A GENTLE CREATURE
Dir: Sergei Loznitsa
Starring: Liya Akhedzhakova, Vasilina Makovtseva
(France/Russia, 18 2hrs 23 mins)
Miserable. Poor. Corrupt. Depressing. Criminal. Come across any news story about modern life for the average person in Russia today, and these words will probably be mentioned at some point. Life in Russia can be a huge challenge, dealing poverty, the corruption and intermingling of organised crime and state bureaucracy, and a general struggle to survive.
A Gentle Creature states all of that, clearly and out loud, but it repeats this notion so often and so drearily, it loses all meaning by the end. For two hours and twenty minutes, it simply repeats the mantra that “Russia is shit”. Which I’m certainly sure it is, but there are no moments of contradiction, ambiguity, or levity (except for one dream sequence at the end, more on that in a moment). Its director, Ukrainian-born Sergei Loznitsa, no doubt has vaild gripes with Russian society, but this comes across as a form of self-Orientalism, whereby the film simply conforms to our Western standards of what we expect Russia to look and behave like – a backwards wasteland, with no empathy for fellow humans. The pessimism of A Gentle Creature offers no way out, no purpose to its own agony and pain. Just the simple, repeated message, that there is nothing to live for in Russia.
The story is thin, which is fine – it tells of an unnamed woman, the gentle creature of the title played by Vasilina Makovtseva, whose package of food for her imprisoned husband has been returned. She attempts to deliver it herself to the prison and is met at every step on the way with indifference, carelessness, abuse and even contempt, from a wide cross-section of Russian society. This is all done in an admittedly beautiful but very stripped-back aesthetic realist style, with lots of long takes. The only respite from this is a fantastical dream sequence towards the end, which flies off towards a more poetic and lyrical cinematic tenor, akin to Andrei Tarkovsky. Yet, even that ends in a grim nightmare.
What little Russian (or indeed, Soviet) cinema that has made it to these Western shores in the last hundred years or so has tended to be of a miserabilist bent, which is fine, as they have plenty to complain about. In the past few months alone, we’ve already had Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, which attacked modern Russia’s lack of empathy, whilst A Gentle Creature seems to hint that the entire country is itself a metaphorical prison.
But even in say, the grimmest films of Andrey Tarkovsky’s career, he still held onto a belief in the indomitable spirit of the human soul. He still found ways to express beauty, levity, a wider purpose where Loznitsa sees only agony and endless torment. There is an absolute exquisite central performance at the heart of A Gentle Creature – Makovtseva allows flashes of pain, determination and fear to appear across her face in a role with very little dialogue – and the film’s visual eloquence is effective, but it is all for nought. In a film with this much pessimistic miserabilism, there are no contradictions. And there’s no such thing as an honest being without contradictions.
words FEDOR TOT