In Greatest Director lists there are several names that always crop up whose work I have explored and struggled with but of late I find that few inspire quite so vehement an objection to criticism as Andrei Tarkovsky. I don’t rule out rewatching Tarkovsky’s admittedly fascinating work in future but of the four films I have seen by him, I was bored stiff by one, intrigued by two and couldn’t make head nor tail of one. It hardly sounds like the most glowing reference, although as a true film buff of only half a decade or so I am still in my infancy as an effective critic (some may say I am yet to be born as such!).

But why open by speaking of Tarkovsky in a review of Artificial Eye’s new Alexander Sokurov boxset? Well, Sokurov was not only mentored by Tarkovsky but has been proclaimed by several critics to be his natural successor. While this has angered many Tarkovsky fans who cry blasphemy, I too would contest this assertion, not on the basis that I revere Tarkovsky beyond comparison but on the basis that I have had completely different experiences with both directors’ work in terms of enjoyment. While Tarkovsky’s films have fascinated me amidst conflicting forces of boredom and confusion, Sokurov’s have fascinated me AND kept me glued to the screen throughout… at least most of them have.

The Alexander Sokurov Collection features three very different films from the director’s career, seemingly chosen at random but which give a well-rounded view of the director nonetheless. Having only previously seen one Sokurov film (Mother and Son, which I enjoyed. I’ve yet to see his most famous film, the one-shot Russian Ark), I approached The Alexander Sokurov Collection with caution, still weighed down by those Tarkovsky comparisons and fearing my own intellectual limitations. The results were mixed but mostly positive.

The Second Circle

Director: Alexander Sokurov
Screenplay: Yuri Arabov
Starring: Pyotr Aleksandrov, Nadezhda Rodnova
Year: 1990
Country: Soviet Union
Duration: 92 min

The first film in the collection is Sokurov’s exploration of the mundane, emotionally-testing bereaucracy that a son must go through in order to bury his father. Set against a horrendously bleak Siberian backdrop, The Second Circle is made even more visually muted by the sepia tones in which Sokurov presents his images. He removes almost all colour, except for the occasional unexpected burst of red which struggles in vain to cut through the film like a suppressed sunset. These extraordinarily effective visuals set the mood of the piece and occasionally bring to mind David Lynch’s Eraserhead, although the absurdist humour that leavened that film is absent (there are a couple of bitterly funny scenes with an abrasive woman from the funeral parlour but even those have an icy sting that stops actual laughter emerging).

The Second Circle opens with a symbolic image of the protagonist being swallowed up by the snowy climate which seems to be setting up a film filled with symbols and allegorical signifiers. But after the opening credits all such symbols are disregarded in favour of a chillingly precise, step-by-step journey through the upsetting world of corpse disposal. The audience is spared nothing. In one particularly memorable scene we watch the body of the father being embalmed in the background while the son sits tortured in the foreground, although even he is allowed the luxury we are not, the ability to look away.

And therein lies The Second Circle‘s brilliance. I genuinely felt while watching the embalming scene that I could not look away. Sokurov’s attention to every little detail is mesmerising. His later, more well-known films have often been compared to paintings and The Second Circle certainly bears this out, although it perhaps bears more comparison to a macarbre charcoal etching. Just as Sokurov knows he has no need to burden such a weighty, thought-provoking subject with any hidden meaning, he also knows his audiences boundaries. At a slim 92 minutes The Second Circle is a fascinating experience. Even an extra 15 minutes, however, could have pushed it into irredeemable tedium.

Save and Protect

Director: Alexander Sokurov
Screenplay: Yuri Arabov
Based on a novel by: Gustave Flaubert
Starring: Cecile Zervudacki, Robert Vaap
Year: 1990
Country: Soviet Union
Duration: 128 min

Sokurov’s surreal adapatation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Save and Protect sees him again working with scriptwriter Yuri Arabov. However, the economy and tasteful judgement that both showed in The Second Circle is absent in Save and Protect. Save and Protect is overlong even in the re-edited cut it is presented in here (a little over two hours. Another cut exists which runs to 167 minutes). It shares the claustrophobia of The Second Circle (although there are some attractive, painterly outdoor scenes) but none of the coherence or appeal. To be fair to Save and Protect, it would probably appeal more to viewers who had read the source novel, as without any prior knowledge of the text I found Sokurov’s film hard to follow, even though its narrative was sparse. Although the subject matter is a woman who feels strangulated by her marriage and surroundings, Sokurov’s wandering depiction of this differs greatly from his tight, evocative work in the previous film. Little self-concious flourishes like anachronistic motor cars and radios only serve to make Save and Protect seem more desperate to make something out of its emptiness, rather than simply explore it and inflict it gloriously on the viewer. There are some nice images as one would expect from Sokurov but this time it’s not enough to save a stodgy pudding of an ambitious failure.

Elegy of Life

Director: Alexander Sokurov
Screenplay: Alexander Sokurov
Starring: Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya
Year: 2006
Country: Soviet Union
Duration: 101 min

A markedly different film from the other two in the boxset, Elegy of Life is a documentary about brilliant cellist Mstislave Rostropovich and his wife Galina Vishnevskaya, a soprano with a powerhouse voice. Although they are huge names in the classical world, I knew nothing of the two subjects of Elegy of Life, given that I’m not a classical music fan. While a love of classical music will undoubtedly enhance viewers’ interest in the film however, a lack of appreciation for the medium did nothing to prevent me finding this superb documentary utterly rivetting.

In sharp contrast to the gloom of the two fiction films, Elegy of Life is a film bursting with joy, albeit often with a melancholic edge. It opens at the golden wedding anniversary celebrations of the central couple and it is immediately clear how much they respect and adore one another. From here, Sokurov goes on to tell their story in a non-linear fashion, dropping in details from various stages of their lives as and when they seem appropriate. Mixing archival footage with fascinating interviews (sometimes simultaneously, as he utilises the margins of the screen to allow clips from the archives to drift past ghostlike), Sokurov draws out his two subjects wonderfully, although they are both instantly likeable, interesting characters anyway. Rostropovich is a fun-loving, vivacious man with a visibly raging passion for classical music. His lengthy discussions of various composers are some of the highlights of the film even to my classically-tone-deaf ears. Vishnevskaya, meanwhile, is a strong-willed, intelligent but charming woman who handles some deeply emotional lines of questioning with admirable restraint and dignity.

The other main character in the film is Sokurov himself. Unlike the informative, strictly factual voices we are used to from most documentaries, Sokurov engages us with an eloquent, deeply personal appreciation of his two subjects, full of philosophical wonderings and personal opinions. It makes for a far more engaging account of the couple’s lives than the usual straightforward history lesson and Sokurov’s emotional investment adds more emotion to an already emotional film (made even more so by the knowledge that Rostropovich died the following year). It’s a complete revelation after the detachment of the previous two films and Sokurov emerges as as fine a documentarian as he is a fiction filmmaker.

The Alexander Sokurov Collection was released by Artificial Eye on 22 October 2012. The three discs feature no extras.

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One Response

  1. David Brook

    I’ve had the opposite reaction with the two Russian directors, although only on a small scale. I’ve only seen one Tarkovsky film, Andre Rublev, and I was riveted by it. I’ve only seen one Sokurov film, Russian Ark, and I admired it but couldn’t get into it. My lack of knowledge of Russian history probably prevented me from appreciating proceedings more than anything else. It is definitely worth a watch though. In terms of cinematic technique it’s obviously staggering, I just found nothing else to latch on to.


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