Okay, here’s a biggie:
The Asthenic Syndrome
(Muratova, 1989) – I’ve always found this film overwhelming in the best way: it swamps you with its bleak, bemused worldview, swirls you around in an eddy of malaise for a couple of hours, then pulls out the plug and watches with a wry smile as you go down the drain, slipping into darkness along with its protagonist at the end. It’s an amazing, uneasy piece of filmmaking, punctuated with enough black and absurdist humour to pace you for the long haul.
The plot of the film isn’t really spoilable, but the structure is, so avert your gaze if you don’t want to know the big, irrelevant twist.
The Asthenic Syndrome
is a grim, funny, episodic drama, with flashes of documentary, about a recently widowed doctor named Natasha. While she is histrionically grieving at her husband’s funeral, she notices a couple of guys at the back snickering. This effects some radical psychic break within her and she immediately disengages from society, walking away from the funeral, struggling to find her way out of the cemetery. In the streets, she presses against the tide of humanity, forcing her way onto a bus as it empties, and off the bus when it fills. A few people offer concern and assistance, which she violently and abusively shakes off. At home, she ritualistically breaks glasses and dumps the contents of her wardrobe on the floor. She goes into her hospital to resign. On her way home, she picks up a deadbeat drunk to fuck. That act of debasement, however, also qualifies as an act of human connection. She kicks the guy out of bed, but something has slightly changed for Natasha. She cleans up the broken glass, hangs the clothes back up, and goes out. In the street, a passerby notices that there is dirt on her coat and makes her hold still while she brushes it off. In the film’s crucial moment, Natasha acquiesces, accepting the modest gesture of sympathy and assistance and thereby slipping passively back into human society. End of film.
The Asthenic Syndrome
is a grim, funny, episodic drama, with flashes of documentary, about a narcoleptic teacher named Nikolai. About forty minutes into the movie, the film described above ends, and we see the final scene repeated, on a screen in a cinema. The lucky audience have the opportunity to discuss it with the star (who has appeared in films by German, Sokhurov and Muratova!), but they can’t leave fast enough, and soon enough the embarrassed actress joins them. Not everybody flees the site of art, however. Nikolai remains, having fallen asleep. What follows is an extended fresco of contemporary Soviet life, a series of absurdist vignettes, through which Nikolai drifts and swoons. Eventually we find him in an institution, from which he is briefly liberated, only to collapse in a subway train at the end of the line, lying alone on the floor as the carriage trundles off into the underworld.
The break between the two different Asthenic Syndromes
, one monochrome, one colour, is so startling and disarming – and funny: it’s easy to see this as just a perversely extended set-up / punchline – that it’s easy to miss just how carefully they’re a matched pair. In both films, the protagonist disengages from their society. In the first film, the break is caused by extreme grief (and the appalling indifference to her grief that Natasha observes), and is a conscious choice, with Natasha having to literally fight to go against the tide of crowds, or aggressively abuse people to try and get them to leave her alone (at moments like this, she really gets to the point: “You’re alive. I hate you!”). Her acquiescent reintegration at the end of the film is a mildly positive sign of personal change, but it’s also likely a consequence of exhaustion. In Nikolai’s narrative, he tries to escape society by lapsing into unconsciousness (at one point the tendency is characterised as “a mild form of protest”), an affliction that is met with indifference (in a reversal of the imagery of the first film, an unconscious Nikolai is carried along with a crowd, and when he is deposited on the floor of a railway station, people just step over him; finally some folk stop to assist, but all they do is drag his body out of their way), amusement, or incarceration.
Muratova’s big question – and it’s not one she has an answer for – is, what is the rational response to a society that is broken? We see various more moderate responses within the film’s vignettes apart from the radical reactions of Natasha and Nikolai (a reliance on petty rules and routines, a retreat into personal interests, outraged yet impotent public monologues), but nobody has a satisfying solution, and nobody really seems happy. And I think this gets to the heart of the difference between this film and other un-banned dissident films of the late 80s that Kirkinson was asking about. In The Asthenic Syndrome
, the villain is not an outmoded bureaucracy, Stalinist remnants, government malice or inefficiency or cronyism. The villain is us. The bad things that happen in the film aren’t the acts of impersonal authority, they’re extremely personal, petty failings. Muratova would be making the same points, with even more righteous anger, twenty years later in Melody for a Street Organ
. It’s not a Soviet problem, it’s a Russian (and a human) problem, and Muratova puts ironic icing on this problem with little regurgitated gobbets of official ideology like “the principle trait of the bourgeois is indifference to his fellows.”
The subtle matches between the two films underline and extend her thesis. The two protagonists are often presented as opposites (Natasha is angry and aggressive; Nikolai is amiable and passive), but situationally they’re fundamentally similar (they’re both shown as the only people left on public transport beyond the end of the line, for instance). In the first film, as Natasha leaves the cemetery, we have a montage of portraits from gravestones, culminating with Natasha posed in front of an array of portraits of the dead. Sharp cut to: Natasha posed in front of an array of portraits of the living, outside a photography studio, followed by a matching montage of those photos. It’s simple formal equivalence as social critique, and we shouldn’t be surprised in the second film to find Nikolai adopting a similar pose by inserting his face into a bunch of portraits displayed in the street.
At the very start of the film, we observe from a distance a group of men teasing a cat by tying a can to its tail. What kind of man would hurt a cat? In the second film, that question is definitively answered: a man who would also beat his daughter. But Muratova doesn’t stop there, as that scene also offers a sharp critique of the selfishness of empathy, as the cat-bothering daughter-beater also dotes on his pet birds. The same situation is also replayed in the second film in the form of two girls taunting a developmentally challenged man with a shoe, and right near the end of the film expands the scope of her critique to an entire society with a collection of shots of maltreated dogs in a shelter. What kind of society would do that