Of all the great Soviet film directors, Kira Muratova is considered to be the most esoteric. Not because she is a woman or that her themes do not include mysticism, something that many western critics associate with Russian “art” cinema (though Muratova isn’t really Russian, being born in Romania and living in Ukraine). The esoterica comes from the fact that though her films deal with universal themes, Muratova concentrates on the landscapes and characters that are unique products of soviet life, and her films belong exclusively to them. In focusing on the world of Soviet byt, the Soviet quotidian or ‘way of life’, her films are close to Socialist Realism cinema; but while films of directors like Yuri Chulyukin and Ivan Lukinsky romanticised and poeticised Soviet reality, Muratova’s vision of it is ugly, cruel, and absurd – but necessary.
When post-glasnost Soviet cinema experienced the new wave of chernukha (“bleak cinema”) Muratova’s films were still radically different, because themes of ugliness, cruelty and absurdity were reflected in their formal cinematic style, rather than just in content. Ugliness has been a longtime obsession for her, but unlike other ugliness-obsessed directors like Peter Greenaway and Lina Wertmuller, Muratova refuses to stylise it. Mutilated bodies of people and animals, unattractive nude bodies, people with unusual physical appearances and the mentally handicapped, are all exposed in her films without any attempt to soften the impact of what you see, challenging the audience to forget their usual definitions of beauty and accept these images on their own terms. What keeps Muratova’s films from becoming freak-shows is that she doesn’t contrast ugly images with beautiful ones, she doesn’t associate them with something negative, and her attitude is never condescending. On the contrary, even more “normal” looking actors are usually made-up and dressed in a way that makes them look less attractive.
Even though at times Muratova can be harsh to her actors, she is crueler in many more ways to her audience. The viewer is constantly subjected to visual and audio abuse from the screen. The same phrases and actions are repeated over and over; people speak in a high pitched tone of voice, often laughing annoyingly without reason; characters suddenly burst out with physical and verbal violence; speeches are delivered alternatively bullet-fast and excruciatingly slow. Finally, absurdity is Muratova’s best known trademark. The storylines of her films are almost surreal, people perform bizarre actions without motivation, the acting is often hammy, and serious situations are interrupted with absurd humour.
In the world of cinema Muratova isn’t a critical darling. She conforms neither to the clean and sterile cinema of observation nor to the cynical cinema of shocking sensationalism. Her worldview alternates between extreme nihilism and extreme humanism. Her directing style is schizophrenic. At times her scenes move very smoothly with nice transitions, color coordination and hypnotic camera movements. Then suddenly they might change to an explosion of colour, choppy editing, and amateurish camera work. At times Muratova seems to be in control of the film, following one character, telling the story very cohesively, and at times she seems to lose control of the film completely, jumping from storyline to storyline, from character to character, often leaving narrative threads suspended whilst starting new ones in the middle of a film.
Yet Muratova is not a formalist. The experience of watching her cinema is very intense, because Muratova never allows the audience to take a breath, refusing to provide any kind of relief or make the audience feel safe. Her films yield great emotional impact, and because they are so radically original in form, the emotional content is often the only element to which the viewer can relate. Thus, Muratova “bullies” her audience, who feel lost and disoriented, into empathising with the characters on the screen. The emotionally disturbed audience then projects this disturbance onto the characters in the film, making the experience of watching Muratova’s work even more depressing.
Muratova’s film career started in 1963, with On the Steep Cliff, a student film she completed with her husband Aleksandr Muratov, whom she would divorce shortly after. In 1964 she followed with a short film, Our Honest Bread. Her first feature was Brief Encounters, which she completed in 1967, followed by Long Goodbyes in 1971. Both films were what critics called provincial melodramas, a very popular genre in Soviet cinema. Brief Encounters tells the story of a love triangle in provincial Russia, and Long Goodbyes tells the story of a young man leaving his mother to search for his father. Despite this simple and realistic content, Muratova shot these two films using experimental techniques reminiscent of French New Wave (with Jules and Jim being the main inspiration for Encounters), such as the use of jump cuts, natural locations, a lot of close-ups, a soundtrack with audio continuity different from the visual, and nervy camera work expressing the emotional state of the characters. Just like in the case of the New Wave directors, Muratova was employing those techniques as an act of rebellion against the Soviet version of le cinema du papa. Soviet authorities objected to Muratova’s style, deeming it too personal and elitist. Both films form a loose diptych (the titles mean the exact opposites of each other in Russian), and both were buried by the authorities. Brief Encounters was printed in just five copies, and Long Goodbyes not shown at all until sixteen years later.
