Man of No Return [Человек безвозвратный]
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.
Grokhovskaia peers into her characters’ private lives without passing judgment. Adulterous affairs, homosexual relationships, depression, illness, and loveless marriages are not portrayed as shameful. Rather, Grokhovskaia seems to be commenting on the frustration and impossibility of conforming to social expectations. Personal secrets symbolize symptoms of a larger social tragedy. Several Russian reviewers of the film describe it as universal and not specifically Russian. Zhanna Vasil'eva, for example, writes that “the director does not accent a purely Russian character. No cupolas, landscapes filled with birch trees, or other ethnographic tokens fill the screen. […] The problems the characters confront are not exclusively Russian.”1 Perhaps. But, these universal predicaments are arguably new to Russian cinema. When before have closeted homosexuals, disabled youth, and male prostitution been represented on the Russian screen? The necessity for it now reflects a specifically Russian epistemological crisis that has surfaced in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Viewers familiar with chernuka of the late- and immediate post-Soviet periods might expect an exhibitionistic or sensationalist treatment of these formerly taboo topics. The Man of Return, however, accentuates introspection and contemplation. Characters stare at themselves in mirrors. A pervading quiet suggests deep thought and an unwillingness to answer difficult questions simply. Aleksei Adrianov’s camerawork enhances the film’s reflective tone. His camera tends to be placed off to the side, behind characters, or distanced from action, or capturing turmoil in close-up shots of faces. He takes long shots keeping camera movement to a minimum. It’s as though he is hesitant to disturb the characters, who are trapped in their thoughts and appear to be pulled into more and more profound states of isolation.
Impressively, this meticulously shot film, made on a small budget of $400,000, marks Grokhovskaia’s first feature length film, Petr Stepin’s first screenplay, and the first film shot by cinematographer Aleksei Andrianov. The film debuted at the 2006 Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi, Russia.
The young director Ekaterina Grokhovskaia is currently finishing her education in the Directorial Department at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK). Prior to enrolling at VGIK and while pursuing her education, Grokhovskaia has filmed music videos and experimental shorts. Her short, Two (2004), won recognition at film festivals from Kinotavr (Sochi, Russia) to Cannes.