Issue 63 (2019)

Natal’ia Merkulova, Aleksei Chupov: The Man Who Surprised Everyone (Chelovek, kotoryi udivil vsekh, 2018)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2019

chelovekThe Man Who Surprised Everyone did indeed surprise everyone when it screened at the Venice IFF in the Orrizonti competition, where it would garner an award for the female lead, Natal’ia Kudriashova, herself both actress and director with the debut Pioneer Heroes (Pionery-geroi, 2015). Merkulova’s and Chupov’s debut film Intimate Parts (Intimnye mesta, 2013) had certainly left the mark of their talent as best debut at Kinotavr, followed by an international premiere at Karlovy Vary’s East of the West competition in 2013, and established the scriptwriter-director couple on the international scene. As Anton Dolin (2018) astutely observed, The Man Who Surprised Everyone continues their interest in issues of sex and gender, but continuity ends there. The new film, co-produced with Estonia (cinematographer Mart Taniel, who also worked on the first film) and France (producer Guillaume de Seille with his remarkable hand for new talent), and produced by Katia Filippova with support from Aleksandr Rodnianskii, tells a very simple story. A man is diagnosed with incurable cancer; neither traditional nor alternative medicine offer any cure. Following an old legend, he hides from death—and survives. A fairy tale.

The complications start when we add the details: the man hides from death by dressing up as a woman; he does so while living in a remote Siberian village, where he is scorned as “transgender” at best and “paedo” at worst; his son is beaten up by his school-mates because his father is a pervert; and his pregnant wife throws him out, first into the bathhouse and later out of the home altogether. The man can cope with the challenge of death; yet the challenge of society cannot be that easily met, handled or defied. Moreover, it is almost as though he has to be humiliated, abused and denigrated to the utmost (by his community) in order to recover from his disease, but also to exculpate the guilt he has brought upon himself when killing (in his job as forest guard) two poachers who have illegally killed a deer and attacked him when caught in the act—because that is where the story starts. And when we look at it that way, we have the story of death and resurrection in a biblical sense. 

Evgenii Tsyganov and Natal’ia Kudriashova play husband and wife, Egor and Natasha Korshunov, who live in a wooden house in a rural settlement somewhere in the taiga, along with their son eight-year-old Artem (Vasilii Popov), and Natasha’s father, Grandad Nikolai (Iurii Kuznetsov). We first see Egor doing his job, cruising along river and roaming the Siberian forest in search for poachers. When he detects them, they attack him and he kills both in an act of self-defense. Next, having returned to the town centre where he has given evidence and made a statement to the authorities, he also has a medical checkup and is given no more than two months to live. He leaves this “civilization” and goes back home on a bus, hurtling along a dirt road. This is the end of the world, a place back beyond, where a small treat in the local shop consists in a tin of sardines in sauce and where permanent electricity supply is not a given. This way of life in the backwaters is shown in a matter-of-fact manner, since one may indeed find similar remote settlements elsewhere in the world if going far enough away from urban centers. Nothing special, tells us Mart Taniel’s always objective and distanced camera.

chelovekThe acceptance of the living conditions (leave aside Korshunov’s mild complaint about the electricity supply) extends to an acceptance of the conditions of life at large. Everyone in the household and in the village takes things as they are and makes the best of it. Indeed, Egor also follows this strategy upon learning of his cancer diagnosis, only suddenly this mode of acceptance is not in line with received notions of masculinity and first his passive submission and later avoidance gradually make him an outcast: because he does not actively resist death like a virile, masculine hero would or should. Instead he plays a game, not an activity for an adult male character with a responsibility. Yet he plays—and wins.

When learning of his cancer diagnosis and being told that he has some two months to live, Egor accepts his fate and makes financial arrangements for his death and for his family (even though he does not take up the doctor’s suggestion of going into a hospice to relieve his family of the burden, likely for financial reasons). In the meantime, his wife Natasha will not accept his diagnosis and seeks to change his fate. She seeks help: she enlists the mayor and the entire village to help financially; she arranges a visit to a visiting specialist who confirms the diagnosis; she makes Egor see an (alcoholic) shaman woman who performs some (charlatan) procedures, but who takes the money (to buy booze). Natasha’s action falls neatly into a schematic gendered pattern of behavior: a family woman, she already has a son, she is about to give birth to her second child, and thus represents a classical mother-figure who acts at all cost in a live-giving and life-affirming manner, which must then by definition exclude the acceptance of death. With his always quiet and inward-looking behavior, Egor obediently follows his wife’s ventures: he seems to know that it is pointless to contradict her, as much as it is pointless to fight death. Evgenii Tsyganov plays this almost will-less yet virile protagonist (he is a forester who handles guns and fires them; he is a builder who fixes his house) in a way that nevertheless reinforces his masculine and paternal side, both in his private life and as a member of the community. Dolin has argued that the character does not surrender to any weakness into which the illness forces him. It is Tsyganov’s outstanding performance that makes the following gender-reversal not just believable, but gives it a sense of naturalness. As Dolin (2018) remarks, he does not play a woman but becomes a different, a female character.

