this, Artem steals the key and runs away with him through the deep winter snow. It is crucial to the emotional and dramatic effect of Sigarev’s film, and a measure of his respect and sympathy for his characters, that he shows these events as actually happening, accompanying his protagonists through their experience of loss. In Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Word (Ordet, 1954), though a minister states bluntly that “miracles no longer happen,” a small child’s faith brings a dead parent back to life, challenging the viewer to believe. In a fallen age, Sigarev’s representation of these events is more enigmatic. The film’s epigraph is an incomplete sentence from a poem:

… nonsense like this:
my soul, through fire and smoke
along a heavenly blue path
fly, my beloved, to those you love.

livingThe film’s first words, then, imply that what is to follow is “nonsense” and Sigarev told Anna Sotnikova that the function of the epigraph is to stop viewers taking what they see ‘too literally’. The lines of the epigraph are the ending of the poem “From a photo album” (“Iz fotoal’boma”), by the young Urals poet Boris Ryzhii, who committed suicide in 2001, leaving behind a wife and a young son. Evgenii Rein called him the most talented poet of his generation, and Sigarev told Boris Nelepo when they discussed the film during the Rotterdam Film Festival that “for me he’s poet number one of our age”. Selective quotation of the poem has given a particular reading. But the poem as a whole describes a fatal crash and its consequences and the two lines before those quoted by Sigarev read “But I shall find a photograph, /and I repeat like a prayer” (No fotografiiu naidu, / i povtoriaiu kak molitvu). The “nonsense” of the epigraph is also a prayer.

Larisa Maliukova has described the poetics of Living as a mixture of tragedy and bytovukha (mundane daily life), physiology and the alienation of parable. Its parabolic nature and universal ramifications suggest that in thematic terms it could be set anywhere. Sigarev told Nataliia Osipova that “The film is absolutely not a social one—it’s not about Russia and not about our people”), and insisted to Nelepo that “I absolutely didn’t want any socium, because, to be frank, I am sick to death of the socium”. Elsewhere, however, when Sotnikova suggests that the film is imbued with the “cultural code” of the Russian people (narodnyi kul’turnyi kod), he responds:

Yes. Because I am telling a story about people I know.
And they have their own mythology, their own rules, by which they live.

He spoke in similar vein during the Kinotavr discussion:

Let me tell you why I consider Living to be a Russian film. Somehow we respond to the death of those near us more painfully than in other countries. And even our cemeteries are full of sorrow. In European cemeteries there isn’t such an atmosphere, it’s more decorative. But in Russia you go into a cemetery and when you look at each grave you see its fate and the fate of the people who gather around it.

He agreed with Tamara Dondurei that the events in the film could also have happened in Moscow; “It’s simply that visually I like the provinces more.”

Living is set in autumn and desolate, snowy winter in an unnamed small industrial town and its environs, visually reminiscent of the decaying industrial town in Svetlana Proskurina’s Truce (Peremirie, 2010). Grishka and Artem live in drab apartment blocks, Galia Kapustina in a small house in the countryside served by a muddy unmade road. A brutal Hydro-Electric Station dominates the town, just as the towers of the thermoelectric plant in Biriulevo dominate the block in which Serezha’s family live in Zviagintsev’s Elena, but for Sigarev it also seems to represent the flow of life. At the Press conference that accompanied the showing of the film at the 2012 Kinotavr Sigarev said that it was this structure that made him chose to film in the small town of Suvorov, in Tula Region:

The main thing for me was to have a State Regional Electric Station (GRES, Gosudarstvennaia raionnaia elektrostantsiia), a dam with a river that does not freeze. I knew in advance how the film would look….

