Two in One [Два в одном]
Ukraine and Russia, 2006, released 2007
Rolling thunder, a darkened theatre, shrouded seats, a stagehand who quotes Hamlet’s soliloquy in front of a hanging corpse: these elements, at the outset of Kira Muratova’s film, signal that we are about to watch a mock-sinister performance, a “play within a play,” or, as she puts it, a two-in-one.
The first segment (“Stagehands”) contrasts the stagehands’ chitchat and daily routine with a suicide and murder on the theatre stage itself. Here, Muratova’s love of theatricalization, manneristic style, and performance for its own sake are indulged to the fullest. The second segment (“A Woman for Life”), initially imbedded in the first, is the very theatre performance for which the stage hands had been preparing when the suicide and murder took place.
As in Aesthenic Syndrome (1989, released 1990), also an imbedded, two-segment film, Muratova effects the transition between the first and second segments with the help of an unctuous emcee, who addresses both the theatre audience and us (the film audience) without distinction. Little by little, the stage set becomes film’s diegetic reality—with lapses, of course, since it is Muratova. We watch a story of three people: a depraved old father, his recently-found grown daughter, with whom he has an incestuous relationship, and an unknown young woman (Renata Litvinova), whom they invite in for a New Year’s celebration to satisfy the father’s loneliness and sexual needs.
The film lends itself simultaneously to multiple frames of analysis. One most enduringly congenial to Muratova’s work accounts for her cinema as a structured repetition of distinct, quirky, games, which she plays by arranging and re-arranging (by now) familiar objects in her own insular space. Her manipulation of these objects might be thought of as auteurist sight gags, visual humor peculiar to this eccentric, sui generic director. Her work in this respect bears an affinity to the visual humor of Jacques Tati, and (in a longer historical trajectory) to mime and puppetry, enacted most explicitly in the incested daughter’s protracted “puppet dance.” Human objects—we might otherwise think of them as actors—are posed so as to perform certain amusing, sometimes sadistic, and often repetitive tasks. The film recycles the filmmaker's favorite objects from previous films: identical twins (here, two Father Frosts), paired opposites (here, one blond, one brunette), similarly performing humans and animals (here, the endearing urination scene), the identification of women with inanimate female forms (here, nude dolls, nude paintings, nude sculptures, a mannequin), puns (here in Russian, “end” as orgasm, as the last tram stop, and as the end of the film itself).
Those who come new to Muratova’s work in search of comprehensibility will probably leave daunted. She has described her cinema as her private games. One can watch them or not, but this foundational condition is (for her) non-negotiable and therefore worth accepting for a calmer appreciation of her work.
A third pair, from the perestroika era, is A Change of Fate (1987) and Asthenic Syndrome (1989; released 1990). If the former continued Muratova’s love of contrapuntal narrative, the latter returned to an imbedded plot structure, signaled by an internal shift from black-and-white to color. Muratova’s fourth stage, Sentimental Policeman (1992) and Passions (1994), after the fall of communism, marks a gentler period in her work, continuing her mannered style, but without the narrative and verbal provocations of Asthenic Syndrome. Three Stories and Minor People (2001) are the last of her color films. Three Stories is strongly plotted, each of its three brief narratives sustaining a clear structure and story line. Minor People, in some respects her weakest film, exhibits a kind of exhaustion of the best-known devices: the mannered speech, endless repetitions, and random plot digressions. Muratova’s two most recent films, Chekhov’s Motifs (2002) and Tuner (2004), mark a return to the black-and-white footage of her early work, seeking a balance between the subdued surface of the black-and-white screen and the ornamentalist mise-en-scène.