In the midst of turbulent and unforeseen times comes the Russian Film Week, which is a festival that provided curious cinephiles and moviegoers with a glimpse into the rich cinematic heritage of the country. The festival showcased over twenty films from the last eighteen months including the debut of three brand new pictures. This was coupled with a varied assortment of workshops from the industry’s leading directors and producers as well as the Golden Unicorn Awards that celebrated Russia’s worldwide cinematic contribution in the recent past. The single day that I attend was dedicated to showing films from the long-standing and venerated Russian production company Lenfilm.
Lights in the Studio (2007)
The first feature of the night was the short film “Lights in the Studio.” Over the course of its twenty-five minute running time, it seamlessly blends the past and present endeavours of the company as a character called “The Good Spirit of Lenfilm” walks around the backlot and various departments of the studio. The audience is shown many elements of the production process including an Audio Dialogue Replacement (ADR) session and crew shooting on a massive snowy fortress set. These elements are punctuated with small clips from many of the films that the studio has made throughout its history.
The most striking sequence combines these two aspects as the benevolent spectre walks into a projection room overlooking a screening room. When the ghost starts up the projector, the screening area transforms into a place with a bustling crowd that seems right out of the 1930s. The film that they are witnessing is an unnamed classic black and white picture.
The scene depicts an extended tracking shot of a stationary train as the passengers get off it to see and embrace their respective loved ones again. As this is happening, the audience is reacting with a palpable sense of excitement and fear. The moment mirrors the reaction of the audiences who saw The Great Train Robbery in 1903 as they reportedly recoiled during the scene where the train was racing towards its destination. The members of the crowd at the time thought that the speeding locomotive was going to come out of the screen and hit them.
The central problem of the short comes in its opening scenes. The camera work and framing of the scenes powerfully evoke the feeling of tension and horror. For example, one moment shows the ghost in a statue pose and then the next moment it is gone, which is made all the more horrific by the haunting and ethereal score. Another moment shows a point of view shot of the ghost watching a woman coming into his domain. The framing of the series of shots makes the scene feel like it ought to be in slasher film as it looks like the spirit is stalking the woman like a hunter with its prey.
While one could argue that this is intentional because it leads to the old phantom revealing himself as an entity who should not be feared. The filmmaking choices clash with the established gentle antiquated charm that is evident in the first few minutes, and strongly permeates the entire film.
The next picture of the night was the full-length film “Ptitsa.” It tells the story of an incredible friendship that develops between an ageing rock star called Oleg (Ivan Okhlobystin) and a teenage girl named Katya who is played by Evdokiya Malevskaya in her first onscreen performance. They meet at a clinic where the former is being treated for alcoholism and the latter for tuberculosis.
The movie teeters on the edge of being tonally whiplash-inducing. However, in the Q&A that accompanied the film, first-time director Kseniya Baskakova elaborated on the tightrope dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. She stated that the film initially started out as much more bleaker affair however through the course of the production she tailored it more towards the comedic and ultimately views the story as a fairy tale.
Some aspects support this declaration. For example, Katya views her father as a shining redemptive figure that will save her from her current mundane life circumstances much akin to how a princess sees a prince. Moreover, the ending has a fairy tale quality as it depicts an amusing looking angel visiting Ola as he is close to death. The rock star’s fatal last moments on earth appear to vanish as the happiest of all endings come true with Katya becoming a fully fledged singer performing in a stadium of adoring fans with Ola looking on with pride at the young girl.
In the same Q&S session that took place after the film, one of the audience members in her complement of the picture compared it to a Sophia Coppola film. While one could make a case for this comparison, I would argue that Ptitsa feels in spirit closer to a Wes Anderson film.
Firstly, Anderson in his films always emphasises an acute sense of community, whether nuclear, distant or disparate animals as shown in Fantastic Mr Fox. Through the course of the movie, Ola loses his ties to his musical community with his bandmates joining his adulterous producer. By the end of the film, there is a feeling that Ola is now part of a tight-knit community with Katya and the woman he meets at the tail end of the picture.