Asked during the Kinotavr discussion why shots of the hydro-electric station punctuate the story, and whether it belongs to the space of one of the three novellas or remains outside them, he replied:

It links these stories: that is where the bus passes by, the bike, the electric train. It’s a sort of gate. It was a sort of reservoir which doesn’t freeze in winter and it was important to me that this eternal life, this river flowed.

livingIt is a world in which women are required to plan and cope, since their men, even those whom we do not see, are weak, or drunk, or absent, or otherwise inadequate. Kapustina has an unnamed friend, who doggedly tries to look after her after the tragedy. Some vodka has been held back from the wake, to mark the passing of nine days since the girls’ death. When this woman has to return to work she is forced to leave the vodka with Galia, since if she takes it to her place, “my man” will drink the lot. Galia resents her kind friend’s interference, but Grishka and Artem have no one to turn to at all. When Anton is being beaten to death on the train Grishka rushes down the carriage screaming for help, but none of the tough-looking male passengers rises from his seat. The same thing happens when she returns from her second visit to the priest, her desperate cries of “Help me! Help me!” symbolically inaudible under the noise of the speeding train. Nor can they expect much assistance from the representatives of civic and moral authority, whose ambiguous presence in Living is another marker of the new Russian reality.

When, in the films of the New Russian Cinema, the protagonists have encounters with the police, there is every chance that they will come to regret it. At their worst, male officers are sadistic and violent, rapists in Angelina Nikonova’s Twilight Portrait (Portret v sumerkakh, 2011), killers in Convoy, deranged and brutal in Help Gone Mad, eagerly ready to torture a suspect in Truce. At their best they are clumsy and crass, and this is what they are like in Living. When two cops turn up at the hospital to get Grishka’s statement about the accident, their dull faces inspire little confidence and they show much more interest in establishing whether she has been drinking than in listening to what she has to tell them. Sent into the ward to get a statement from Anton, the younger one blurts out to his colleague, while Grishka is in earshot: “Why did you send me? He’s dead.”

livingWomen officers may not be violent, but they are conspicuously unsympathetic: briskly officious and inconsiderate when Ali is looking for his lost wife in Another Sky; bored, supercilious and determined to produce false evidence when Marina reports her bag missing in Twilight Portrait. An exception is provided in Katia Shagalova’s Once Upon a Time in the Provinces (Odnazhdy v provintsii, 2008) in which sympathetic Lena dispenses wisdom about the therapeutic value of poetry and feng-shui to anyone who will listen. But the female officer charged with returning Kapustina’s daughters to her shows none of this humanity. She is blithely indifferent to the efforts that Galia has made to smarten up her house for the return of her twins, to the wallpaper with a vision of the sky with golden stars, the curtains with ripe green apples, the twin beds with their dolls in cellophane boxes that will later seem like coffins, the new linoleum, fresh bed linen, the school kits and toys. Spurning all attempts at conversation, she walks around the house taking photographs, a mechanical way of looking without seeing, even filming the contents of the fridge. She is exasperated when the arrangements for bringing the girls home fall through and she is forced to spend hours longer than she had bargained for listening to this dull woman explaining things she has heard many times before. She proposes a flouting of the rules that will put the girls unaccompanied on a 90 minute journey on a marshrutka. “What can happen?” When a distraught Kapustina relates how she went to pieces after her husband’s death the woman ignores her, obstinately glued to the television, eventually interjecting “I know all that.” Just as indifferent is the nurse who speaks to Grishka at the hospital. Officious and uncaring, she is concerned only about warning her colleague of Anton’s HIV Positive status.

