Russian Enfants Terribles

in 36th Moscow International Film Festival

by Rita di Santo

It’s always intriguing to see how cinema acts as a barometer of the times and perhaps not surprising that two of the most awaited films among the 16 in competition at the Moscow International Film Festival were Russian.

Vladimir Turmayev’s White Yagel, set in the icy, treeless wastes of the tundra, tells the story of Alyoshka. He’s a young man of the Nenets people, an ethnic minority in Siberia.

He lives with his mother and, despite his love for his ex-girlfriend who left their homeland to study, he is forced by his parent to marry. Yet every day Alyoshka checks the road, hopelessly waiting for his love to return.

Such moments are typical of this emotionally charged film. There’s little dialogue but the characters provide it with a beating heart as the story of identity and belonging unfolds. It is too a meditation on nature, mortality and living in isolation and, in the tradition of Soviet and Russian cinema, it has an extraordinary, mesmerizing beauty.

The other Russian film, Valeriya Gay Germanika’s Yes and Yes, is a real discovery. Germanika’s second feature concerns the story of Sasha, a young school teacher, who has a passionate love affair with Antoin, a young contemporary painter which changes her life forever.

Brilliantly put together, it’s an unsentimental and provocative exploration of the struggles to produce art, both at the personal level and in a society which ignores the artist.

The lovers are outsiders. Germanika makes them as equal as many young people in any part of the globalised world, but, through them, she is also determined to say something about her own society.

They are recognizable and real. Sasha is from the outskirts of the big Moscow city, a lonely girl, undistinguishable from the crowd of thousands in the subway.

Antoin is young abstract artist, struggling in the conventional manner, getting roaring drunk on Vodka all the time. He is an alcoholic and a depressive, and the morning after the night before, he is moody and silent. There is something cute or vulnerable about his pain and self-laceration. He spends his time painting and being charming toward Sasha. They have joy and real fun.

The movie shows the pleasures of drinking, both for itself and for the joy of escaping for a time from that kind of life (“It’s all shite”). By the end, we see the consequences of this choice. But it is easy also to imagine the consequences of any other choice. She is a member of FIPRESCI and the UK Critic’s Circle.

Its comparatively straightforward narrative is linked to a warmth of appearance.

Shot by Germanika, with real resource, less determined to please, it is acted out with a freedom of expression that’s often astonishing, with such a drastic eclectic variety of colours and styles that you could call it an anti-heritage Russian movie.

Germanika plays a certain number of games with her audience.

Entering a party, shot like a documentary, with hand-held cameras in a cinema vérité style, that makes us feel more like participants than observers, as if we were there in the room with the characters as Sasha is experiencing a vulnerable, private moment. The camera franticly moves, and gets closer to Antoin, who is drunk, pristinely framed camerawork that comments on the action, our full focus is directed to the characters’ actions. The camera’s movements keep the audience fully awake, and there is nothing pleasant to watch, just a bunch of drunken people. Suddenly, a gigantic boy throws Antoin through the windows. Sasha, worried, runs out to help Antoin who has crashed on top of a van. Sasha starts to follow Antoin though deserted night-time streets. With a stalking hand-held camera relentlessly recording the conversation, Germanika follows the couple. And those words, more often than not, are delivered in a hushed intimacy, drawing us in with the power of a whisper. Everything moves as in a nihilistic dream. A sense of creeping existence transpires, living on the edge.

Suddenly, the cinematographic style takes a different turn and a surreal atmosphere is built as the two start to get closer.

The film is so precisely choreographed that the decoupage plays on the mind until it becomes clear and obvious in its meanings.

Utterly truthful, moving and haunting, it is a piece of cinematographic metropolitan poetry.

As a very unusual coming-of-age tale, it allows for hope, as well as despair.

Germanika is drawing a net line, distancing her director style from the cinema of the past. Pushing the cinema boundaries, Germanika has a constant desire to shock, mixing an intoxicated language with realism. With the details of Antoin’s penis, it recalls Puskin’s reflection on men’s genitals. Antoin pees into a cup and then drinks his own urine. It is an innocent gesture. Sasha and Antoin act like children; they are the Russian enfants terribles.

This all leaves us with a question: Is Germanika an out-and-out romantic, or an anarchical subversive who makes films to shock and surprise? The answer is probably both.

The narrative structure is like a circle, the end returns to the beginning; the same place, the same people, but different dynamics, and everybody has changed.

Near the end, one of the most beautiful and elegant sequence of the movie, the camera from above, is like a gentle eye, almost embracing the artist. Antoin is in bed, sleeping. The dream ends, and reality starts again.

Hopefully, this movie will not suffer censorship because of the introduction in Russia on 1st July of a new strict legislation, outlawing swearing in the cinema.

Yes & Yes confirms Germanika as a major new Russian filmmaking talent to watch. This is, with no doubt, an extraordinary achievement and a breakthrough Russian film.

Rita di Santo
© FIPRESCI 2014