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Kira Muratova’s Searing World

by Elena Gorfinkel


Kira Muratova’s Searing World

“Harmony doesn’t mean balance. You must destroy something symmetrically, break the rules. It’s only then that things grab you.” Kira Muratova


Kira Muratova’s trenchantly caustic, sonically layered, and furiously sensorial cinema spans twenty-two films made over six tumultuous decades, products of her bracingly original cinematic imagination, one as distinct as Varda’s, Akerman’s or Chytilova’s. A formidable equal of her (post)-Soviet contemporaries Aleksandr Sokurov and Aleksei German Sr., Muratova’s path toward inclusion in what Tilda Swinton calls the “intergalactic canon” of cinematic masters has long been deterred by a lack of wider appraisal and exhibition of her work beyond Eastern Europe, despite resounding critical, scholarly, and cinephile acclaim.

Her challenging and radical oeuvre bodies forth through a set of paradoxes. She was one of the most suppressed (and most transgressive) filmmakers of the Soviet cinema. Party censors considered her films “mannered”, “bourgeois”, “lacking in realism and motivation” and having a “deliberately complicated style”. Through much struggle and several shelved films, she was allowed to make only six films in the period between 1967 and

1987. After the banning of her second film The Long Farewell in 1971, she was “disqualified” from directing at Odessa Film Studio, demoted to scriptwriting for hire. Among the Grey Stones (1983) ended with Muratova removing her name from the credits due to the extremity of cuts made by the studio.

Yet with the watershed of her epochal grenade The Asthenic Syndrome (1989), which won the Silver Bear at the 1990 Berlinale—and after the fall of the Soviet regime—she entered a fertile period, making a film every two or three years well into the twenty first century, becoming one of Russian-language cinema’s most celebrated figures. Considered a ‘national treasure’ and winner of five Nika Awards (Russia’s Oscar), her belated recognition was an irony not lost on the wary Muratova herself. Identified alternately as a Soviet, a Russian, and a Ukrainian filmmaker, Muratova’s Romanian upbringing, and over forty years of living and working in Odessa, Ukrainian city on the Black Sea, marked her complex perspective constitutionally askance to the creative axes of Moscow and St. Petersburg’s film intelligentsia.

Kira Muratova (nee Korotkova) was born in Soroca, Bessarabia in Romania (now pres- ent day Moldova). Her mother was a gynaecologist and her Russian father an anti-fascist activist who was executed during the Second World War. She lived with her mother in Bucharest, and eventually moved to Moscow. After her studies with Sergei Gerasimov at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), she was hired by the Odessa Film Studio in 1961. Her first three films were co-directed with her then husband Oleksandr Muratov, Spring Rain, From the Steep Ravine and Our Honest Bread, before they parted ways in 1964.

For Muratova, her first proper film was the feature Brief Encounters (1967) a love story told through parallel tracks: two women in love with the same man. The Russian bard, the young Vladimir Vysotsky plays the gypsy-like geologist Maksim, and the young Nina Ruslanova takes up the role of his rural, young lover Nadia. Muratova starred as the main character Valentina, a disenchanted party apparatchik; she took the role only after the actress she chose proved unsuitable. Brief Encounters’ incipient experimentalism was already evident in its non-linear temporality, use of flashbacks and poetic cinematography. Asymmetrical close-ups and domestic décor were exposed to a mournful, ambivalent gaze, in which romantic and ideological idealisms were equally questioned. It was a love triangle in which the earthy bohemian man, object of desire, is envisioned only through the perspectives and memories of two women, never materialising in the film’s present. Neither doubles nor opposites, the two women, and their aspirations and longings, inter- mingle in the film’s woven tapestry of Soviet provincial life, a mix of growth and stagnation. With the equally remarkable The Long Farewell, a coming of age story treating the pains of motherhood, Muratova’s talent was cemented; it also invited years of censure. Both films were little seen by Soviet audiences, but circulated surreptitiously among students at film schools where Muratova’s advocates screened the film.

