Directed by : Kira MURATOVA (Кира МУРАТОВА)
Writing credits : Yevgeni GOLUBENKO (Евгений ГОЛУБЕНКО), Renata LITVINOVA (Рената ЛИТВИНОВА)
Aleksandr BASHIROV (Александр БАШИРОВ)
Sergey BEKHTEREV (Сергей БЕХТЕРЕВ)
Natalia BUZKO (Наталья БУЗЬКО)
Yevgeni GOLUBENKO (Евгений ГОЛУБЕНКО)
Renata LITVINOVA (Рената ЛИТВИНОВА)
Nina RUSLANOVA (Нина РУСЛАНОВА)
Bogdan STUPKA (Богдан СТУПКА)
Like Three Stories (1997), Chekhov’s Motives (2002) and to a lesser extent The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) before it, Kira Muratova’s latest film is shorn—if such a word can be used for a fairly clever, integrated transition—into separate stories. The first takes place as a theatre company is preparing the stage for the night’s performance, the only problem being a member of the crew has hung himself before the day began. Nevertheless the show must go on! And so the preparations continue as the crew bustle about and seem to get into the same squabbles, arguments, monologues, and prickly confrontations they always do—except this time neatly stepping over the corpse while all wait for the absent police to arrive and the eccentric, if not idiotic stagehand who discovered the body (and tried to steal a ring from the corpse) wrings his hands over his tampering with the evidence. The second story begins with the theatre’s production of the night’s play, first cutting back and forth between the stage setting (with a tuxedoed narrator) and a cinematic one, before eventually telling the majority of the story away from the stage. The play concerns an impotent older man (Bogdan Stupka) who is supposed to be a lady killer (though he doesn’t look it) and his loneliness spent acquiring replicas of famous nude paintings, moaning over beautiful women passing underneath his window, and pining over his daughter, who seems to be a teenager but is played by an adult. Lecherously pestered by her father, the daughter brings back to the house a girlfriend (who likewise acts and is dressed as a teen but is played by the writer of this scenario, Renata Litvinova), who the father oddly declares via the subtitle that she is “the girl of a dream” and starts pouring champagne into her so as to finally satisfy himself sexually.
Dialing back the narrative convolutions and distinct character despair of her previous film The Tuner, Muratova has produced an odd diptych, one that embraces the grandeur of the theatrical setting to portray the ambivalence to death in the workplace (and artistic and representational space) as much as it restricts the setting of its second story to the mansion of the father so as to heighten the absurdity of his irrational solitude and erotic fixations. In the first half, the camera performs serpentine, unreal gymnastics to not only track the stagehands as they climb ladders and navigate the layered stage setting (as well as avoid the body), but also to draw circles around the corpse, in one gloriously elegant and spatially fantastic movement following the gentle trajectory of the body being lowered to the stage, bilious layers of the stage background piling over the corpse. There are neither full characters nor a real plot—even if the story wryly ends in a murder just as it started in a suicide—and the swirling preparations of the crew, acting almost as if the death never happened, become the forefront of the story as everyone continues to work and squabble as the occurrence were normal, murder and suicide being a part of the theatrical assembly as much as construction of the set. The ignorance of death reverses itself to be a fixation on sex in the second half, as the chamber drama is entrenched in an intensive kind of languidness, everyone stuck in a noncommittal sexual limbo, from the father’s impotent dance around his women (real and painted) to both the women’s bizarre girlhood. A tragedy seems in the making, a murder, a rape, or incest—anything seems possible, and the story hilariously fizzles out as if everything that was at stake was just a late-night New Year’s joke.
Each story, as well as their combination into Two in One is hard to make sense of, as neither segment stands alone, the first acting like a long-running conceptual joke rather than any kind of Altman-style social whirligig, and the second like a good play overextended and stripped of several necessary characters. The combination of the stories just seems too arbitrary, except for the notable fact that the death, construction, and arguments of “Stagehands” segues directly into the stifled, grotesque, ineffective farce that is “Women of a Lifetime”. The former begs for the extravagant characters and story arc of the latter, and the final story is in dire need of the fullness of life of the theatre, its dynamism of the people and the camera, even if all they end up doing is leading to death. Admittedly, one half cannot exist without the other, and perhaps that’s the point; the subterranean, backstage machinations of the working-class crew—all as regular, banal, and murderous as always—are necessary to produce the inanity of the bourgeois sexual, absurd drama.