Friday, 11 March 2011

Alexander Sokurov: Taurus - Телец (2000)

Director:Aleksandr Sokurov
Writer:Yuri Arabov
Stars:Leonid Mozgovoy, Mariya Kuznetsova, Sergei Razhuk

Biographical drama,portraying Vladimir Lenin.

NIKA for 2002. - as the best feature film, art direction and cinematography.
Entered into the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.

The second in Alexander Sokurov's teratology of films concerning twentieth century dictators, Taurus is a poetic and partially factual film of the last days of Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Ulyanov 'Lenin'.

Holed up in the country and cared for by a determined doctor, his wife and a group of uniformed guardsmen, Lenin muses over his life with the ambiguity and vagueness of the old man that he is. With moments of extreme clarity and ramblings both poetic and pathetic, he unwittingly illuminates the state of contemporary Russia (and beyond?) and questions how man negotiates his place in the world.

Such themes are consistent with Sokurov's other works, as is the strong visual rendering of the land. The white flowering fields where Lenin and his wife are placed for a picnic are particularly gorgeous. This and other whites (gowns and soft window lighting) provide impressionistic support to the murky greens that filter the entire picture. It's as if Lenin is a sunken ship filmed in the murky depths; his life, mind and political power slipping away.

Thus whilst based on 'the facts', the film is ghostly and partially hypnotic. The story's historicism is played against a firm mysticism, exemplified by the film title and the fact Lenin was indeed, born a Taurus. The motif of the storm that crackles in the background and hangs in the grey fog provides another point of reference. The coming storm is made of electricity, says Lenin, not the result of angels fighting in heaven, as his mother once thought. But the storm that lies on the verge of breaking at the film's end is an inevitable consequence, betraying the actual historical events to come. So when the character's dialogue defers from the mystical in this way, our interpretation of the details becomes interesting and confounding. The film plays with particulars, but maintains the thick symbolism.

Taurus's other messages of humanism and dictatorship are however, not entirely profound. Lenin's wife reads of torture when meaning to read of Marx's comfortable last days. She does so to a Lenin equally separate from the less comfortable circumstances of his 'comrades'. The point is pursued elsewhere, but still, such readings of communism are hardly new. More convincing is the portrayal of a Lenin subject to the same struggles and political games, as he loses touch with his friends and enemies. Taurus is perhaps then, partially, a sign of what is written in the language of the stars, but also the sacred bull, sacrificed to appease the Gods. ...

Directory of World Cinema:
Like the other works in Sokurov’s ‘Men of Power’ tetralogy – Moloch on Hitler (1999), The Sun (2005) on Hirohito and a planned adaptation of Goethe’s Faust – Taurus utilizes unconventional cinematography, unorthodox performances, slow pacing and a highly imaginative approach to its subject for a meditation on the dehumanizing effects of absolute power. While some critics fault Sokurov for the film’s rambling script and ‘stagy’ shots, others highlight the comedic potential of a once-towering figure like Lenin diminished to a sick, ranting old man (seen naked more than once). Still others accuse Sokurov of over-humanizing his dictators, glossing over their crimes in pursuit of some a-historical ‘universality’ of mortal existence. In evoking compassion for Lenin’s death agonies, so goes this critique, the film risks betraying the many victims of his policies. On the other hand, Taurus hardly heroicizes its subject. Deprived of the telephone, even a newspaper (rudely snatched away by an orderly), Lenin knows the Party he founded has abandoned him; explosions of rage alternate with a muted resignation and transient pleasures of the natural world (birdsong, thunder, sunlight through a window). While based on accounts of Lenin’s final days (following a series of strokes), the film’s idiosyncratic representation of historical figures renders them by turns sympathetic and grotesque – perhaps a corrective to the many Soviet-era cine-panegyrics to the ‘dear leader’ such as Mikhail Romm’s Lenin in October (1937). The petty, whining Lenin of Taurus could not be further from the strong, avuncular figure of Stalinist propaganda.

Still, at times the film seems fascinated by the iconicity of its subjects: one shot in particular lingers on the just-arrived Stalin in his greatcoat, standing like a predator beside his car. These images enact a haunting ‘resurrection’ of the dead; from such a distance the illusion of a living Stalin seems disturbingly convincing. Yet Sokurov will often deflate such apotheosizing imagery; for example, the meeting between Stalin and Lenin includes shot-reverse shot extreme close-ups of the two leaders, revealing (through his facial expressions and eyes) Lenin’s craven baseness as he begs for poison, and Stalin’s deceitful, pock-marked, mannequin-like visage. Here the director most blatantly strips the legend from the man.

For Taurus, Sokurov served for the first time as his own cinematographer; his dark, saturated, oft-blurred images flirt with inscrutability. The estate often appears in fog, its interior a labyrinth of murky, green-tinted rooms; even when the sun breaks the imagery recalls day-for-night photography. As in Mother and Son, many shots hark back to the silent era. As pointed out by several critics, the film’s greenish, gloomy palette makes it appear as if the action is occurring underwater. As in much of Sokurov’s work, these atypical visual strategies reference European art, in this case Vermeer and – in part through the colour scheme and repeated mentions of an approaching storm – Giorgione’s ‘The Tempest’ (1506–1508).

Like many films of its time, Taurus focuses on themes of death and decay, in part as a means of exorcising Soviet-era ghosts. In this sense one may compare it to Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (1994) as a re-examination of the Stalinist past, albeit in an unorthodox manner. Similarly, like Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (2003) and other recent films, Taurus ironicizes the theme of paternity through the figure of a decrepit father whose ‘progeny’, the Soviet Union, is itself now defunct.

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