From first to last, Muratova’s films were witness to and expression of the sea change of political regimes and cultural values, but also spoke to her own obsessions and ideas about theatricality, artifice, predation, passion, women’s desire, authority and power. Dennis Lim dubbed her the “high priestess of Soviet absurdism”. Diverse in their forms and flights, and often bewildering and discomfiting by design, her films never fit neatly into any taxonomic accounting of movements and genre. They spanned promiscuously across romance (Brief Encounters, Getting to Know the Big Wide World); comedy (Passions, Sentimental Policeman); literary adaptation (Change of Fate and Chekhovian Motifs); quotidian horror, tragedy and darkest of farce (Three Stories, Melody of a Street Organ, The Asthenic Syndrome); and from relatively straightforward narrative organisation in her black & white ‘provincial melo dramas’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s, to a later, freer navigation of elliptical, episodic structures and wild refrains in her films of the post-Soviet period. Muratova and her films have in different measures been considered ‘difficult’ and the acerbic quality (both personal and aesthetic) that she cultivated is an essential ingredient to her aesthetic freedom, self-determination and creative pleasures. She stated: “…your opinions, that of the public are not important to me. I want to construct my own world”. And so, she did.

Critics often state that Muratova’s style is unmappable and that her form is too wild and unfixed to be contained, bordering on a polysemic illegibility. But what is exactly at stake in such proclamations? Muratova’s excoriating brilliance—and yes, her heterodox,

‘wild style’—develops from her fearless rebuke of many Soviet dictums about permissible representation; her absurdist abjuration of conventions of narrativity; and her development of an anti-realist, non-redemptive vision of human energies. These impulses criss-cross her filmography. An unsympathetic, needy mother suffocates her searching teenaged son with the nonsense speech of her exceedingly alienating love in The Long Farewell. In The Asthenic Syndrome, a grieving widow, shattered by her husband’s death, picks up a homeless drunk who propositions her on the street—he bares himself, full frontal nudity in direct address to the camera (the first scene of its kind in Soviet cinema). A string of mat (cursing vulgarities) uttered by a woman on the train at the end of Asthenic made it the only film censored during Gorbachev’s perestroika. A triptych of murders narrated by their strangely remorseless culprits in Three Stories mordantly relishes in the means and methods of killing as bearing its own absurd, motivation-less logic. In such works, she seems to say that one need not sympathize or enact a moral claim in order to feel. Cinema’s stake rests in sensation. Such examples attest to why, perhaps, Muratova defender Andrei Plakhov described her as a “provincial anarchist”, accounting for her atheistic, unflinching vision of a corrupted, unredeemable world.

Muratova’s energetic and entropic characters tend toward abstraction rather than verisimilitude. As anti-characters, they are assemblages of characteristics, gestures, habits, speech and song, spurning psychological depth, motivation and causality. Witness the obsessive monologues of Renata Litvinova’s nurse in Passions, as she details mortician’s vivisections and other morbid scenes in an aspirating, Monroeesque sing-song; or observe the narcoleptic postures and eruptive poetic recitations of Sergei Popov’s exhausted Soviet teacher in The Asthenic Syndrome. A predilection for repetition and the use of local eccentrics and non-professional actors facilitates scenarios in which vernacular tics, banal speech and reiterative oddity indulges figures besotted with their own private manias. Muratova, a vegetarian and animal lover, deploys animals and nonhuman elements to assault spectatorial attention and indict human action. In a pageant of horses galloping on the race track, or of circus dogs being trained to perform, or in the miserable torture of a helpless street cat, Muratova exposes humans’ corrupted grasp of reason, instrument of exploitation and violent control.

Despite what might come off as mere cynicism and negativity, Muratova’s cinema is also slyly enraptured by the astonishments of maximalist beauty, by the capacity of sinuous long takes, and of a staggering cinematography encrusted with photogenic jewels. Examples proliferate: Nina Ruslanova’s beseeching face, suddenly blurred by a rack focus in Brief Encounters; grappling hands of young teens in unrequited relation running through dog fur in The Long Farewell; and piercing nearly cubistic plays with light and color, with compositions that cleave space and radiate blocks of emotion in Getting to Know the Big Wide World. In the latter, Muratova stages a romantic scene of recognition through the spotlight flash of a truck’s lights on the heroine, illuminating her silhouette out of darkness, shaping her in the light of her incipient lover Misha’s automotive gaze.

