Issue 71 (2021)

Nigina Saifullaeva: Fidelity (Vernost’, 2019)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2021

vernostFollowing the impressive short film Dogrose (Shipovnik, 2011), Nigina Saifullaeva made her feature film debut with Whatayacallme (aka Name Me [Kak menia zovut], 2014). Fidelity is her second feature film and, like the first film, co-written with scriptwriter Liubov’ Mul’menko. The literary script has been translated and published in Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema (14.1).

Whereas the script begins with a scene of the protagonist, 32-year-old Lena (played by Evgeniia Gromova) in the bathroom taking a shower and checking herself in the steamed-up mirror, thus establishing her obsession with appearance as one of the key motifs, the film starts out in the open, where Lena walks along the sea promenade of Königsberg (formerly Kaliningrad), the city in which the action is set. The film thus instantly makes two statements: on the one hand, about the enclave status of the Kaliningrad Region, by extension the “seclusion” of the protagonist; and on the other, about the coolness associated with the location, the Baltic and its fresh air and rough sea. Enclosure and entrapment, coldness and the desire for warmth, emotional and meteorological, are announced as central themes.

vernostThe film begins with a long take of Lena as she strolls along the seafront. The camera captures in a close-up how she feels the breeze, breathes in the air, and enjoys herself in the sunshine. Her sensuality is foregrounded: the need to feel herself as an object of a gaze, including that of the camera and empowered by it. She promenades for the camera alone, as if on a catwalk, knowing that people are looking at her (at least the eye of the camera). The script elaborated at this point on her attempt to catch the attention of some men and on her chance encounter with a group of people, from which one man recognizes her—the well-known obstetrician. The camera is operated by Mark Zisel’son (who also worked on Whatayacallme), the film directed by a woman, Nigina Saifullaeva, and the script co-written with a female scriptwriter, Liubov’ Mul’menko, who collaborated with Saifullaeva also on her feature debut. In this case, it is a female gaze (as juxtaposed to the fetishizing and objectifying male gaze of Laura Mulvey’s 1974 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”) that matters for the narrative; it is a gaze where the woman inspects men, and where the woman is thus empowered to decide how and when to be seen as desirable, deliberately attracting the attention of others, predominantly men; where the woman, with an aggressively female gaze, manipulates the male gaze. Saifullaeva and Mul’menko dwell throughout the script and the film on gaze and on reflection: Lena sensing herself as she strolls along the promenade (she literally “promenades” herself); Lena checking herself in the mirror in the bathroom; Lena looking at herself in the rear mirror of her car. Even Lena’s husband remarks on her tendency to look at herself in the mirror when talking to him or embracing him. But the camera also follows Lena’s gaze and imitates her view of the world: how she follows her husband (field of vision out of a car window); how she looks at his face and his body with desire (close-up of his face and naked body); or how she avoids looking at people (patients and colleagues out of field of vision). However, the camera attentively frames Lena as she senses and sees herself, as an object that would attract the male gaze, that would dominate any space: the beach promenade, the opening-night party in the theater foyer, the nightclub at the beach, or the bus in the film’s finale, where Lena dominates the space, and she manipulates, controls and attracts (or so she imagines) the male gaze. As Ol’ga Kas’ianova (2019b) finely puts it in her review for Seance, this is an “unprecedented moment in Russian cinema of the objectification of man through women’s eyes.” Indeed, Russian cinema may have a history of female directors, and may have a “female view” (or rather views) on the world as early as the narration of a relationship from the perspective of two women, Nadia and Valentina, in Kira Muratova’s Brief Encounters (Korotkie vstrechi, 1967), but it has no history of women mastering and steering the diegetic world with their gaze, as Anton Dolin (2019) has highlighted: “All men, starting with Serezha […] are here not leading, but led.”

