Issue 47 (2015)

Svetlana Proskurina: Goodbye Mom (Do svidaniia mama, 2014)

reviewed by Muireann Maguire© 2015

goodbye momSvetlana Proskurina’s. Goodbye Mom is hardly a traditional adaptation of Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: the film is based on a play by Vasilii Sigarev, Karenin, which premiered at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 2012 in a production by Viesturs Meikšāns. It should be noted that Proskurina had previously worked with Ivan Vyrypaev, another playwright from New Drama, for The Best of Times (Luchshee vremia goda, 2007). Moreover, some of the protagonists are played by relatively unknown actors: exceptions are Aleksei Vertkov in the role of Vronsky, who played the main part of Ivan Naidenov in Karen Shakhnazarov’s White Tiger (Belyi tigr, 2012), and of Ivan Gromov in Ward No. 6 (Palata no. 6, 2009); and Aleksandra Rebenok in the role of Anna, who is known for her work in Valeriia Gai-Germanika’s television serial School (Shkola, 2010), where she played a main part. Vertkov’s performance as a discreetly smouldering lover is pitch-perfect, but easy to miss—in part because he spends most of the film off-screen, as a figure in the husband’s imagination or else vaguely alluded to in others’ speech. When Anna’s husband, played by the Lithuanian actor Daumantas Ciunis, collects their son Serezha from a play date, the child tells him that Anna is off visiting friends. No further comment is made, but such moments of ambiguous supposition make the unseen lover, paradoxically, more visible than ever.

Similar paradoxes of human nature are all too easy to contemplate during the silent pauses, close-ups and extended takes, which may be expected from the co-writer of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002). The script adheres loosely to the framework of Tolstoy’s novel, without ever slavishly following it: for example, Anna and her lover Aleksei meet on holiday, flirt on a plane ride rather than a train journey, and bond over horse-riding. Aleksei gives Anna’s young son Serezha a toy horse as a keepsake. Their post-vacation trysts may or may not take place at Aleksei’s riding stables (it is not clear whether these scenes are real or imagined by Anna’s husband). However, when Aleksei forbids his wife to take Serezha to the riding school, the sexual symbolism of the stables is acknowledged. All this equine eroticism (worthy of Jilly Cooper at her sauciest) evidently corresponds to Vronsky’s love of horseflesh in Tolstoy’s novel, and to how the racehorse Frou-Frou becomes the inadvertent catalyst of Anna Karenina’s unmasking to her husband as an adulteress. The bones of the narrative in both film and novel are similar: Anna sees both men simultaneously for some time before leaving her husband for her lover; in Anna’s absence, the child and his father are preyed upon by a female religious zealot; Vronsky and Karenin are almost reconciled while Anna is apparently dying after giving birth to a daughter; and ultimately Anna’s family is irrevocably ruptured.

Other correspondences are sketchier. Ciunis’ character is a successful entrepreneur: his wealth is amply attested by his modern city apartment, a charming dacha, and a four-wheel-drive plus wife’s run-around; his business seems to require mysteriously little attention: he only goes to work when a plot twist requires his absence. Rebenok’s Anna is silent, enigmatic, passionate and vicious (especially vis-à-vis her husband); she is unconvincingly maternal and sincere only when defending her new relationship: “I want to live my life!” she tells a friend, self-pityingly, blissfully unaware that her material achievements already constitute more than enough living for one ordinary lifetime. She is blatantly out of place during her last meeting with Serezha, set awkwardly in a church, where she is forced into an unglamorous headscarf and an unfamiliar gush of maternal affection, artificially echoing Karenina’s final, stolen meeting with her son in the novel. As her passion for the shadowy Aleksei intensifies, she begins neglecting Serezha, who—like his father—trustingly offers her unconditional adoration. Mariia Leonova scintillates as an insinuating modern version of Tolstoy’s Countess Lidiia Ivanovna, the fanatically Orthodox family friend who entices Karenin into the arms of the Church. In the novel, Anna and Vronsky have a daughter, also called Anna. In the film, the child of Anna’s liaison briefly inspires reconciliation between Karenin and Anna, who moves back into the family home. Karenin is clearly willing to treat the infant as his own, but when Anna impulsively disappears again with Alexei, the child also vanishes from the narrative.