In an interview with Isa Willinger, pausing on the topic of Bertolt Brecht, Muratova rejects the notion that alienation should be an absolute value: “Estrangement. Notestrangement. All this is meaningless. I want this and that and something else too. I want people to look at this little brooch, this little bracelet, emotionless or ardently, to just look at it for a long time and not turn away from it. That means I want emotion, and estrangement, and everything else”.

As if looking at that “little brooch”, Muratova’s eye equally delights in the unexpected poetics of the drab architecture, in the overloaded ornamentalism of kitsch Soviet décor, or the extravagant rococo of bourgeois interiors. Throughout her work, the brutish verisimilitude of late Soviet life frequently collided with the grand guignol of parody and farce. In The Sentimental Policeman, neighbors bicker and argue in circular prosody as dogs bark and scamper around them. In her penultimate film, Melody for a Street Organ, two Dickensian orphans wander the streets of a brutalised and privatised contemporary post-Soviet landscape, desperately observing silent grotesque charades of strange families’ gluttonous consumption through snowy window panes, their gleeful grimaces stretched towards obscenity. Explaining making films under great scrutiny by Communist Party bureaucrats and in the larger context of industry regulation, in which showing cemeteries, toilets or even bedrooms was verboten, Muratova proclaimed: “The more prohibitions, the more imagery. Figurativeness in general grew entirely out of prohibitions, just as all art was born of prohibitions, shame and fear”. Flouting such restrictions with a profusion of indelible images of incongruous, improbable, outraged and outrageous characters, her body of work might represent one of the most distinctive and singular oeuvres of cinematic world-making.
What kind of creatures populate her world? Muratova’s fascination with the human animal unfolds as a menagerie of types: eccentrics, twins, dreamers and obsessives; jilted mothers and bruised construction workers; poet narcoleptics and happy sociopaths; ambivalent bureaucrats and vagabond geologists; horse racers and circus performers; the blithe connivers and the blissfully self-deluded. We alight on horses, dogs, cats, dolls and corpses. Having both worked with and discovered some of the leading talents of post

1960s Russian-language cinema (Nina Ruslanova, Renata Litvinova) she also drew on a repertoire of locals and non-professionals, a parade of outsiders and eccentrics to popu- late her baroque spaces of superficiality and excess.

Muratova despised state institutions and the hypocrisies of the Soviet intelligentsia class. One can see some of her meta-cinematic reflexivity emerging from her ongoing battles with such petty bureaucrats and the false pieties bestowed upon art as saviour of civilization. Muratova defied such naïve notions. Her direction towards ‘dekorativnost/ ornamentalism’ was inspired in part by her admiration for the persecuted and imprisoned colleague Soviet filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. But we might also see her cinema as a reprisal and return to Soviet masters of the 1920s avant-garde like Sergei Eisenstein, deriving from the montage of attractions and the idiolects of inflated and exaggerated gestures, a biomechanics retrofitted for doldrums of glasnost. Drawing on Chaplin’s slapstick melancholy, Fellini’s carnivalesques and Pasolini’s free indirect camera, Muratova soldered together a universe that described the lived reality of Soviet and post-Soviet life, especially for the unconventional, ambivalent, ‘freakish’ and transgressive outsiders (often women and children) within it. But she also veered wildly towards anti-realist, fabulating and excessively baroque scenarios and mise-en-scenes, pieced together from the dying republic’s blasted fragments.