This official repression didn’t make Muratova change her cinematic style. Her next film, Getting to Know Whole Wide World (1978), could also be described as provincial melodrama, but was different from the two previous films, with its fragmented storyline being closer to the style Muratova would develop later. Another love triangle, Wide World was filmed in colour and employed a much simpler style, restricting almost all of the action to the site of the building of a new settlement. The love story developed among bricks, cement, concrete, and dirt, with all the implications this brought. By abandoning the experimental techniques of her previous films while retaining her trademark oddness (characterised by scenes such as the one where a dozen of brides run into the field after the group wedding), Wide World was in some ways much more unusual than the films preceding it. This time, however, the deceptive simplicity passed by the official Soviet producers. While not a smash success, famous Russian film critic Andrey Plakhov would call Getting to Know Whole Wide World the greatest neglected Russian masterpiece.
The same could not be said about Muratova’s next film, Among Grey Stones (1983), which was tampered with so much that she disowned it, crediting the film to a fictional “Ivan Sidorov”. By this time, Soviet cinematic bureaucrats didn’t know how to tame Muratova, who kept insisting on making films her way. On the one hand, her films flagrantly violated the strictures of Soviet cinema. On the other hand, even the Soviet censors knew that she was a talent to reckon with and could not simply be disregarded. Then they thought of the remedy: she was offered to direct the adaptation of Lermontov’s Princess Mary. The logic of it was that adapting a major classic would limit the degree of Muratova’s personal vision. When that project fell through, she was offered the adaptation of another literary classic, W. Somerset Maugham’s play The Letter. But this film – which was titled Change of Destiny (1987) – became the first to fully employ the more surreal and less narratively coherent style that she became famous for. The literary and “classical” origins of the material didn’t do anything to dumb down, soften, or neutralise Muratova’s style. What was odd in her previous films became downright absurd, beginning with the opening scene of a murder of a man by his lover repeated three times, with slight changes. Muratova included several truly bizarre scenes in the film, such as a scene of the main protagonist’s husband weeping like a baby after hearing the news of his wife being arrested. While the film gains some narrative coherence toward the end, it was beginning of the trend of increasingly bizarre films by Muratova.
While the originality and sheer anarchic power of Change of Destiny astonished viewers, nothing could prepare them for Muratova’s next film. Her demented masterpiece, Asthenic Syndrome, consists of two parts. The first part (in black and white) tells a story of a widowed doctor who, at the funeral of her husband, flips out and for the next forty minutes is shown assaulting and insulting everyone in her way, including friends, coworkers, neighbours, and complete strangers. After she calms down, the first part ends in the screening room (now in colour), revealed to be a film by Kira Muratova, while angry viewers storm out of the theatre, feeling that they have wasted their time. Then the story switches to Nicolai, a high school teacher who was in the screening audience and who has a case of narcolepsy. The film also switches away from narrative clarity and starts resembling an insane asylum, reminiscent of Godard’s Week-End (1967), but even more chaotic. As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “[t]o remark – as a few critics have – that certain sequences are excessive is about as relevant as calling the Pacific Ocean wet; from beginning to end this movie comes at you like a tidal wave” (1). At some point in the film, Muratova switches from fictional narrative to documentary footage of a dog pound, and then inexplicably uses intertitles proclaiming how animals “aren’t being mentioned in the conversations about good and evil.”