goodbye momGoodbye Mom breaks completely from its Tolstoyan subtext in two places: at the beginning and at the end. The film opens on the night Serezha is born: Proskurina presents us with the young couple’s panic as Anna, mid-labor, is rushed at night to an apparently empty hospital. Instead of showing us the expected happiness and bonding following the birth, the director emphasizes the immediate back-story: Anna’s rejection of her husband in her agony, Aleksei’s helplessness when, fetching the bags, he accidentally shuts himself out of the building. Proskurina’s second departure is even more radical: although threatening to die when her second child is born, Anna refuses to expire at the end of the film. Her fate is left open: the final take shows a thoughtful Serezha at night in the back seat of his father’s car, travelling through the city to an unknown destination. A more sugary child actor would have poisoned the entire scene, but Iana Tereshina’s magical depth of expression somehow keeps sentiment and pathos in proportion.

This is a moving, thoughtful film: the casting is meticulous, the acting acute. Goodbye Mom’s strength lies in its delicately poised, elegantly framed set pieces: Leonova’s character deliberately cleansing herself in a freezing pool in a bath-house; Serezha and his father knocking together the Easter eggs Anna gave them (which turn out to be empty, like her promises of love); or the hospital scene that opens the film. Proskurina brings out the best in her actors: when the gentle Aleksei, for example, furious at his wife’s desertion, begins shaking his innocent and forgiving son; when a love scene that Aleksei tries to initiate with Anna turns into a surprisingly brutal mutual altercation; when Anna’s attempts at wifeliness crumble under her sheer indifference to her husband. And yet, as Aleksei’s car drives off into the night, bearing with it the saintly, suffering dyad of father and son, one has to ask: why remake Anna Karenina with New Russians? Proskurina’s film is, of course, a screen version of Sigarev’s play, which deliberately focuses on the wronged, dull husband rather the charismatically sinful wife. Yet Proskurina and Sigarev’s attempt to spotlight Karenin is only partially successful: Rebenok’s pallid beauty and episodic malignance dominate this film, despite Ciunis’s sustained effort as a counterweight. If the underlying intention was to remind the audience that love is equally irrational and cruel, irrespective of one’s epoch, age, or social status, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has already achieved that goal on a rather more substantial and enduring scale. It is difficult not to sympathize with Boris Ivanov’s dismissive review of Proskurina’s film as both emptily art-house and stylistically undeveloped, and “surprisingly misogynistic” (that is, for a film by a woman director). The film objectivises Anna relentlessly, and never benignly; when she isn’t being served up voyeuristically to the audience (as in the long silent take of her bathing alone), her actions and statements are edited to create an impression of egotism and hypocrisy. While the key male characters—Aleksei and Serezha—are depicted as expressive, vulnerable individuals, Anna remains a mystery wrapped inside an exceptionally attractive enigma.

Despite its emotional complexity and enchanting photography by Rein Kotov, Goodbye Mom ultimately feels superfluous and self-indulgent, rather like Anna’s onscreen character.

Muireann Maguire
University of Exeter

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Works Cited

Boris Ivanov. 2014. “Retsenziia na fil’m Do svidaniia mama: vse baby,”, 20 June.

Goodbye Mom, Russia, 2014
Color, 97 minutes, 1:1.85, Dolby DTS
Director: Svetlana Proskurina
Scriptwriter: Vasilii Sigarev
DoP Rein Kotov
Production Design Eva-Maria Gramakovski
Costume Design Regina Khomskaia
Sound Vladimir Persov
Editing Sergei Ivanov
Cast: Aleksandra Rebenok, Daumantas Ciunis, Aleksei Vertkov, Mariia Leonova
Producer Sabina Eremeeva, Diana Gantsevskaite, Iana Tereshina
Production Studio Slon, Mosfilm, with support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Svetlana Proskurina: Goodbye Mom (Do svidaniia mama, 2014)

reviewed by Muireann Maguire© 2015

Updated: 28 Dec 14