Issue 65 (2019)

Sergei Livnev: Van Goghs (Van Gogi, 2018)

reviewed by Ellina Sattarova © 2019

van goghsSergei Livnev’s emotional drama Van Goghs marks the director’s return to filmmaking after more than 20 years of silence. Compared to Livnev’s early postmodernist efforts, his directorial debut Kiks (1991) and his second feature Hammer and Sickle (Serp i molot, 1994), Van Goghs appears unadventurous in its narrative and stylistic choices, using legible cinematography and often heavy-handed metaphors to tell the story of an estranged father (Daniel' Ol'brykhskii) and son (Aleksei Serebriakov) and their struggle to make amends when the former is diagnosed with dementia. While less audacious, Van Goghs is not entirely incompatible with its predecessors. The film appears to be in direct dialogue with Hammer and Sickle—a conjecture corroborated by the filmmaker’s decisions to cast Aleksei Serebriakov (the same actor who played the lead role in his 1994 film) and to use a variation of the same musical leitmotif that punctuated his earlier effort. All three of Livnev’s films embrace the excesses of the melodramatic mode and share an interest in the ways in which the malleable and vulnerable human body can destabilize and threaten subjectivities.

Van Goghs opens with a flashback—a young father is telling his son Mark a bedside story, using a hand-made toy, a human figure made of rope knots, as a prop. It is, by the look of it, a happy scene; the father seems eager, the boy is laughing. Yet the dramatic low-key lighting suggests that something is amiss; as the scene draws to an end and the father gets up to leave the room, his towering black shadow briefly covers his son’s face. The father’s “shadow,” as we will soon find out, will haunt Mark for years to come.

van goghsThe film skips more than forty years ahead. Mark Ginzburg, now a 52-year-old and not particularly successful artist, is in his Tel-Aviv studio surrounded by his own artwork, knotted rope sculptures suspended from the ceiling. He is deeply unhappy and wants to end his life. His mother, he explains in a Skype call with a doctor from a Swiss euthanasia clinic, attempted to kill him as an infant by pushing a needle into his skull. The needle, he claims, will eventually change position and cause him an agonizing death, and waiting for it to happen has become simply unbearable. Mark’s request for euthanasia is, however, rejected, and he decides to take the matter into his own hands. He puts a rope around his neck but life intervenes again—a phone call from his estranged father prevents him from fulfilling his death wish. Putting his plans on hold, Mark leaves for Riga to visit his father.

Unlike his son, Viktor Ginzburg (now 79) is enjoying life. He is a famed conductor and, while no longer at the height of his fame, is still basking in adulation. Life, however, plays a cruel joke on him. He is diagnosed with an aggressive form of dementia, an illness that will debilitate him and eventually claim his life. Van Goghs relies on inverted parallelism as its main narrative principle—Mark, who desperately wants to die, has to live to help his father, who desperately wants to live, die peacefully.

van goghsAs his father’s memory fades, Mark learns that memory, irrespective of age, is partial, unstable, and unreliable, and that the past is accessible to us only through the work of memory. (The dramatic low key-lighting and the expressive camerawork—extreme close-ups of the father and medium close-ups of the boy—of the opening flashback sequence establish early on the film’s preoccupation with the mediating role of subjective memory in constructions of the past.) As the film meanders through a series of melodramatic twists and turns, Mark finds out that it was his father who pushed the needle into his skull; he learns that his mother, who, he believed, abandoned him when he was four, died during childbirth, and that the woman who “lived” in his memory as his mother was one of his father’s lovers who got so attached to the boy that she gave her own son, a son from another man, the same name and nickname.

Mark encounters several of his “doubles” throughout the film, “doubles” who are living “his” life, a life that he could be living but is not: his namesake Mark who was brought up by his loving “mother” and who is now happily married; his friend who married Mark’s high school sweetheart; another artist who married the woman Mark is still in love with; and, perhaps most importantly, his own father whom Mark resembles in many ways but who, unlike Mark, has had a successful career and enjoyed several long-lasting relationships. Mark, who did not get the care and affection he needed as a child, believes he is incapable of nurturing a relationship and sabotages his every chance at happiness. As his father’s condition worsens, however, Mark, who now has the power to hurt and abandon, chooses instead to forgive and to nurture.

van goghsAfter his father’s death Mark leaves his childhood home and returns to his Tel-Aviv studio, not to hang himself but to untie the knots on his rope sculptures. Rope—which tethered him to his self-absorbed father, to the specters of his past, and to his childhood trauma—will no longer be his medium. He lets go of his father’s “shadow” and finally finds meaning in life when he takes up teaching wood carving to elderly people at an assisted living facility. Many of his students choose to carve portraits of Vincent Van Gogh. An artist, the film concludes, does not have to be successful to be able to find redemption in art.

The needle is still lodged in Mark’s skull but it does not seem to bother him anymore. If in Livnev’s early post-Soviet efforts, the body (and through it, subjectivity) was threatened and re-shaped by an external force (commercialism in Kiks and Stalinism in Hammer and Sickle), in Van Goghs the external proves less deadly than the internal (dementia) and the internalized (childhood trauma). It was, after all, not the needle that was causing Mark’s pain or his existential angst; it was what he believed it to be.

Ellina Sattarova
University of Pittsburgh

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Van Goghs, Russia, Latvia, 2018
Color, 103 minutes
Director: Sergei Livnev
Screenplay: Sergei Livnev
Cinematography: Iurii Klimenko
Music: Leonid Desiatnikov, Aleksei Sergunin
Editing: Aleksei Bobrov, Ernest Aranov
Producers: Sergei Bobza, Igor' Pronin, Iuliia Zaitseva
Production: Leopolis Film Company, Forma Pro Films, Crazy Pelican Films
Cast: Aleksei Serebriakov, Daniel' Ol'brykhskii, Elena Koreneva, Polina Agureeva, Natal'ia Negoda, Svetlana Nemoliaeva

Sergei Livnev: Van Goghs (Van Gogi, 2018)

reviewed by Ellina Sattarova © 2019

Updated: 2019