Secondly, children in Wes Anderson films are usually written with an amusing and cutting adult edge that contrast with the grown ups who have to overcome their differences for the purpose of facing a specified obstacle. Malevskaya impressively carries this aspect in her performance with her sardonic line deliveries and composed facial expressions. The latter aspect is vividly illustrated in a scene in the first third of the picture when Katya is visited by her mother in the hospital.
Throughout the scene, her parental figure emotionally laments about her daughter’s behaviour. Towards the end of the scene, she reveals she is going on holiday and is leaving Katya some money. Malevskaya’s performance at this moment portrays steely coldness and distance which manifest in her facial expressions. She speaks to her mother as though she is a complete stranger. This is particularly evident with her parting words, which are “have a good flight” which are delivered with a matter of fact coldness.
Finally, Baskakova in her camera work employs panning shots like Anderson. The famed director applies the shot to illustrate the details in a scene such as the activity of entire household of individuals. These can be comedic because of the timing of a cut with when a person is talking. So, for example, a character could ask for something and Anderson would cut to the other character’s reaction. In a similar vein, Baskakova’s comedic use of panning shots come from the actors’ precisely timed facial expressions reacting in wonderfully comedic harmony.
Kontributsiya (The Contribution- 2016)
The final film shown was “Kontributsiya” (“The Contribution”) which is about a former Red Army detective who is given a chance to survive death via firing squad by investigating the whereabouts of a precious and rare diamond that was generously bequeathed to the White Army cause.
The picture is a meticulous and sumptuous period piece. The cinematography has this antiquated beauty, which is primarily illustrated in the drawing room where most of the film takes place. The shot composition and colour scheme of the central area are an ashy brown fused with sickly green that give the scenes a critical sense of history. Not only of what has happened in the past but also that what is presently occurring is paramount for the future of the country.
Moreover, the picture’s small moments crackle with intensity and stirring dramatic weight. The best scene that encapsulates these qualities comes in the final act of the film. The detective Murzan (Ilya Noskov) responds to a thinly veiled insult from General Pepeliaev (Maksim Matveyev) with the following sentiment. He nobly states that he will not take commands like a dog on a lease, especially for the chance to live. In response, Pepeliaev orders his men to execute his wife, Verochka (Nadezhda Tolubeeva) in the streets. The tension that emerges out of the situation is resoundingly perceptible.
Director Sergey Snezhkin sustains this sense of foreboding by having the sound of a grandfather clock’s pendulum function as the primary source of noise in the scene. Moreover, Snezhkin infrequently cuts to shots outside, which gives the feeling of an interminable wait for a heinous and cruel action to be enforced. Finally, Snezhkin in his framing allows the actors’ faces to take up the entirety of a shot, which allows their horror of the situation to be effectively communicated to the audience.
Matveyev’s performance as General Pepeliaev is compelling because of its introspective nature. There is always a sense that Pepeliaev is reflecting on the information that he hears. For example, at the beginning of the film, a woman mocks him by saying that they are now hiring boys as generals. Matveyev’s facial expressions at this moment evoke a state of inner thinking and regression as though those words have temporarily awaken his inner child, which he momentarily shows to the lady. It is a wonderfully layered and subtle performance that anchors the film.
The advertised Q&A session did not occur. Instead, Snezhkin introduced the film and talked about a rather notable and fascinating behind the scene fact. He stated that he had taken his name of the movie because the producers forced him to cut down his three hours version into a short and nimble hundred minute cut. The revelation still lingers in the mind because the film’s compact storyline feels complete and satisfying. One wonders what is left to say and show in the eighty minutes of missing footage.
The opening five minutes of the movie depicts a couple been woken up by an attack on the city suggest at some outdoor combat scenes that could have left on the cutting room floor. Notwithstanding, despite the temptation, of passionately shaking one’s fist at the producers for forcing a director to compromise his vision, this is one of those rare cases where their judgement was utterly correct.