Director: Ekaterina Grokhovskaia
Cast: Galina Iovovich, Ekaterina Rednikova, Sergei Krapiva, Elena Valiushkina, Anna Churina, Mikhail Remizov,
After the success of her short film, The Two (Dvoe, 2004), Ekaterina Grokhovskaia has made her first foray into feature length film with The Man of No Return. The film has been shown at festivals in Russia and in Sweden, playing along with other European films. Financed at one million rubles, the film explores sexuality, the family, generational and gender difference, and memory, portraying a “society in crisis” (Gillespie 93). The film's focus on familial relations would seem to place it alongside the plethora of genre films that have characterized the recent Russian commercial cinema, including comedies, melodramas, gangster films, science fiction, war films, and fantasy. Given its focus on the family, The Man of No Return would seem to belong to this form of filmmaking. However, if the family melodrama, as some critics have claimed, is preoccupied with emotional excess arising from irreconcilable moral polarities, recording “the failure of the protagonist to act in a way that could shape the events and influence the stifling emotional environment, let alone change the stifling social milieu” (Elsaesser 55). The Man of No Return undermines these premises. In an unsettling and elliptical narrative mode, the film prefers to investigate the clichés upon which the family melodrama has been constructed, not only portraying what the characters and viewers see through the image, but how they see.
A superficial description of events in the film involves the disintegration of a family headed by an autocratic father, Boris Kniazev. Head of a military academy, he is determined to have his son, Andrei, a cadet at the school, carry on the tradition of order and discipline he espouses, but his son refuses to conform to the father's dictates. The entire family—the mother, Tania; the daughters, Vera and Nadezhda; and the son, Andrei—can be regarded as dysfunctional products of conjugal and familial strife. Similarly, other characters can also be included in these domestic dramas of emotional atrophy. However, the film's form undermines this facile summary by refusing the viewer familiar information about the characters and a straightforward linear recounting of the situations into which they are placed.
While the film remains confined to the private sphere, by means of its imagistic treatment of character and in its brief allusions to landscape it suggests filiations to a broader social and cultural milieu. The film works like a kaleidoscope or a puzzle, forcing uneasy questions on the spectator about who the characters are, their relations to each other, and about the clichéd images that constitute the world in which they act or are acted upon. Gilles Deleuze discusses the “civilization of the cliché where all the powers have an interest in hiding images from us… Sometimes it is necessary to restore the lost parts, to rediscover everything that cannot be seen in the image, everything that has been removed to make it ‘interesting'” (Deleuze 21). In its discontinuities, obsession with time, and resistance to transparency, The Man of No Return probes the propensity of the image to fall into cliché and works against this tendency.
Reviewed by Marcia Landy © 2007 in KinoKultura
Ekaterina Grokhovskaia’s The Man of No Return has been compared to Paul Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) and Paul Haggis’s Oscar-winning film Crash (2006). As in those movies, a diverse cast of characters comes together to weave an elaborate narrative web in such a way as to comment on contemporary society. The numerous story lines that make up The Man of No Return radiate out from a single nuclear family—comprised of father, mother, and three adult children—and draw in a total of fifteen characters. The metaphor of the web can be taken further. The various episodic vignettes, held in a fragile balance, benefit from the empty spaces left between them. Unwilling to fill in all of the narrative lacunae, the film provides glimpses into a wide variety of lives, but stops short of developing any of its characters fully. Rather than tell the story of a unique individual, The Man of No Return pulls in various representative members of society that span generation, gender, sexual orientation, and class affiliation in order to portray the existential sameness among people that both bonds a community together and divides it.
The intersecting lives of this heterogeneous group suggest, on one hand, proximity. As unexpected relationships are forged, a social network takes shape: each person is related to every other with no more than two or three degrees of separation between them. However, on the other hand, despite overlapping and entwined personal relationships, it would be inaccurate to suggest that they all know one another. In fact, even close relations do not share an intimate knowledge of one another. A couple stuck in a loveless marriage cannot bear to reveal their true feelings. A father and son incapable of seeing eye-to-eye, unfairly assume the worst of each other. A mother keeps her illness a secret. A young, paraplegic woman desperate to become sexually active, yearns and suffers in solitude. Although lives collide in unexpected ways, glimpses into their private lives reveal profound alienation.