vernostThe “leading lady,” Lena, is a high-flyer, a talented midwife and obstetrician, a career woman. She is the breadwinner, she drives a car, she owns the flat (it is designated as “Lena’s apartment” in the script). As a medic, she remains cool, objective, distanced; without any fear or hesitation she performs risky and complicated moves to bring babies into the correct position before birth to avoid C-sections, something where her boss, Vanya, eschews risk. Vanya (Aleksei Agranovich) respects her and allows her to make deals with him, taking on extra patients in a barter for a few days off.

vernostLena is married to Serezha (Aleksandr Pal’), an actor at a provincial drama theatre, where he works under a director who does not value his talent. The professional gap between medic and artist reveals not only the difference in educational background and salary levels, but also the character features: one used to make calculated decisions, the others drawing on emotional experience required for acting, where the actor is used to speak the text of the playwright and execute the director’s will. Serezha thus has words (not his own) and understands emotions (at least on stage). Despite this difference in characters, Lena and Serezha appear close—like an old couple, like brother and sister, but there is little sexual attraction. With his professional eye for emotional states, Serezha assumes that Lena is exhausted from long hours and wants her to take some time off; meanwhile Lena, who wants to be at the center of attention at home as much as she is in the world outside, and who desires her husband sexually but cannot articulate herself, suspects that Serezha has an affair with his partner actress Katya (Marina Vasil’eva), since their sex life is stale. However, Lena does not ask Serezha directly, for fear of the answer and certainty, nor does she discuss her jealousy with him; instead, she follows Serezha and observes him. Visually, he becomes an object not of her desire but of her suspicion. Soon Lena starts to cheat on him with chance acquaintances, as an act of revenge (the first title of the film was Jealousy [revnost’], where vernost’ and revnost’ are anagrams), and gradually Lena’s parallel sex life gets out of (her) control.

vernostWith a firm hand the film addresses the issue of fidelity, loyalty, and integrity from the stance of a woman, who is used to be in control but finds herself in a situation where her control is questioned, challenged and undermined: in her sex life. The camera focuses on her obsession to touch, with close-ups of her hands feeling Serezha’s face and body, underlining her search for physical contact and the need to be looked at. Visually, she positions herself again and again in situations where she will capture a man’s gaze, where she will attract attention, where she will be wanted. And she does this not only for her husband, but also for her walks along the prom, for her visit to the night club at the beach where she will pick up a lifeguard, for her theater visit. Lena turns herself into an object and wants to be admired as a woman as much as she is respected as a doctor; as a unique object, the sole center of attention: she wants to be the navel of the world, at work and at home, and preferably any time when in a public space. She is concerned with her face, her façade, her appearance, public and visible. Yet behind that façade, she is unable to discover herself, hear her own voice, or articulate her own desires.

vernostThe camera not only frequently catches Lena in front of a mirror or looking into a mirror sideways while embracing her husband, trying to see herself—or find herself—in a steamed-up mirror, but also in frames, windows or doors. Lena tries to find her identity beyond the public image of “the doctor.” Yet she has no life outside the clinic. She strolls along the seafront, dances at a beach club, accepts a lift from an accidental driver, gets drunk with the local barkeepers on the way to the supermarket; she straddles between two selves in these encounters with everyday life. At work, she is the best, the only one; in everyday life, she is one of many. She is one in the crowd on the prom (even if the camera sees only her); she is a one-night-stand for the life guard; she is a “quickie” on the back seat of the car and in a back alley for the driver of the SUV, but in her life, she is in control of her life: she drives her own car, she runs the clinic, she manages the household; and she is in control of the encounters: she pays the hotel for the night with the lifeguard, she is caught and “gets booked” by police for the offence of sex in public with the SUV driver (who runs away); and she manipulates her boss and decides whether to accepts the lift or not, which way they go, where they stop and wait, and when they drive off, but also what they talk about (has he been cheated on?), whether he smokes, and if he touches her. Vanya respects her controlling manner, because he respects her as a colleague, because he is afraid of her leaving the clinic, and maybe because he realizes her fragility?

