Issue 69 (2020)

Svetlana Proskurina: Sunday (Voskresen’e, 2019)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2020

sundaySvetlana Proskurina’s films are never simple; their complexity often makes them hard work for audiences, even at large national and international festivals. Sunday is no exception: it was included, but not awarded, in the competition of the 41st Moscow Film Festival held in April 2019, a slot to which the event moved in 2018 because of the FIFA World Cup taking place in June/July. Afterwards the festival organisers kept the slot, which worked out for the 2919 edition, but in 2020 the festival had to be postponed to 1-8 October due to the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Proskurina tends to work with other scriptwriters, often the playwrights of New Drama: her film Goodbye mum (Do svidaniia mama, 2014) is based on the play Karenin by Vasili Sigarev, and The Best of Times (Luchshee vremia goda, 2007) on Ivan Vyrypaev’s script; Truce (Peremirie, 2010) was scripted by Dmitrii Sobolev, best known for his script for Pavel Lungin’s Island (Ostrov, 2006), and only Remote Access (Udalennyi dustup, 2004) was based on her own script. Her new film has been based on a script by Ekaterina Tirdatova, who has co-written and scripted television serials and a few films, but little in the art-house world. However, Proskurina praised during the press-conference at the Moscow Film Festival for an impeccable piece of writing that required no revisions at all.

The team of a female director and a female scriptwriter was joined by the art-house producer Sabina Eremeeva. Whilst the key roles were carried out by women, the camera is held by a young man, Artur Emelyanov, whose second film this is after Kantemir Balagov’s Closeness (Tesnota, 2017). His choice reveals another line of Proskurina’s work, namely the connection to Aleksandr Sokurov, whose student Balagov was and with whom Proskurina has worked since throughout the 1990s, including on Russian Ark. However, Sunday is far from a “feminist film” in the sense of exploring the world of women: the protagonist is a man, Dmitrii Terekhov, and the women in the film are, if you will, all victims: of the coldness, tiredness, and indifference that the protagonist bestows on them. The gaze (of the male cameraman or the female director, as you wish) is also cold, sterile and distanced, as is typical for Proskurina and especially strong in Remote Access.  

sundayThe film opens with a classical sex scene of businessman Dmitrii Terekkov (Aleksei Vertkov) and a young and attractive woman, who—for all we know—could be his secretary: in other words, a woman in an inferior position exploited by her boss. The scene also frames Terekhov as a person of power: in the darkness of the night, an old man stands outside his office with a poster of protest, and soon Terekhov finds a death note in his folder: “skoro umresh” (you’ll die soon).

Indeed, as we shall soon find out, the lover, Inna, is not only played by Vertkov’s real-life wife Aleksandra Rebenek, but in the film she is his best friend’s wife, and Terekhov has an affair with her. The following scene turns to a suburban area of a city at sunrise, where Inna stands on the balcony of a high-rise and jumps. Terekhov, who has returned home and is asleep on a sofa-bed, is woken by a call at an early hour. He leaves instantly, stopping first at the site of the attempted suicide: Inna has landed on a car and miraculously only broken her hip; the damage to the car seems more significant than to her body. As Terekhov accompanies Inna’s husband Morin to the hospital, the latter, not suspecting anything, leaves Terekhov in Inna’s company because he has such a “positive effect” on her: Inna speaks with him, explaining that she tried to kill herself not because of him, but because she is so bored and fed up with her husband and his eternal concern and his squeaking voice. There is no love here, neither for husband nor lover: Terekhov apparently hoped she would feel something for him, but she does not; and Morin is only worried about money, having bought property and made debt for Inna’s sake, now having to pay up for the damage to the car… (never mind the broken pelvis and the cost for the surgery).   

sundayThis coldness is the illness of the time: people display a façade only, there is no depth of character, but everything happens in a routine, as if ticking off a list of things that need to be accomplished: have sex with Inna, go home to see after mum suffering from dementia who is looked after by the housekeeper Anna, buy a gift for old family friends (the Kochergins) and visit them for a birthday celebration, provide for his daughter and divorced wife Lena (Agniia Kuznetsova), sponsor the charity work of the Kochergin’s unmarried daughter Masha, ensure the plot where his mother wishes to be buried is allocated to her, reassure some “green” protesters in an urban development project that the trees will not be felled but replanted (a promise that is not kept), even pay the angry woman in the park whose father is in intensive care and who takes the money he offers her, and meet the Mayor before he is called to Moscow to settle another development project with the foreign investors that Terekhov has brought in. All these (and other) problems are solved by money: three months child’s maintenance for Lena, money for a handbag for an exhausted Anna, money for flowers and fitness club membership as a gift for the Kochergins, both purchased by the driver Kolya, money for the cemetery manager to ensure mother can be buried with distant rather than close relatives to “procure” the correct papers. Terekhov does not live, but rather performs acts that resemble life, a bit like a series killer finishing one job after another, never mind who is at the receiving end. Indeed, Terekhov suffers from a deformation of personality, from a loss of identity: he seems like a robot, incapable of emotional engagement. Maybe the diabetes from which he suffers, the body’s inability to transform glucose into energy, is symptomatic of this condition.