It is probably because of worry about the state of Anton’s health that Grishka and Anton have decided to marry in a village church and the batiushka is happy to perform the ceremony. After Anton’s death Grishka goes back to ask him for counsel. She follows the priest down the road. Troubled young men have symbolic healing encounters with kindly young priests on country roads near the ends of Aleksandr Veledinskii’s Alive (Zhivoi, 2006) and Proskurina’s Truce. The priest to whom Egor offers a lift in Truce is on his way to sing at a wedding. Sitting in the cab he gives a spirited, impromptu performance not of a hymn but of Muslim Magomaev’s popular hit, “Beauty Queen” (Koroleva krasoty). But when he parts with Egor he tells him that “Everything is in the hands of God” and surreptitiously makes the sign of the cross over him on the road. In the considerably longer and more complex episode in Alive, which has a title close to that of Sigarev’s film, the priest seems to be summoned into the narrative by the anguished cry of the hero, Sergei (Kir), a disabled ex-soldier who served in Chechnya, “God! Have You nothing to say?” (Bog! Molchish’?). Newly ordained, he serves both as a kind of double for the hero (they have the same name) and as a brother-guide, telling Kir that he must repent his sins. He drives him to near the place where his fallen comrades are buried and carries him the final few yards on his shoulders. At the time of Kir’s own death, the priest is offering prayers over their graves. But the restorative encounters with these young holy men, reminiscent of scenes out of nineteenth-century paintings, are not replicated in Grishka’s conversation with her priest, an older man who clearly has worries of his own to contend with—while he walks he busies himself collecting firewood from the side of the road. Desperately Grishka asks him “What it the point of loving? Why do people love? They take them away all the same.” Failing to understand what she is talking about and assuming that she is referring to army call-up, he predictably tells her that “separation is also a trial.” When she asks him to perform a burial service over her (Otpet’ menia nado. Smozhete?), he reasonably assumes that she is confusing her religious terminology and that in fact she wants to be christened. Eventually he concludes that this crazy woman must have been drinking and attempts to get away from her with the words “It’s some sort of gibberish! Go home!” (Bred kakoi-to! Idi domoi!). She hits him and chases him through the snowy landscape. When, back in her flat, she is at her most inconsolable, Grishka’s helplessness turns into a blasphemous tirade against God. “What? You should have thought about it earlier. When you were thinking it all out. That’s what. You know what. […] Go to hell, do you hear?”, a demotic version of Ivan Karamazov’s return of the ticket to harmony bought at too great a cost in the suffering of the innocent. And Grishka’s rebellion is followed by another, more visceral act of sacrilege, when Kapustina digs up the corpses of her daughters. Later, when the police have been called and she finally concedes that she is not going to be able to keep them, she will perform her own, domestic burial ceremony, tenderly placing them in the cellar with their dolls.

livingDoubling and tripling loom large in the structure of Living. There are three stories of bereavement, but also two bereavements for Galia, since she has already experienced the death of her husband and knows all to well how it affected her. There are two dead fathers, presumed suicides (Galia’s husband’s body was never found), two women who attempt suicide (one successfully), twin dead daughters with twin dolls. Galia’s killing of her children is preceded by her vision of them lying dead. Grishka smashes two windows, cuts her wrists twice and takes three train journeys. On two of them her hysterical cries for help provoke no response, just as the embarrassed mourners at the funeral fail to react to the rawness of Kapustina’s clumsy grief. Actions, words and pieces of dialogue echo from story to story, underlining our awareness of the links between them. Anton dresses Grishka’s wounds while Kapustina tends those of her daughter. Kapustina’s frantic run down a country road rhymes with Grishka’s dash down a train. The three walks back from the dead happen at the same time. The word ‘debil’, first applied to Anton, is later used of his father, of Anton and of the younger policeman and similar insults pepper all the narratives. This doubling and tripling of story, character and dialogue may remind the viewer of the films of Kira Muratova (see Graffy 2007). There is double and triple plot in The Asthenic Syndrome, Three Stories (Tri istorii, 1997), Chekhovian Motifs (Chekhovskie motivy, 2002) and Two in One (Dva v odnom, 2006), while twinning of character and dialogue is a hallmark of most of her films. Yet for all the echoes Sigarev establishes between the different narrative threads of his story, he shows greater confidence than Muratova in the capacity of his characters to maintain their personal autonomy.