Even though I cannot think of another film that so rigorously and truthfully reflected Soviet life during perestroika, Asthenic Syndrome makes almost no reference to the political past or present of the USSR. The only exception is the scene of the funeral, where Natasha’s husband’s corpse is clearly modelled after Joseph Stalin. Muratova doesn’t like political interpretation of her films, and I don’t want to reduce this complex work to a political metaphor, but it’s hard not to see Asthenic Syndrome in this context: it is interesting to note that while the rest of the world celebrated the fall of communism, the reaction of the people actually living under Soviet rule wasn’t as simple; people felt very confused, and their overall behaviour was – and still is – reminiscent of the asthenic syndrome of the film, alternatively violent and repressed. Even though Asthenic Syndrome was made during the period of glasnost, Muratova once again managed to alienate the authorities. It had the dubious honour of being the only film banned during that period. The official object of concern was a short sequence at the end of the film, where a middle-aged woman projects an unheard of (in Russian-language cinema) amount of profanity. Despite the profusion of sexual and violent content in contemporary Russian media, using profane words is to this day a taboo in Russian film and television, where vulgar language is censored much more harshly than sex or violence. In Asthenic Syndrome, Soviet authorities were concerned that Muratova was opening the linguistic floodgates. However, this episode marked the last time Muratova would run into trouble with the authorities. Since that film she has had artistic freedom and has never failed to appreciate or take advantage of it. Unlike most other film directors in post-Soviet cinema, she enjoys making films in a free market environment, and insists that the pressure put on her by financial investors is in no way comparable to the demands of the Soviet censors.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Muratova’s films were allowed to be more widely seen and appreciated. After Sentimental Policeman (1992) failed to receive wide acclaim (detractors found the film too optimistic for Muratova), her next film, Passions (1994), was awarded the Nika, the Russian equivalent of an Oscar. It’s sad that Muratova’s biggest official acclaim was for what arguably is her least interesting film. The critics liked the idea of officially endorsing a major talent who had been derided for so long, so the award was given to her most accessible film, and while Passions is less threatening than Muratova’s other films, it still fulfilled most people’s expectations of what an “art film” should be, with a lot of good looking people hanging out on the beach, talking about life, death, and love. Muratova herself admitted that the film is superficial, adding that it was done on purpose and that “it is a very deep superficiality.” And even though Passions is tame by comparison with most of her films, it cannot be considered a total retreat or failure. Her claim of “deep superficiality” might be true, considering that beneath the benign surface, darker themes are lurking, with characters much crueller than they might seem at first glance. Besides, the film, telling a story involving horse races, gave Muratova a chance to work with one of her most beloved subjects, animals.
Muratova’s next film, Three Stories (1997), showed her back in fine form. Consisting of three segments, each involving a murder, the film presents a simultaneously cynical and empathetic look at modern society. In the first and most disturbing story, a man visits a boiler room asking his friend to burn a body of the woman he just killed. The second story, an almost feature long segment called “Ophelia”, was written by and starred Renata Litvinova as a nurse named Ofa (short for Ophelia) working in the maternity ward. With bleached hair and heavy lipstick, virginal Ofa seem to be the stereotype of a weak, victimized woman. She proclaims that “everyone knows that my ideal is innocent Ophelia” and her soft voice and manner of talking seems to be warm and reassuring. But there is something not right about her. As Russian critic Aleksandr Arkhangelsky noted, “Ofa… is especially snakelike. She is not moving, but rather sliding, not talking but enveloping, she likes everything white, green, shiny, and scaly” (2). Later it is revealed that Ofa works in the maternity ward because she looks for mothers who give up their children for adoption and kills them. Her goal is to find her own mother who gave her up and kill her. Although this description might make the film seem pretty straightforward, like all Muratova’s films, it is much more complicated. At first, the reference to Ophelia and Shakespeare seems to be marginal, but as the heroine encounters her mother, the film starts following Shakespeare’s themes more closely. Ofa’s biological mother is played by an obese woman who is made up to look like Ofa. While Ofa is looking at her mother with disgust, we realize that Hamlet’s central question, whether or not children should become like their parents, articulated by Shakespeare in Hamlet’s profound ambivalence toward bloodshed and revenge, also includes the trivial question of whether a daughter’s ass is going to be as big as her mother’s in twenty years, something that is undoubtebly going through Ofa’s mind. While this might seem vulgar, it is quintessential Muratova, talking about the profound and the banal in the same breath, staying away from neither pathos nor vulgarity.
For years, Muratova’s films concentrated on strong willed women, but Ofa is her most accomplished character, one of the most interesting female characters in recent cinema. With oozing sexuality and blunt cynicism, Ofa seems to be superhuman, almost goddess-like. When she explains to another character that she hates men, women, and children, but loves animals, one can’t help but think that Ophelia here in some sense represents Muratova herself, or rather a “mythical” Muratova, the way many people think of her, but someone – or something – she absolutely isn’t.
The third segment in the film, which is more of a sketch than a story, deals with a little girl poisoning her controlling grandfather. The story also marks Muratova’s first foray into minimalism, foreshadowing her most ambitious work to date, Chekhov’s Motives (2002). Thus, Three Stories represents a milestone in Muratova’s career; a distillation of her entire oeuvre, representing the past, present and future.