sundayTerekhov understand everything that happens around, and does nothing: he seems unable to care, other than by paying money. At home, he lives with his mother who is bound to the bed, as she suffers from dementia and is looked after by Anna, Dmitrii’s childhood nanny. She remembers that she does not want to be buried in the family plot, but with relatives; she remembers the Kochergins and has some nasty comment for a woman only five years her junior who has asked for membership for a fitness club as a birthday gift, only to forget in the next moment where Dmitrii (Mitya) is going. Terekhova, played by Vera Alentova, possesses an aggressive energy, even though physically she is unable to move much. In a scene near the end, she has put on a fur coat and lipstick over her pyjamas and sits on the stairs, “waiting for the driver” before Anna takes her back to her bed. There she tells Anna, finally, that she lied to her thirty years ago when Anna wanted to go to her Siberian home town to attend her mother’s funeral, but the boy Mitya (then a child) was sick, so in order not to let Anna travel, the family told her there were no tickets. There has never been any sincerity in this family, only coldness, carelessness and calculation: in her anger, Anna snatches the pillowcase and tries to suffocate Terekhova, but she fails. Alentova’s performance is stunning, probably the most difficult for a favourite and beloved actress who has always played on her feminine looks to play her an old, fragile and unlovable woman with perfection and without ever lapsing into an attempt to draw sympathy by pity. She remains Mitya’s mother, an authority, who is not told by her son what to do: she will give Mitya his insulin injection, but she will not allow him to give her an injection.

Like in a Chekhovian drama, the emotional and caring side falls on the “servants,” the Anfisas and Firses of this world. The nanny/nurse Anna and the driver Kolya do care, for Terekhova and Terekhov respectively: Kolya once stops the car to pass a glucose drink to Terekhov as he is about to faint, not having eaten all day. Kolya talks to Terekhov about his Russian nationalist ideas:

Kolya: What’s the president doing? If he closed the borders, that would see the end of it.
Terekhov: Kolya, you’re a fascist.
Kolya: I’m a Russian…. My granddad reached Berlin. Three times he burned up in a tank... It’s not fascism. I want to live in my homeland with my own laws. Why should we have to endure all these Kurbanbayrams in our cites for which our grandfathers laid down their lives?
Terekhov: What can we do with the rest of them?
Kolya: Let them go back home and slaughter their sheep there. They need to be where they were born. We don’t need strangers, we’ll not give up our own.

sundayIt is less the nationalist speech than the image of the slaughtered sheep that will shape a later scene in the film, when Terekhov goes off into the forest after having discovered the “mess” of the chopped trees in the park and after having suffered verbal abuse from a protester whose father is in intensive care. As he wanders off into the nocturnal forest, Terekhov dies his “first death,” not having kept the promise of preserving the trees. In the forest, he watches two Central-Asian woman slaughter and dissect a sheep before the man of the family places it over a fire. The scene of warmth, of domesticity and of the slaughter (the invasion of strangers, in Kolya’s terms) highlight the Otherness of this different culture, which is neither sterile nor cold, and where people care for each other. From here, Terekhov strays to the riverbank, where he dies his “second death.”

sundayThe visit to the summerhouse of the Kochergins is also reminiscent of Chekhov’s settings: several scenes in the house and at the table echo the “Chekhovian” second act of Cerceau, that legendary 1986 production by Anatoli Vasiliev based on Viktor Slavkin’s play—about the generation of forty-year-olds who cannot come to terms with the fact that times have changed (just like Chekhov’s characters are stuck in their old times and cannot move on into the new world), and who “still look young,” in other words live not in their own time. This detachment of time (rather than a clash of generations) motivates the insert of Mitya Terekhov’s visit to the family dacha in the middle of the film. It also proves once again Mitya’s inability to show emotions: Masha is clearly in love with Mitya: during the day, he had brought her the membership card for her mother’s birthday to the office where she works, and she proudly introduces him as the generous sponsor of their good cause (finding children who have disapppeared); and at the family dinner they are shown as close friends, yet Mitya does not show any physical attraction, even when he lies (exhausted) on the bed next to her. Masha’s father (played by Vladimir Il’in) reminds Mitya of the need for Masha to start a family and that he must take care of her—a task that cannot be solved by money, and that therefore is not accomplished by Terekhov. And, like the trees cut at the end of Three Sisters that make way for pretty flowers, it is flowers that Mitya takes to the Kochergins.