He also differs from Muratova’s practice in the formal treatment of his multiple narratives, threading them together where Muratova would tell them consecutively. To Live is a work of thrilling formal mastery and ambition, never more evident than in Dasha Danilova’s editing, which consistently interweaves short sequences from each of the different stories, some of them lasting just a few seconds. The mysterious connection between all the stories and the man on the bike is also maintained by his regular re-appearances, enigmatically crossing the frame from side to side. Sometimes the sound of one story bleeds suggestively into images from another. As Grishka and Anton walk up the path to the church where they will be married, the policewoman tells her sexually obsessed workmate (unseen at the other end of the phone) that ‘it’s time to think about your soul.’ The words of the service accompany images of the girls on the bus and of Artem looking at his own face reflected in the computer screen, making the children the only guests at the wedding. During the service the bike is thrown from the bridge. Grishka’s blasphemous tirade cuts to the cemetery, where the crosses from the graves of the two girls have been thrown to the ground. Most powerfully, all three deaths are brought together, as tragedy in one narrative provokes reaction in another. At the moment when we see the face of Anton, kicked to a bloody pulp on the train, we hear the sound of a hideous crash and the slamming on of brakes that will cause the death of the twins as the screen goes black. As if hearing the awful sound, Artem awakes from his sleep with the words “Dad’s dead! Dad’s dead!”, causing his furious mother to attempt to suffocate him. And in the film’s thrilling final sequences the intercutting becomes so staccato that it is not initially clear to which narrative the sequence of a couple driving in agitation along a bumpy nocturnal road belongs.

The dramatic power of the film also owes a lot to the cinematography of Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, one of the most exciting directors of photography working in Russia today. He shot the early documentaries of Sergei Dvortsevoi, and Liubov’ Arkus’s recent Anton’s Right Here (Anton tut riadom, 2012). He has shot several of the most visually exciting of the feature films of the New Russian Cinema, including the bleak Central Asian landscapes of Aleksei German Jr’s Paper Soldier (Bumazhnyi soldat, 2008) and of Mamuliia’s Another Sky. He worked on Nikolai Khomeriki’s 977 (2006), and A Tale of Darkness (Skazka pro temnotu, 2009), on Il’ia Khrzhanovskii’s 4 (2004) and Valeriia Gai Germanika’s Everybody Dies But Me (Vse umrut, a ia ostanus’, 2008). This list of titles suggests a cinematographer of great range and Sigarev had Khamidkhodzhaev in mind from the time he began work on the script. At the Kinotavr discussion he said that “I wrote [the film] with a particular director of photography in mind” and he told Tamara Dondurei that “When I was writing the script, I saw frames of Khamidkhodzhaev, which only he can shoot and no one else.”

For Living, Khamidkhodzahev produces mysterious landscapes, shrouded in mist and the simple primary colours of the interior of Kapustina’s house. He gives us extreme close-ups of faces contorted by grief. His trembling, hand-held camera creates almost unbearable tension in the magnificent nocturnal scene in which the policewoman suddenly runs off down the village road and Kapustina, belatedly sensing catastrophe, runs after her shrieking the single word “Govori!” (Tell me!). His mastery is at its most concentrated in the brilliantly shot sequence which begins with Grishka and Anton on the train, returning happily from their wedding, drinking a little wine to celebrate, pleased at what they have accomplished, leading Anton to the rash conclusion that “from now on there’s no need to be afraid.” When a smiling young man approaches them to ask for cigarettes, a drink, ten roubles “to get home to mother” the camera is positioned right up close behind Grishka and Anton, so that we see only parts of their faces, increasing their vulnerability. Grishka is dubious about the young man’s story, but Anton, rendered incautious by drink and by joy, takes out his wallet to give him his ten roubles, riskily revealing how much money he is carrying. The guy walks off and we share their relief that somehow nothing awful has happened. Grishka calls him a bloodsucker but Anton says “at least he didn’t pull out a knife.” Unnervingly, the man then returns, but not from in front, as he had done before, but from behind both them and the camera position, and our sense of dread becomes almost overwhelming. When he asks Anton to go into the next compartment and help him carry his heavy case to the door, tension is etched on Grishka’s face but somehow she does not stop her husband from meekly walking off to the savage beating by a group of thugs that will end his young life. When she finally tries to reach him it is too late—the door is being held shut and she can only look impotently through the glass, eventually smashing the pane and bloodying her wrists.