vernostThe film created something of an uproar at its premiere at Kinotavr 2019 for the treatment of sex (although there were no issues with the license of 18+ for Russian distribution), and the jury meekly awarded it a special diploma “for the boundless faith shown by the actors in the director.” The critic Aleksei Filippov (2019), writing for Iskusstvo kino, called it an “erotic drama with filigree workmanship,” which does, he admits, “not fit into the tradition of Russian cinema to speak about betrayal and sex […] with the strain and suffering associated with first sex.” In other words, it is a film that does not follow the portrayal of women as sexual objects through a male gaze, as is commonplace in Russian mainstream cinema; and it fails to offer an insight into character psychology (in the best traditions of the Moscow Arts Theatre) that would explain the “deficiency,” that is Lena’s emotional coldness (in the script there is a discussion about her own birth from an “obstinate” position, but no reference to a lack of parental love, as Filippov suggests in his review). The film shows sex scenes in a detached manner, without eroticism, without passion: this is a world “where people know how to make sex, how to speak as in life, and how to exist beyond moral judgments,” a world where sex is shown in almost the same matter-of-fact manner as the obstetrician’s move of the unborn baby. Filippov’s view reflects the failure to classify the film in conventional categories (“erotic drama,” “porn,”, “melodrama”) where Kas’ianova (2019b) emphasizes that this is no film about sex and no erotic drama, but a film where “sex [...] is the center of attraction, but not the universe. It is a language, but not a talk.”

vernostTwo female scriptwriters have created a diegetic world where a woman is in control of the narrative: as buttoned-up as she may be as a character and as little as we may know about her past, it is her face that we follow, that we try to penetrate and understand—but do we ever? We see her remorse, or so it seems, in the tears she sheds when she tells her husband that she cheated on him and finds out this was for no reason, that he never had an affair with fellow-actress Katya in the first place. At the same time, Serezha is shown as a victim—of her dominance, of her control, of her want for sex (or not), of her whims (getting drunk instead of doing shopping and cooking), of her lies (the police notice, a day skipped at work), of her suspicion of adultery (for no reason). From the perspective of this woman, men are feeble creatures: indeed, the men in the film are impotent in all but the sexual sense: Vanya complies with every request of his esteemed colleague; the lifeguard meekly follows her lead; the SUV driver (and husband of patient Nikiforova) submits to her sexual arousal, and is harshly rejected in a second pass he makes at her workplace. Men are subservient also with regard to other woman: several men help carry Katya’s old furniture; Nikoforova separates from her husband when she finds out about the “affair;” and none of the female patients at the clinic comes with their husbands (except for Nikiforova). It seems this world is run by women.

vernostThe film’s focus is exclusively on Lena: as self-centered as she is, so is the world of the film. Both the film and the script end on an ambivalent note: Lena has learned to talk, to confess her fears and needs, to articulate herself. In the script, she and Serezha drive off to the beach, where Lena goes for a swim: there is a faint echo of the woman who tried to drown herself and was twice rescued by the lifeguard in the story that Lena’s first lover tells her at the beach near the night club when he picks her up. The film ends on a note of distrust with Serezha’s realization that hers is an obsession that may resurge any time, that he will never be able to trust her again. Through the articulation of needs, the contrast between them seems to have become even starker, and Saifullaeva’s statement on the ending of the film: “My version: they part” (Kas’ianova 2019a) seems logical, although other possible conclusions are left open. The final scene shows Lena in a trolleybus, hoping to attract looks in the same way as in the opening scene on the prom. Lena boards the trolleybus, sits down, and feels herself in the surroundings; she checks the men’s gazes that she attracts.