sundayIndeed, the references to Chekhov could be tied further to The Cherry Orchard, where the trees are also chopped at the play’s end, although Lopakhin had ordered to wait until the family had departed. In the soundscape of the film, this is underlined by the sound of chopping wood that accompanies the opening black frames with title credits, and the black frames of the end credits. Yet the references to the chopping of trees and people’s protest echo another, more contemporary protest, that of the people in Khimki, north Moscow, against the construction of high-rises in the green zones of Khimki (Skhodnya-Park, Dubki) in recent times. Indeed, not unlike Lopakhin, it appears that Mitya too has ordered to transplant the trees, but the workers have chopped them whilst the site manager had gone off to attend to a family crisis: private lives matter. The workers are largely hired migrant workers—the Kurbanbayrams that Kolya ranted against and Terekhov watched in the forest.

sundayThree murders occur in this film, yet none is successful: Inna’s suicide at the beginning; Anna’s attempted murder of Terekhova with the pillowcase; and the murder of Terekhov at the film’s end. Terekhov’s murder may seem a chance crime, but it is well prepared throughout the film: the boy who kills Terekhov with a rock on the riverbank has appeared before in the film. In the murder scene he is accompanied by another boy, apparently of a deprived background when judging by their dress and their inability to speak properly. After having hit Terekhov on the head, for no obvious reason, he checks whether he is still alive. The boys check his belongings and find the phone, which is ringing: in the Mayor’s office, the Mayor is off to Moscow and waits for Terekhov with several of his staff. Terekhov fails to appear for this important gathering about a further construction project; they try to call, and hear the babble of the boys and the noise on the phone, but raise no alert: the indifference of his colleagues for Terekhov the man as opposed to Terekhov the civil servant is blatantly obvious.

sundayEven more interesting is the chain of events that introduces the boy: he is first seen in the stadium where Terekhov meets his ex-wife Lena and his daughter. He looks at the girl’s exercise book and criticises her spelling: she is inattentive at school and should do better, says the father. The mother shouts about a better school that the father should arrange for the child (clearly involving more money): here is a dysfunctional family who appear to care for the child, unlike the parents of the boy in jeans and a jeans jacket, who walks up and meddles, clearly wanting the same attention as the girl. Terekhov angrily sends him away, and we see him join two adults with bottles who seem drunk. Later we hear of Masha’s story of the boy who went missing and whom the charity found: they took him home, the parents were drunk, but the boy wanted to stay with them rather than go into a foster home. This same boy kills Terekhov. The boy who is lost, who is not wanted, who cannot speak properly because he has no education; possibly his dysfunctionality is a result of the parents’ alcoholism: the “scum” that Kolya so defiantly talks about in the car.

The film’s title is Sunday: the day of resurrection. The action unfolds in one day, starting on a Sunday morning at 5:30am when Terekhov receives a call and leaves, finding Inna injured and accompanying Morin to the hospital; the night before he had been with Inna. On that Sunday, he visits the cemetery, the park, the Kochergins. The next morning, on Monday, he is supposed to be at the Mayor’s office, but instead wakes up on the shore and dives into river, swimming in slow motion; he finds himself on a boat, drinking tea with the captain: the ferryman across Styx? The church is on the riverbank, on that side of the river, towards which Terekhov swims. In this new world, no words are spoken; it exists only visually. It is the “other” world, where a new week starts, or a new life.

Birgit Beumers

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Sunday, Russia, 2019
Director: Svetlana Proskurina
Script: Ekaterina Tirdatova
DoP Artem Emel'ianov
Production Design: Irina Ochina,
Costume Design: Regina Khomskaia
Sound: Evgenii Goriainov
Editing: Maksim Smirnov
Cast: Aleksei Vertkov, Vera Alentova, Vladimir Il'in, Aleksandra Rebenok, Il'ia Viktorov, Maksim Bitiukov, Elena Mol'chenko, Agniia Kuznetsova, Mariia Leonova, Marina Brusnikina
Producer: Sabina Eremeeva
Production: Studio Slon
Release: 19 September 2019

Svetlana Proskurina: Sunday (Voskresen’e, 2019)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2020

Updated: 2020