Sound and image are just as important as dialogue to the emotional effect of Living and the awfulness of the scene of Anton’s beating is adumbrated by the ghastly squeaking of the doors of the moving train. Sound and Pavel Dodonov’s evocative music are used sparingly in the film, but always to suggestive effect. Unseen dogs whine when Kapustina is chasing the policewoman down the country road and industrial machinery grates when she goes to the bar with bottles of vodka to hire villagers to dig up the graves. 

Here, as throughout the film, the viewer’s emotional immersion in the narrative also results from the conviction and persuasiveness of the acting. Sigarev told Anna Sotnikova that he thought the role of Kapustina was the more interesting of the two central female parts and that he had wanted to offer it to his wife and constant collaborator Iana Troianova, “but somehow she didn’t agree to it”. It was Troianova who suggested the theatrical actress Ol’ga Lapshina. In what is easily her most extensive cinematic role, Lapshina displays a sublime and persuasive naturalness, whether conveying the excited, nervous prattle of expectation at the start of the film or the mute, otherworldly determination of despair at the end. Iana Troianova, who was brilliantly repulsive throughout Wolfy, as a young mother given to shockingly unprovoked outbursts of physical and verbal cruelty, making that film a far more arduous viewing experience than Living,[4] is allowed to show far greater range as Grishka, movingly accomplishing a believable emotional journey, from infantilism through hopelessness to fragile acceptance.

livingThe snowy winter world of Living is suffused with the recurrent, sometimes enigmatic imagery of omen. A bridge leads off into misty nothingness. The water of the river below it, the place of Artem’s father’s drowning, is echoed in the cleansing water in which Kapustina washes her dead daughters before setting them down to eat in their crisp new pyjamas. The girls will also end in a watery grave in the cellar, drowned by the firemen’s hoses. Anton’s candle goes out during the wedding service, just as the priest is giving them his blessing; the prayer for the safety of those who travel by land and sea, which is also part of the liturgy, does not save him from death on a train. When Grishka returns to the church, the plaster angel guarding the entrance to its grounds has disappeared.

Sigarev borrows the knocked out teeth of Artem’s father at the start of the film from Russian popular culture, where they are a sign of disaster to come and indeed, when Anton returns, Grishka notices that his teeth too are missing. Grishka’s immersion in this mentality is expressed through her constant concern with primety, signs and portents, and particularly through her preoccupation with the crazed woodpecker that drills not at a tree but at the wall of a block of flats. She immediately compares its destructive intent to that of a death-watch beetle (in Russian, prophetically for the film, “zhuk-mogil’shchik”, a “grave-digger beetle”), mentions it on the first and second train journeys and returns to it at regular intervals. Popular belief may also be the source of the white horse that runs in front of the bus at the beginning of the film. According to Sigarev, a white horse seen at a funeral presages another death. [5] But even for those unfamiliar with Russian folklore, the appearances and behaviour of these animals are evocative, as are those of the animals which themselves sense disaster, the cawing birds, the cockroaches that evacuate Kapustina’s fridge of their own accord and her dog, Natka, who whines in apprehension long before her mistress is aware of the tragedy to come, and who alone emerges alive from the conflagration.