After helming Second Class Citizens in 2001, something of a cross between Three Stories and Asthenic Syndrome, concerning a woman who poisons her abusive boyfriend, stuffs his body in the case, and wonders the streets with it, Muratova took on one of her most interesting and unusual projects. Chekhov’s Motives is an adaptation of Chekhov’s play Tatiana Repina and his short story Difficult People. The film begins in usual Muratova style. The bickering family in a small Russian village consists of a despotic father, his obedient wife, their two small children, and their eldest, very effeminate son. The son is a student who came to the village to ask his parents for money. The first half hour of the film shows them arguing over the money, with Muratova pushing her style to the extreme, as in one scene where the mother repeats the same phrase almost a dozen times. Then, as the son runs out of the house, he walks into a wedding organised by Russian nouveau riches in the old church in the village, with an overweight opera singer groom and a zombie-like bride. For the next hour Muratova shows the entire process of a Russian Orthodox marriage in real time and with such attention to detail, it would make Tsai Ming-liang run out of the theatre. As ignorant rich people suffer through the marital process, the film seems to be making a statement about trivialisation of spirituality in Russian society, in the vein of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) or Sokurov’s Second Circle (1990).
Yet there is something more interesting going on. In Chekhov’s Motives, both the characters in the film and the audience watching the film in a movie theatre are basically having the same experience. Muratova is comparing wedding guests who can’t wait to leave, but stay for the prestige of attending the ceremony, with a lot of her own audience, who might not enjoy watching her films but watch them out of pure vanity, only to have the satisfaction of having another “difficult” film under their belt. And because the sequence is so long, the audience of the film becomes more and more self aware, and the comparison with the film’s idiotic guests becomes more obvious, making the satire more biting. There is also something more serious about this strategy. In adapting Chekhov’s play, Muratova makes interesting points about the differences and similarities between theatre and cinema. The audience of the film who are separated from the action of the film by the screen are forced to compare themselves to the wedding guests who share the same space with their “performers”. Thus, the film ceases to be just a filmed play and becomes an intertextual exercise, close to the work of Manoel de Oliveira, erasing some of the lines between theatre and cinema, while creating others.
Muratova’s name means little to cinema-goers outside of former USSR. It is understandable that in every country there are a few directors who are highly appreciated at home, but are absolutely unknown abroad, since becoming internationally famous must involve a certain amount of luck. Still, it is strange that one of the greatest directors of one of the biggest countries in the world remains so unknown in the west. It is a shame because, despite their weirdness, Muratova’s films are very accessible, and could be appreciated both by mass audiences, especially by those in the “cult film” circuit, and by critics, especially when surrealist cinema is going through its toughest times ever.
At the age of 70, after years of fighting the system, Kira Muratova continues to make new films, and there are few directors whose next film I await with the same anticipation, especially because Chekhov’s Motives ends on a very unusual note for Muratova. As the son returns home to say goodbye to his mother, in the last shot, unexpectedly, the father gives his son the money he was asking for. Muratova avoids cheap sentimentality by having both the father and the son freeze in the shot, letting them and the audience contemplate the meaning of this act. This is by far the most humanist moment in any of Muratova’s films. It will be interesting to see whether this is the beginning of a new, more humane period in Muratova’s career, a renewed view of the world, or if she is just getting softer with age. I wouldn’t count on the latter.
On the Steep Cliff (1963) codirected with Aleksandr Muratov
Our Honest Bread (1964)
Brief Encounters (1967)
Long Goodbyes (1971, released in 1987)
Getting to Know Whole Wide World (1979)
Among Grey Stones (1983) as Ivan Sidorov
Change of Destiny (1987)
Asthenic Syndrome (1989)
Sentimental Policeman (1992)
Three Stories (1997)
Letter to America (1999) short
Second Class Citizens (2001)
Chekhov’s Motives (2002)
The Tuner (2004)
Home Truths: The Asthenic Syndrome
Review by Jonathan Rosenbaum for Chicago Reader.
Tema y Rema, Three Stories, Iskusstvo Kino
Article in Russian by Aleksandr Arkhangelsky.
A video / DVD distributor that may have copies of Muratova films. Just do a search.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Home Truths. Asthenic Syndrome”, Chicago Reader, 1996, posted on the net, http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/0996/09136.html
- Aleksandr Arkhangelsky, “Tema y Rema, Three Stories, Iskusstvo Kino”, 1997, posted on the net, http://www.kinoart.ru/films/muratova.html