Dark and surreal, A Gentle Creature will leave you guessing until the end.
Every individual has their own personal hell. By the same merit, there can be a ‘personal hell’ for entire nations. There are numerous books (Gogol, Dostoevkiy, Saltykov-Shedrin) and films (Leviathan, Loveless among latest ones) about the nature of Russia’s ‘own demons’. Loznitsa’s latest film A Gentle Creature is yet another volume that touches upon the same topic.
A Gentle Creature is a story reminiscent of nothing less but Fanz Kafka’s Castle and wearisome sufferings of K. Just like in Kafka, everything emanates hostility. But the source of hostility is hidden from the viewer; it is irrational and elusive. There doesn’t appear to be a centre of this evil, no individual carriers or even obvious source. Thus, it can’t be eliminated. This evil is similar to radiation evenly distributed throughout the world: ‘caring father’ with a buggy … that he uses to collect empty bottles, the ‘esteemed’ elderly man showing sympathy and immediately threatening to infect you with TB.
The main protagonist of the film is a woman, whose name we are not privy to – yet another nod to Kafka’s Castle. In fact, we don’t hear many names of persons or a place for that matter. The details don’t seem to matter even to the characters themselves:
“On day X, citizen Y was on her way to the town N from city M…” declares intimidating police officer during the random stop and search at the train station.
In good traditions of surrealism, same goes to the concept of time. At the beginning of the film, one may assume that the film is set in the mid 20th century. As the film progresses, we see the weary Soviet-era cars getting more and more contemporary (old Volkswagen Golf to ‘pimped’ old 7-series BMW to brand new civilian version of Humvee). The symbols of the past – a statue of Lenin and streets named after Hegel and Marx – blend in with the rebranded in 2011 Russian police forces and ‘new wealth’ of gated mansions with CCTV surveillance.
The citizen Y (played by Vasilina Makovcevaya), we know, is travelling to the prison where her husband is serving prison time for a murder ‘he didn’t commit’. She’s set her perilous journey after the parcel she sent to him was returned without explanation. She arrives at the town for which the prison is a ‘city-forming enterprise’, as explained by a chatty taxi driver. “We pray for this prison, you know,” says the man. “Prison is our economy, our religion,” as if alluding to the entire country being in the prison for the soul.
But the wearisome journey, it seems, only begins in this odd town…
At the end of the film, having found no answers, the woman finds herself dozing off at the train station, waiting for her train. Here, an old woman who happens to be the twin sister of the earlier train passenger, tells her not to sleep. “You mustn’t sleep. I once fell asleep and then got lost. Before you know it, you’ll be carried off and left for lost.” A phrase that only makes sense as an allegory of the humankind that is deep asleep. And until they wake up, the bad nightmare will be repeating itself ad infinitum.
Sergei Loznitsa. Photo Credit: Laurent Campus
The protagonist is also asleep. She dreams that mysterious and frightening people come after her, that she follows them into the unknown just to be beaten and raped by drunken soldiers in the back of a military van. When she finally wakes up, the nightmare repeats itself. This time in real life. But even knowing what is ahead of her, she meekly follows them to her own detriment.
Loznitsa is a controversial Ukranian filmmaker. Among his works are various documentaries including Maidan documentary about the Kiev’s ‘uprising’ 2014. Loznitsa is often regarded as Russophobe. Perhaps using this status to his advantage, Loznitsa wasn’t afraid to create this surrealistic allegoric film that is judging every single person.
A Gentle Creature, film is Loznitsa’s very loose modern-day version of the original short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, sometimes also translated as “The Meek One”. Dostoyevsky’s piece comes with the subtitle of “A Fantastic Story”, and it chronicles the relationship between a pawnbroker and his wife who he drives to suicide with his ‘narcissistic love’. Dostoyevsky referred to it as a “meek suicide” that “keeps haunting you for a long time.”
Loznitsa has written and directed the A Gentle Creature and it seems in his version, the role of husband is largely ascribed to the country and ‘the system’.
“The story was meant to be more closely reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Gentle Creature,” admitted Loznitsa in an interview with Radio Svoboda. “The idea was that the main protagonist marries to another man who is aware of first husband’s destiny and is hiding it from her. But as I started writing the story, I realised that it wouldn’t be realistic.”
The film is the result of co-production of France – watch out for an inside joke about savages French who eat snails alive -, Ukraine, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, and Russia.
The film is shot: Latvia and Lithuania (Daugavpils).