A former scientist who specialised in artificial intelligence at the Institute of Cybernetics in Kiev in the late 80s, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa is now as a major force in world cinema. Starting as a documentary film-maker in the mid-90s, he produced some 18 films including Landscape (2003), Blockade (2006), Revue (2008), and most notably Maidan (2014), an extraordinary document of the civil uprising against the regime of president Viktor Yanukovych that took place in the Ukrainian capital in the winter of 2013-14. But in 2010 he made a made a major statement with the release of his acclaimed first feature, My Joy, a trenchant Dantean journey into the dark soul of post-Soviet Russia. In 2014 he released his second feature, In the Fog. Set on the Western frontier of German-occupied Russia in 1942, it’s the story of an innocent man accused of betraying the local resistance who is forced to make an impossible moral choice in the most immoral of circumstances. Both films are impressive works of large-scale cinema that are best appreciated in large-scale settings—the bigger the screen the better! Both films are highly engaging if somewhat bleak visions of humankind that are nevertheless brilliantly focused and skilfully directed works by a significant new auteur.
Loznitsa’s third feature, A Gentle Creature, is an even more impressive piece of large-scale cinema, a quite breathtaking achievement, firstly in terms of its technical (visual and aural) qualities, but especially on formal and conceptual levels. Loznitsa returns to the ‘road movie’ structure of his first feature in order to take us on a similarly grim journey to the heart of darkness in a tale that recalls other classic excursions to the underworld. The story, what there is of it, is a Kafkaesque ruse in which a nameless woman (we’ll call her Alice) attempts to get an innocuous care-package to her incarcerated husband, a pretext that enables Loznitsa to lead his heroine, and audience, down a rabbit hole of callous indifference. While the film is a lacerating portrait of contemporary Russia, one senses that despite the geographic and political specificity of the setting, the depiction of spiritual atrophy has as much if not more to say about the dark nature of humankind in general.
A Gentle Creature is, despite appearances, a satire, but for the most part one laughs through gritted teeth. At times it's a raucous and ribald ride that recalls Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4 (2004), an equally caustic though decidedly more cryptic examination of the putrefying guts of the former Soviet Union. From one dead-end encounter to the next, Loznitsa steadily builds tension and dread as he nudges Alice towards her inevitable Calvary, but not before pausing for a surreal satire in which she peers through the looking glass to witness the ultimate mad-hatter's banquet, an amusing homage to the Czech New Wave that nevertheless outstays its welcome. The sequence was necessary to set up the brutal following scene and final long shot of a comatose citizenry, but the repetition of the platitudinous speeches was—despite their allegorical purpose—a tad overstated.
The final shot is a potent comment on life within a political climate that is the equivalent of an endless nightmare of humiliation, betrayal, and chronic indifference. A Gentle Creature is a miserabilist masterwork, but it’s a tough one to recommend, not so much for the grim trudge around the decaying bones of the Soviet corpse, but for the sequence in which Alice endures a final humiliation.
It was evident that something might happen to Alice before the curtains come up, and because she is of course a woman there was every chance that it might be rape. When it comes to the depiction of rape in films, I've tended to view it within the context of the work, so when I spoke to female friends about it after the screening I assumed my go-to position that the scene isn’t condoning violence against women, but a punch-in-the-gut metaphor for the systematic brutalisation of a nation, and beyond that, the perpetual rape of the world at the hands of political and economic rationalism.
All well and good, but I had to agree with my friends that there must have been any number of solutions Loznitsa and his team could have devised to make their point without resorting to a lazy and (for many, especially women) offensive shock tactic. I realised that because rape is violence against women, I don’t have the right to defend its use in fiction films (entertainment, no less) for the sake of any political or artistic point. I came to see that such scenes are not merely lazy and offensive but ethically and artistically indefensible. There is no justification for rape as shorthand for an artistic argument. Cinema is largely dominated by male perspectives, viewpoints that regularly objectify women, appropriate their sexuality, and normalise patriarchal violence. For that reason men ought to be more vociferous in their objection to the use of rape as thematic shorthand in cinema.
Also by Sergei Loznitsa: AUSTERLITZ
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