Director: Aleksey Balabanov
Writer: Aleksey Balabanov
Stars: Mikhail Skryabin, Yuri Matveyev,Aleksandr Mosin
Mikhail Trofimenkov: It seems as if your sense of world catastrophe grows greater with each film.
Aleksei Balabanov: Of course. My relatives are dying. I myself am aging. (Trofimenkov)
In better times, Yakut stoker Ivan Skriabin (Mikhail Skriabin) had a stellar military career: he had been a sapper in the Afghan war, a Hero of the Soviet Union, a Major with a chest full of medals. Now, retired from the military with a severe concussion, abandoned by his wife, and barely supported by an uncertain paycheck, he lives alone in his workplace, a vast factory basement where he keeps the furnaces running day and night. He spends his leisure moments sitting on his cot, typing out what he believes to be his own tale of good and evil. In fact, the story, entitled “Khailakh,” had been written many decades earlier by Polish ethnographer Wacław Sieroszewski. It is a story that Skriabin had once heard, but now mistakes for his own story, all the more so as it eerily anticipates Skriabin’s circumstances, a tale of Russian banditry and Yakut sacrifice.
Skriabin has a beloved adult daughter, Sasha. She co-owns a Yakut fur outlet with Masha, Russian daughter of Sergeant, a veteran-turned-gangster. One additional character completes the main cast. Bison, Sergeant’s fellow gangster, is Sasha’s boyfriend, or so she believes. In fact, Bison is the lover of both women, though neither knows of the other’s liaison.
And so Stoker, at its barest level, is the story of five people: two fathers and their grown daughters, who share a man. Even without Balabanov’s signature violence, this could not end well. When Masha discovers Bison at her rival’s apartment; she turns to her father for help. Balabanov’s script— laconic, dense, and brilliantly inarticulate—resolves this conflict in a mere eighteen pages; the film’s inspired musical selections account for much of the 87 minutes of screen time.
Balabanov is often considered a divisive figure. I belong to those who consider him a genius, but it is not my primary intent here to plead that case. His emergent talent is usually traced from the 1997 release of Brother (Brat), but his gifts for wry whimsy were evident already in Happy Days (Schastlivye dni, 1991). After all, who is Stoker’s Ivan Skriabin if not a later instance of the nameless hero of Happy Days, played by the young Viktor Sukhorukov? These two hapless, neurologically injured men inhabit the same city, but remain similarly homeless. They are also distant kin to the hero of Balabanov’s short film Trofim (Trofim”), his contribution to the collaborative feature Arrival of a Train (Pribytie poezda, 1996). Already we see several elements of his signature style: the clueless, little man, who rises up against the accumulated indignities of the world; the city as modernity’s id, a theatre for staging the hero’s destruction; the battered trams, replicated in one form or another in many films to come; the tight narrative structure that interlinks characters in ways to which they themselves have little access; the preternaturally comfortable fit between brutality and sentiment. What Brother eventually adds is a military element: the debilitated city as the battlefield’s aftermath, its secondary killing field. Stoker continues this pattern.
Reviewed by Nancy Condee © 2011 in KinoKultura