Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Stanislav Govorukhin: Passenger - Пассажирка (2008)

Director: Stanislav Govorukhin
Writers: Sergej Ashkenazy, Konstantin Stanyukovich (story)
Stars: Ivan Agapov, Marat Basharov, Sergey Batalov

The glossy and luxurious Belle Époque world of Stanislav Govorukhin’s The Passenger, populated by the mannered, epicurean officers and jolly sailors of the Imperial Russian barque Smelyi, should be the ideal setting for a light-hearted romance targeted at the kind of beautiful, young people that populate multiplexes today. The film does not lack handsome youthful faces: the names of attractive new actors Anna Gorshkova, Aleksei Koriakov, and Irina Pegova top the credits of the film. Yet the names and faces of veterans of Soviet and Russian filmmaking, including Viktor Sukhorukov, Marat Basharov, Roman Madianov, and Sergei Nikonenko (not to mention Govorukhin's cameo as the consul in San Francisco), signal that the film may not be such a departure from the director’s consistent refusal to court blockbuster audiences.

Indeed, the film turns out to be not a light romance, but a combined lyrical character study and scientific experiment. Two young women, the widow Vera Sergeevna Clark and her chambermaid Annushka, are introduced into the all-male environment of a battleship on a voyage between California and Hong Kong. The volatile results are recorded. Vera Sergeevna is deposited safely on the Eurasian continent, and the ship passes on unscathed, except for the pleasant memories she leaves behind.

The screenplay, written by Sergei Ashkenazi and Govorukhin, adheres closely to its literary inspiration, the 1892 novella Passazhirka by Konstantin Staniukovich, whom Govorukhin has cited repeatedly as one of his favorite authors. Nearly every episode of the film finds a corresponding passage in the novella. Exceptions include scenes from Vera Sergeevna’s private life, when no man is around to observe her. Other added episodes serve to foreground two things: the blatantly sexual motivations that could otherwise be sublimated by the visual pleasure of genteel rituals; and the violence men are willing to commit when their desires are frustrated, as in the case of Tsvetkov’s duel. Both elements are clearly intended to heighten tension on the screen, and should they function effectively, Govorukhin’s audience can better participate in the collective relief that arises once a climactic squall has purged the demon of obsession from the ship.

Though no man on the ship is a stranger to the company of women, the temporary transgression of the boundary between the pleasures of port calls and day-to-day life on the Smelyi throws many of the officers into confusion, increasing the incidence of daydreaming, gossiping, and affected mannerisms among the officers and precipitating climactic moments of the film. The camera shifts among the smitten men as they act in their own individual ways upon their infatuations. It focuses in particular on young Warrant Officer Tsvetkov and his chief rival, the Captain. Despite the Captain’s superior rank, the film clearly privileges the more vital and sensitive Tsvetkov. Glimpses into Tsvetkov’s personal life of jealous observation and love letters pair the young officer with Vera Sergeevna, whose depth of characterization is otherwise matched by none of the men in the film. ...

Reviewed by Elise Thorsen in KinoKultura

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