chelovekOne day, while roaming the forest, Egor meets the charlatan shaman on a clearing. She voluntarily confesses that she cheated him and admits that she has already transformed the money into vodka and therefore cannot pay him back. But she owes him something. So she tells him the story of Jumbo the Drake, who is haunted by death and covers himself in grey clay and hides amongst the geese and ducks. This story—albeit one of the few longer dialogue scenes in the film—is told almost in a vacuum; its point is almost missed on the spectator. In the next scene Egor is back home: he is drunk (an attribute of the typical Russian male) and sleeps in the fenced enclosure with the geese and ducks, as if trying out the idea from the told tale. Next he goes to town and in an urban shopping mall buys women’s clothes: tights, a skirt and a blouse. For a moment we might be deluded and think this is a gift for his wife, but this outfit is totally unsuitable for the heavily pregnant village woman, and moreover one whose husband is about to die—that money could be better spent. Indeed, when Egor comes home, no gift is presented, but instead Egor takes (steals, nicks) his wife’s make-up. At night, he dresses and makes himself up as a woman. He first tries, then dons this outfit permanently, hiding away in the bathhouse and later, once discovered, walking around the village in women’s clothes. At the same time, he does not speak—either because in folk belief one must not tell what the wish is, or not to give away his disguise through a false pitch of the voice. It is this combination of old folk belief with the reaction of modern Russian society that creates the tragicomic quality of the story as it unfolds from here. “Half playfully, half seriously, Merkulova and Chupov construct the tale of the Man Who Surprised Everyone into a story that merges folklore and local humor with contemporary politics” (Poglajen 2018).

It is the world around, the others, that make the Korshunovs’ life the hell that Jean-Paul Sartre noted in Huis Clos: the gaze of the others turns Egor into an outcast, a marginal, a pervert, whilst he knows his true self and has a clear conscience—as clear as in the case of the two poachers. And whilst the villagers and the authorities accept that Egor has killed—albeit criminals and in self-defense—they do not accept what they see as deviant behavior. With the opening premise of the film the filmmakers thus challenge our moral values: to shoot a human being (like a hunter would shoot an animal—and I repeat again, Egor acts in self-defense) is alright and compatible (or not?) with the hunter’s conscience, but to hide one’s self, especially a male self, is not. 

No wonder that the international press jumped onto this element of the story-line, linking it to the political context: “In a country where ‘LGBT propaganda’ was criminalised a few years ago, the deeply conservative rural areas of Siberia are a lethal place for anyone who does not conform to the heteronormative imperatives of a heterosexual orientation, nuclear family and binary gender” (Poglajen 2018); and calling it a film “reaching deep into the characters’ psyches to expose their ingrained sexual prejudices” (Young 2018). Deborah Young poignantly compares Egor to Priscilla of the Desert (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 1994, directed by Stephen Elliott). Meanwhile, the wife grapples with the events and the villagers come to stare at Egor in tights and a red frock, but it is the young generation that takes the most shocking action: Egor’s son Artem is bullied at school and badly beaten up. That next generation is the first to raise its fists against non-conformity, and that is maybe one of the scariest and most disturbing parts of the film. (However, we know this is a fairy tale, and fairy tales have happy endings.) Natasha eventually kicks Egor out of the house and the garden, and he hides in a forest hut, where he is soon discovered by some workers who abuse him and attempt rape, leaving him prostrated on the forest floor like a crucified Christ-figure. It is as though Egor had to sacrifice himself. His pose on the forest floor makes another (physical) connection to the double killing in the opening scene of the film, where the poachers are killed on the same soil. And for sure, that opening scene is there for a purpose beyond showing Egor at work: Egor’s journey (to town, home and back to the forest) is one of repentance for taking a life (or rather, two), before his wife will give birth to a new life and he regains his life (or is reborn) following an MRI scan in hospital.

Egor is reborn and gets a second life. In the adjacent room his wife has given birth. His life goes on, as a human being. Outside the hospital window the first snow has turned the Siberian landscape—first pictured in green summer and golden autumn colors, then in the muddy tones of a cold and murky November—into a white blanketed surface, making everything look alike: there is no longer any difference between the lake and the grass, between the white geese and hoar-covered leafless tree, between male and female. Like the hero of the fairy tale, Egor had to be killed (turned into a victim of violence) and admit his weakness in order to be saved by receiving the water of death (to stick his body together) and reanimated with the water of life. And they all lived happily ever after, except that the fairy tale’s hero has now matured—as a man, or as a woman?

Birgit Beumers

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Works Cited

Dolin, Anton. 2018. “‘Chelovek, kotoryi udivil vsekh’: fil’m o tom, kak obmanut’ smert’.” Meduza 5 September. 

Poglajen, Tina. 2018. “Review: The Man Who Surprised Everyone.” Cineuropa 10 September.

Young, Deborah. 2018. “‘The Man Who Surprised Everyone’ (‘Tchelovek Kotorij Udivil Vseh’): Film Review.” The Hollywood Reporter 3 October.

The Man Who Surprised Everybody, Russia, Estonia, France, 2018
Color, 105 minutes
Directors: Natasha Merkulova, Aleksei Chupov
DoP: Mart Taniel
Editor: Vadim Krasnitskii
Music: Andrei Kurchenko
Production Design: Sergei Avstrievskikh
Cast: Evgenii Tsyganov, Natal’ia Kudriashova, Iurii Kuznetsov, Vasilii Popov, Pavel Maikov, Aleksei Filimonov, Elena Voronchikhina, Maksim Vitorgan
Producers: Katia Filippova, Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Katrin Kissas, Guillaume de Seille
Production: Pan-Atlantic Studio, Homeless Bob Production, Non-Stop Production, Arizona Production
International Sales: Pluto Film
Premiere: 4 September 2018 (Venice); release 25 October 2018

Natal’ia Merkulova, Aleksei Chupov: The Man Who Surprised Everyone (Chelovek, kotoryi udivil vsekh, 2018)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2019

Updated: 2019