The triple ending of the film portrays three possible outcomes to the same calamity. The starkest of all befalls poor, despairing Galia Kapustina. Floored by disaster for the second time, she is literally engulfed by her grief. She refuses to give up the bodies and turns on the gas. The fate of Artem is more enigmatic. Throughout the film, his story has been told with far greater artifice than those of the two women and a brief final scene now seems to cast it into a completely different light. He and we overhear his mother talking, telling someone unseen of her worry and concern that she should not, perhaps, have told Artem of his father’s death, since “he blames me for it”. Artem’s solicitous and caring mother in this scene is far from the coarse, foul-mouthed abuser of the rest of the film. When we get a brief glimpse of the man she is talking to, we recognise Igor’, but he is not her bullying lover but a concerned paramedic, who reminds Artem’s mother not to miss their visit to a ‘specialist’ the following day. Already invisible on the stairs, he adds: “I know people also go to wise women, who cast spells, tell fortunes,” by which suggestion he both undermines his earlier implication that medical science can help the boy and inscribes himself into the system of popular belief that infuses the film. If I have read this scene rightly, then, all that we have known up to this point about Artem’s wicked mother and cruel stepfather is something akin to false memory syndrome, a scenario of abuse that Artem has created out of trauma and despair (though some of the sexualised dialogue of the flashback seems unlikely in a child of his age). Here is what Sigarev told Anna Sotnikova:

Sigarev: The line about the boy and his father is a sort of cement which fixes all the others together. In the final sequences it actually explains what has happened to all the other characters.
Sotnikova: In the sense that they made everything up?
Sigarev: Yes. That the mother has two corpses before her, but in her head they’re alive.

At the other end of the spectrum is Grishka. At first, desolation had led to existential rebellion and to attempted suicide. But Anton’s return has a healing effect. She changes her bandages and cleans up the flat. Dressing smartly in a black polo neck sweater and a skirt, tying up her hair in a neat bun, she talks sensibly to her dead husband (now without wounds or bandages) about going to the bank to get money for the funeral, about phoning his mother to break the sad news.

In the final episode of the Grishka narrative, and of the film, she is sitting on a bench by a kiosk, waiting for a train. Throughout the film red has signified death, through Anton’s bloodied face after his beating, the blood that seeped shockingly through his bandage, the pail of blood that had dripped from Grishka’s slashed wrist, and the fire that consumed Kapustina’s house and filled the entire screen. Now red is reclaimed for life, in the bright red roof, shutters and supporting posts of the kiosk and the red jacket of its pregnant owner. Grishka sits placidly eating a packet of crisps, an indication that she is now reconciled to Anton’s death and has herself returned to life. The scene rhymes visually and narratively with the celebrated sequence near the end of another film called Living, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), in which the hero, Mr Watanabe sits on a swing on a snowy winter day, calmly singing a song that signals his acceptance of death, in this case his own.

The camera withdraws to reveal a rookery high in the trees. Once again the word ZHIT’ (To Live) fills the screen. “Life, yes. Life […] Life” were also the last words of Dreyer’s The Word, spoken by the young mother whom love and faith have brought back from the dead. But there have been no miraculous resurrections at the end of Sigarev’s film, in which another suicide has completed the annihilation of a whole family. The encounters with the dead in Living are eventually portrayed as the temporary derangement of a bereaved psyche and not all of the film’s characters have been able to respond to the injunction of its title.

Living was shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January 2012 and in April won the top prize, the Golden Lily at the GoEast Festival in Wiesbaden. It won three awards at the Sochi Kinotavr in June, for direction, cinematography and the prize of the Critics’ Guild. But the Sochi Grand Prix was awarded to Pavel Ruminov’s I’ll Be Around (Ia budu riadom, 2011), causing consternation among some Russian critics. Dilara Tasbulatova went so far as to compare this decision to choosing Evgenii Matveev’s popular melodrama Love, Russian Style (Liubit’ po-russki, 1995) over Bergman’s Persona. Time will no doubt decide about the merits of Ruminov’s film. What seems to me beyond doubt is that in Living Vasilii Sigarev has produced a work of staggering assurance and formal mastery, profound dramaturgical skill and searing emotional power.

1] Words from ‘Pesnia Znamenskogo’ (Znamenskii’s song), by Zhak Poliakov of the Karamazov Twins, a song performed by the deaf young cook Lesha in Sergei Loban’s film Chapiteau-Show (Shapito-shou, 2011)

2] For Sigarev’s description of his own experience of this phenomenon, see Seans blog.

