Surrealist realism in desolate Russia – A Gentle Creature (Film Review)

A mirthless damning of bureaucracy, Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature trudges along at an increasingly isolating pace – before renouncing all established realism in a frankly absurd finale.

Loosely based on the Dostoyevsky short story of the same name, the film has much more in common, it seems, with Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Here, the source of the protagonist’s alienation is instead found in a prison – located in a remote village in the Russian Far East, where our gentle creature’s husband has been cryptically incarcerated for murder. Having sent her husband a package and it being delivered back with only a “return to sender” note attached, our protagonist is led on an exasperating search for answers.

Translated from the Russian title, Кроткая, an alternative English conversion is “the meek one”, and this describes the protagonist much more fittingly. Played near-mutely by Vasilina Makovtseva, the nameless heroine is constantly thwarted (either redirected elsewhere or turned down entirely) yet she remains undeterred in delivering the package. While we do feel in her ardour, the viewer is always kept frustratingly at a distance – largely achieved through Oleg Mutu’s fractured cinematography. Makovtseva is repeatedly framed from behind and out of focus, an unusual choice that is nevertheless successful in conveying her alienation and often inscrutable demeanour.

Mutu also provides one of the only moments in the film that could possibly be deemed aesthetic – framing the prison’s search staff from the midriff, as they rifle through various possessions without an iota of care. The sequence is emblematic of the drab society depicted throughout the film: one in which altercations greet every train ride and every bus journey, every pub and every queue. Indeed, the film has more than a few shades of Kieślowski, both in its miserabilist portrayal of a stale corner of Eastern Europe and also as national metaphor. Its allegorical quality is, at times, arguably too self-conscious to not feel distracted by it – with Loznitsa channeling Gogol’s Dead Souls in a quite literal deployment of a troika to whisk our heroine away – but the dialogue is refreshingly hesitant to lecture the viewer too heavy-handedly.

This society is a distinctly bitter one, and there are more than a few references to the country’s past in a film that was released, significantly, on the centenary of the Revolution. “What a country they fucked up”, one character laments, as the village streets even take their names after Marx and Lenin. The older women are hostile towards our heroine, assuming her to be a prostitute in a town already ridden with brothels, and we are later shown the reason behind their bitterness – when one working girl gets dropped off at her lavish, tall-gated and Jeep-fitted abode. In fact, most of society seem to be thankful for the prison: early on, the heroine’s co-worker describes it as an opportunity to “see the world”, while the taxi driver calls it “the church” and commends its economic impact.

Kept always at one-arm’s-length, it’s likely the viewer will find themselves lulling into the same alienation felt by our protagonist. Yet the film’s final act delivers an unexpected turn of events, transforming into a dream-like state full of overexposed whites and nocturnal blues. Though utterly removed from what has been so painstakingly established already, this surrealist diversion is an incredibly rewarding finale. And despite the rug being pulled out in such a grandiose manner already, the film still has one final twist left in store; a twist that in the hands of a lesser filmmaker would seem hackneyed – but when deployed by Loznitsa, it leaves you aghast.

 

Dir: Sergei Loznitsa

Scr: Sergei Loznitsa

Cast: Vasilina Makovtseva, Valeriu Andriuta, Sergei Kolesov, Dmitry Bykovsky

Prd: Marianne Slot

DOP: Oleg Mutu

Country: France, Germany, Netherlands, Lithuania

Year: 2017

Runtime: 143 mins

A Gentle Creature is in cinemas 13th April 2018