Lena is going to work. She is unlike all the other women on this trolleybus and simultaneously unlike her usual self. In her posture, in the dark circles under her eyes left by the previous night, the careless hairstyle: in all that there lay a huge force, freedom and even a challenge. On the other side sits a man who looks at Lena as if she was fire or water—bewitched. Lena does not notice him, as she does not notice anything around. She crosses her legs, without thinking about how this looks. She removes a strand of hair from her face.
            The whole bus was spinning around Lena. She was its sensual dominant, a temporal empress, even though she did not understand this; she leaves at her stop. (Saifullaeva and Mul’menko 2019, 92)

Where Lena was not able to ask uncomfortable questions or articulate feelings, Serezha’s profession has taught him to articulate emotions, his and those of his characters, and the world on stage allows him to communicate with his partners on stage and in real life. His use of language is not one where he has to find a voice, search for words or reflect about language, but where he uses language as a tool to express emotions: in the scene at the end of the stage play in which he performs husband and wife with Katya, he takes his wife (played by Katya) back. We see the final scene, the wife (Katya) has been forgiven by her husband (Serezha) for an affair, but she wants to leave him nevertheless, because she is pregnant and does not know who the father of the child is. The husband insists they remain together and will be a family again. In parallel, we see Lena’s face (or read her reaction in the script): it is clear that she confuses the stage world with the real world and is jealous of Katya who, in her role as wife, is kissed by Serezha, in his role as her husband, on stage. The scene shows on the one hand Serezha’s skill at using words, using a set of sentences and phrases that he has learnt: the words are not his, but they function; on the other hand, Lena has no words, she has no part or role that she can learn from. However, she confuses the world on stage with the real world, the world where Serezha has words that she has not, and she searches for straight parallels between stage and life. Significantly, the entire film is filmed in pale colors of light blue and sandy beige, with an occasional subdued olive green for the trees in the city and for some comfy clothes Lena wears at home. The only items that stand out are the lacey black bra that Serezha finds in Lena’s drawer, which she has bought for “an occasion;” and the bright red dress that Katya wears in her stage role. The world of performance, of a ready-made role on stage, is colorful; the world of real life is pale: it is but a reflection.

Birgit Beumers

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Works Cited

Dolin, Anton. 2019. “‘Vernost’.’ Psikhologicheskaia drama o sekse i chuvstsvakh. Nigina Saifullaeva sniala revoliutsionno otkrovennyi fil’m dlia rossiiskogo kino.” Meduza 14 June.

Filippov, Aleksei. 2019. “Zhar nezhnykh: ‘Vernost’’ – tonchaishaia eroticheskaia drama o sekse i dushe.” Iskusstvo kino 30 October.

Mulvey, Laura. 1992. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” [1974], pp. 22-34. In The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. London, Routledge.

Kas’ianova, Ol’ga 2019a. “Nigina Saifullaeva: Kazhdaia bol’shaia ideia razbivaetsia o zhivogo cheloveka.” Iskusstvo kino 11/12 (online 16 April 2020).

Kas’ianova, Ol’ga. 2019b. “Vernost’ Niginy Saifullaevoi. Antistyd.” Seans 16 June.

Saifullaeva, Nigina and Liubov’ Mulmenko. 2020. “Fidelity. A Script.” Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 14.1: 72–121.

Fidelity, Russia, 2019
Color, 82 minutes
Director Nigina Saifullaeva
Scriptwriter Liubov’ Mul’menko
DoP Mark Zisel’son
Production & Costume Design Marus’ia Parfenova-Chukhrai, Ul’iana Polianskaia
Editing Vadim Krasnitskii
Cast: Aleksandr Pal’, Evgeniia Gromova, Aleksei Agranovich, Marina Vasil’eva, Anna Kotova-Deriabina, Pavel Vorozhtsov
Producers Sergei Kornikhin, Valerii Fedorovich, Evgenii Nikishov, Pavel Odynin, Pavel Lilienfel’d, Guillaume de Seille
Production Drug Druga, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Release 31 October 2019, WDSSPR

Nigina Saifullaeva: Fidelity (Vernost’, 2019)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2021

Updated: 2021