3] In this context it is interesting to recall that when he was invited by a British producer to make a large-scale film on the theme of Apocalypse, Andrei Zviagintsev chose instead to make, in Elena, a film in which, in his words ‘the main thing’ is ‘the intimate, personal Apocalypse lying deep in Elena’s soul’. (Zviagintsev, p. 111).

4] The word Zhit' also figured memorably Wolfy. When the woman’s mother reproaches her for hitting her daughter, she replies with passion: ‘I’m young, I want to live…’ (‘Ia molodaia, ia zhit' khochu, bliad'!)

5] It is instructive to compare this episode with a similar episode in Zviagintsev’s Elena, in which a white horse and its rider are knocked down and killed by the train taking Elena to her son’s flat after she has murdered her husband. While in discussion Sigarev enthusiastically accepts and even suggests symbolic readings of his imagery, Zviagintsev’s reaction is very different. Asked the meaning of the ‘symbol’ of the white horse, he retorts: ‘Are you really so programmed to consider secret meanings that you react in that way to any image? It seems to you that there must definitely be some enciphered, coded signal and all you can think about is deciphering it. Who taught you to look at images in this way? There are no metaphors or symbols here.’ (Zviagintsev, p. 109. See also p. 110.)

Julian Graffy
University College London

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Works Cited

Interviews with Vasilii Sigarev
Nelepo, Boris, ‘“…chto nam fon Trier! – i chpok!”’, Seans blog, 31 January 2012.

Sotnikova, Anna, ‘“Nel’zia, chtoby vse zakanchivalos’, kak u vsekh.” Vasilii Sigarev pro “Zhit’”’. Afisha 29 August 2012.

Dondurei, Tamara, “Vasilii Sigarev: ‘Zhit’—nuzhno,” Expert Online, 15 June 2012.

Osipova, Nataliia, “Vasilii Sigarev: ‘Fil’m Zhit’ ne pro Rossiiu i ne pro nash narod’,”

Other works
“Kinotavr-2012. Piat’ vecherov: Vasilii Sigarev,” Seans blog, 7 June 2012

“Pro ‘Zhit’’ i neskol’ko voprosov,” (Interview with Iana Troianova), Seans blog, 13 June 2012

Graffy, J. “Kira Muratova: Two in One (Dva v odnom, 2006),” KinoKultura 17 (2007)

Maliukova, L. “Vse umrut, a ia ostanus’?’, Novaia gazeta, 30 January 2012

Mokrushin, M. “Rezhisser Vasilii Sigarev posle dramy ‘Zhit’’ sobiraetsia snimat’ komediiu,” RIA Novosti 6 June 2012

Oushakine, S. “Aleksei Fedorchenko: Silent Souls (Ovsianki, 2010),” KinoKultura 31 (2011)

Tasbulatova, D. “Skvernyi anekdot,” Chastnyi korrespondent, 14 June 2012

Zviagintsev, A. “Nikakikh simvolicheskikh smyslov,” Iskusstvo kino 4 (2012), pp. 98-117.

Living, Russia, 2012
Colour, 119 minutes
Director: Vasilii Sigarev
Screenplay: Vasilii Sigarev       
Director of Photography: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Production design: Liudmila Diupina
Sound director: Vladimir Golovnitskii
Editing: Dasha Danilova
Music: Pavel Dodonov
Cast: Ol´ga Lapshina, Marina Gavrilova, Sasha Gavrilova, Iana Troianova, Aleksei Filimonov, Aleksei Pustovoitov, Evgenii Sytyi, Anna Ukolova, Dmitrii Kulichkov
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Aleksandr Kushaev                   
Kinokompaniia Koktebel´, with the support of Ministerstvo kul´tury Rossiiskoi Federatsii

Vasilii Sigarev: Living (Zhit’, 2012)

reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2012

Updated: 14 Oct 12