"Euphoria" Intoxication on a Rough Steppe

in 23rd Haifa International Film Festival

by Saskia Legein

It was by far the most pleasant surprise among the ten competitors at the Haifa Film Festival: Euphoria (Eyforiya) by Ivan Vyrypayev. A title that tickles the brain, for the dictionary definition is promising: “Intense, transcendent happiness combined with an overwhelming sense of well being. The feeling of not fearing death nor caring about it. Euphoria is considered to be an exaggerated state, resulting from psychological or pharmacological stressors and not typically achieved during the normal course of human experience”.

First time director Vyrypayev took the definition to heart. In the first scene of Euphoria we see a group of boys raise the village autistic retard on a motorbike. They fold his hands around the handlebar, put his foot on the accelerator and push him off. The wind and speed gradually drag the guy out of his catatonic state and bring a joyous smile to his face. In a close-up it looks like he feels entering paradise. Seen from the back, the motor cycle leaves a dust cloud while racing at full speed through the bumpy wasteland between two roads, dangerously swaying and destined to crash. The consequences may be crushing but does that rare feeling of extreme happiness make the ride worthwhile?

And so the tragedy of Euphoria begins. Pavel (Maksim Ushakov) has seen Vera (Polina Agureyeva) only once at a boozed wedding, but since their eyes locked he has become intoxicated. Pavel feverishly travelled the deserted, impoverished Russian countryside to seek his muse. When he finds her, he calls out to her as they both stand on opposite sides of a cliff. Shall they fall in love? But Vera grabs her daughter by the hand and walks back home to her brutal, drinking husband Valeri (Mikhail Okunev). Not before long a horrible accident occurs, and Vera has to visit her daughter in the hospital. Pakha gives her a ride. This time crude passions heat up and Pakha tries to convince Vera to elope. Back at the farm, Valery senses something is wrong, and is mastered by a vicious cycle of violent acts. The river Volga is the silent witness of what is about to happen.

It is clear that Vyrypayev’s roots lie in the theatre: the dialogues, the composition and the body language of the actors, the acts separated by an image of Vera tapping on the wall of a barn. But Euphoria is not a theatre play simply put on film. Its cinematographic power is way too overwhelming for that. Director of photography Andrei Naidyonov is Vyrypayev’s most important man here. Naidyonov’s repetitive wide angle shots of the Russian steppes taken from low flying planes are mesmerizing and vaguely remind us of the silent leading part nature plays in other recent Russian films such as Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashcheniye, 2003). Composer Aidar Gainullin’s intense music score turns the almost surreal images of Euphoria into poetry.

The strongly felt bold determination of its creators and their loyalty to Russian metaphoric story telling add to the experience of Euphoria, culminating when the fearless Vyrypayev has the drunken Valery brutally shoot (what seems to be) a real cow. It takes his tragedy to a darker, ominous stage and leaves the audience with a secretly felt admiration for so much nerve. Let’s hope Vyrypayev will take us for a second flight.

Edited by Steven Yates