Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)

The Ukrainian director Kira Muratova died in 2018 after a long career starting in the 1960s. Her filmmaking is perplexing, perhaps wrought from the chaotic times she worked through, dense with allusion and busy with action, almost breathlessly so. I can’t pretend to understand all the details, and in some cases much of it seems to wash over me, but I can’t deny she was doing something fascinating and her films remain worth watching if you can (and they are not always easy to track down).


Астени́ческий синдро́м Astenicheskiy sindrom (The Asthenic Syndrome, 1989) [USSR, black-and-white and colour]

I remember reading a rave Jonathan Rosenbaum review for this film around 25 years ago, but it doesn’t exactly get many screenings, so it’s been on my ‘to watch’ list for quite some time. It’s 30 years old now, and it’s as bitter and bleak as any Soviet film from this era could hope to be, though whether it’s this bleakness or the nudity that got it into trouble with the censors is unclear to me. Either way, it’s a film that has Muratova’s familiar manic style — of characters who just talk and talk, or don’t stop moving and emoting and punching, kicking, screaming and generally raging against, well, whatever there might be to rage against (but one imagines the State or society itself is a target at some level) — but this is matched with moments of equal calm. This calm, when the movie just sort of stops for some still lifes, or quiet times with its characters shorn of music or sound effects, can come across as soporific or, in the case of one of the main characters Nikolai (Sergei Popov, one of the co-writers), narcoleptic. He’s seen asleep on public transport and all sorts of inconvenient locations, such as a movie screening, ostensibly of the first (black-and-white) section of the film. It’s impossible, really, to explain the plot in any way that’s adequate, because this is a film of excesses and it doesn’t hang together so much around its narrative, as around its contrasts, the interplay of its characters and settings, the constant noise and vibrancy and then the quiet. It’s not a film that uses the beauty of its images, because it remains quite resolutely ugly at times, but it’s clearly saying something nonetheless about the state of things. It’s just that it’s a message that can be difficult to take in, especially over two-and-a-half hours.

The Asthenic Syndrome film posterCREDITS
Director Kira Muratova Кира Муратова; Writers Aleksandr Chernykh Александр Чёрных, Sergei Popov Сергей Попов and Muratova; Cinematographer Vladimir Pankov Владимир Панков; Starring Olga Antonova Ольга Антонова, Sergei Popov Сергей Попов, Galina Zakhurdayeva Галина Захурдаева, Наталья Бузько Natalya Buzko; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Sunday 20 October 2019.


Че́ховские моти́вы Chekhovskie motivy (Chekhovian Motifs aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002) [Russia/Ukraine, black-and-white]

Ukrainian director Kira Muratova often garners the description “idiosyncratic”, which seems fair: her films are odd. This one is ostensibly a comedy, but in that way that it’s done in her part of the world — with plenty of bleakness mixed in. Not that I really understood it, but then maybe I’m resistant to the atmosphere. There are two strands (from two Chekhov stories): one is a rural family where the elder brother wants to leave and asks his dad for money; the other is a wedding ceremony beset by troubles while the priest is doing his thing. It’s also shot in a high-contrast black-and-white, reminiscent of Alexei Gherman (something too about these former-Soviet auteurs and their opaque films). Odd, almost defiantly so.

Chekhovian Motifs film posterCREDITS
Director Kira Muratova Кира Муратова; Writers Yevgeni Golubenko Евгений Голубенко and Muratova; Cinematographer Valeri Makhnev Валерий Махнев; Starring Natalya Buzko Наталья Бузько, Zhan Daniel Жан Даниэль, Philip Panov Филипп Панов; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 March 2017.

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