What to detractors may have then read as discomfiting cacophony of voices is in fact a richly tuned and modulated aural landscape. Her films are laden with polyphonies and dissonances, full of atonal speech, songs and contrapuntal rhythms; or as Irina Sandomir- skaia suggests of The Asthenic Syndrome, a “glossolalia of the Soviet subject.” Muratova magnified how Soviet public life ossified into a leaden tyranny of sanctioned speech, with its catchalls, platitudes and bromides. Muratova’s stilted repetitions, recitations and spoken clichés reanimated such expressive tendencies to expose the absurdism of the reigning ideology’s necrosis of private thought. Even her first film Brief Encounters begins with the rehearsed pomposity of a compulsory public oration, “Dorogiye Tovarische!/Dear Comrades!”, a stentorian turgidity that her heroine Valentina is loath to begin to compose. Speaking of this love for iterative litanies, Muratova stated, “Repetition: that’s my mania, haven’t you noticed? Those endless repetitions are from a desire to rhyme, a desire for a kind of refrain”. The musicality of refrain could be its own source of sonorous poetry, as in Getting to Know the Big Wide World, where women workers slap cement on brick, their humming voices in song, harmonizing contrapuntally as they erect the formless walls around them into solid structures, the red of their kerchiefs slicing across planes of brown and gray, their voices tumbling and chiming over each other.

Repetition, its rote mechanicity, could lead to a kind of arrhythmic alchemy. Such sound compositions can develop from several voices or a crowd, overlapping, bustling and jostling, as in the raucous and interminable queue for fish, or among an asymmetrical chorus spoken by babushkas invoking Tolstoy’s teaching, both in The Asthenic Syndrome. Breeding minute difference, promiscuous patterns chart their own meanings. Like her comrade in chernukha (a perestroika era genre of art emphasising dark, grim social realities) Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin, Muratova recognised the aesthetic potential in Soviet systems of social organisation and public communication. Sorokin’s novel The Queue, much akin to Muratova’s roiling, noisy impulsive tolpa (crowds), absurdly formalises one of the most definitive experiences of communist collective temporality, waiting in unending lines for consumer goods.

Writing of the returns, recurrences, and cyclical fates that have afflicted the collapsed Soviet state, in the foreclosure of its modes of thinking and imagining promised futures, Svetlana Alexievich announces, “our time comes to us second hand”. Muratova’s films also admit in their frenetic almost cheery cynicism the familiar-unfamiliarity of life’s bits and pieces, those rehearsed, repeated, second-hand scraps of the Soviet historical subject, doomed to relapse and return. But repetition for Muratova allowed an unsentimental way of giving shape to all possibility, a cinema of equanimity that could sustain and give space to the material life of every contingency. This is ultimately an egalitarian plenum, one that abjures the sanctimony of a moralistic gaze. As Nancy Condee notes, Muratova “rejects moral correctives to human error for the simple reason that her sympathies are on the side of the error, not the corrective”.

Her last film, Eternal Homecoming, takes such a notion to its utmost limit, as it signals the apex and encapsulation of Muratova’s vision, a meta-commentary on her body of films, and on cinema tout court. A simple dramatic scenario loops, re-performed by different actors, repeated over and over, in different settings and locations. A man goes to visit an old friend, asking her for advice about whether he should choose his wife or his mistress. She gives her thoughts, and as her visitor remains unsatisfied, she proffers every possible permutation (choose either: wife, mistress, both, none). The whole repertory of Muratova’s past collaborators appear in pairs, enacting this scene over and over, reprising their presence in palimpsest, echoing her past films in myriad settings. A recurring painting (by her second husband, art director and writer Evgenii Golubenko) and ball of string reappears in each scene, as the female character tangles and unthreads it, an emblem of this film’s narrative and all film’s potential.

The slyly reflexive nature of her cinema is made apparent, as we realise we are watching an unseen bit of cinematic production, a backstage document of those casting calls and screen tests, rehearsals for the eyes of artless producers and money-men, who with their vulgar mercantilism, break the diegetic frame. Their conversation announces that the director of the film has died and the film may remain unfinished. Has a film taken place in this liminal zone of casting? What is the status of these purgatory fragments of the unmade work that have unfolded before us? Here is Muratova’s audacity, her grand finale a gesture of finitude, one that betrays the effectiveness of finality altogether. The spool of cinema keeps threading and tangling, threading and tangling.


    Elena Gorfinkel is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London. She is the author of Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s, and is working on a new book about cinemas of exhaustion. She writes criticism for Sight & Sound, Art Monthly and other publications.