Mother and Son/Elegy of a Voyage
It’s probably easier to talk about Alexandr Sukorov’s films in terms of visual beauty and the various moods that the films evoke, then it is to refer to plot (in Mother and Son
a young man tends to his dying mother in an isolated Russian dacha; first he takes his semi-lucid mother for a walk, carrying her through the countryside; then he goes for a walk through the same countryside, alone, returns and finds his mother dead; that’s it). It’s a curious reaction, not quite boredom, it is a strange, trancelike state that I called it “beautiful tedium.” I found both films tonight, the 1997 feature film, Mother and Son
and the 2001 video “documentary” Elegy of a Voyage
to share an emotionally subdued kind of mourning (which isn’t to say that my reaction is the same as everyone else, apparently the singer Nick Cave was moved to tears by Mother and Son
, you can read his review here
), as well as an intimate connection to painting.
Elegy of a Voyage
is ostensible a travelogue documentary about a trip from Russia to a museum in Rotterdam (it was commissioned by the documentary department at ARTE France), but Sokurov, who both appears in the film (ironically, as a shadowy, largely off-screen presence, but whose presence is nevertheless, always felt) and narrates in the film (in a brooding, subdued voice) structures it like a dream, or a memory, moving freely in time and space (the film never really says where he is, though he remarks he is in Germany at one point; the film’s transitions between scenic spaces is abrupt, mysterious, at one time he is walking alone through the snow, the next he is in town, or floating above it, on an ocean-liner; if you watch the credits, you can learn that Sokurov’s trip went from Northern Russia to Helsinki, then to Germany, and then to the Netherlands), often commenting on the experience as if it was deja vu. The video images shimmer, quite literally, like they were being shot through water that is slightly rippled, lending, to the “real” life images, an ethereal, unnatural quality. On his journey, there are two extended stops before the museum: in Russia, he meets an Orthodox monk and quizzes him on how he can accept Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, if Jesus did not want to be crucified; in the Netherlands, he meets a young man at a roadside way stop, who tells Sokurov that the secret of happiness is love. When he arrives at the museum, he flits between rooms in the darkened, mostly silent museum, all alone, studying each painting intently, ruminating on it as if he was present at the scenes of it’s painting, focusing his camera’s lens on the smallest details. The way that the images continue to shimmer add an illusion of movement to the paintings that was not present before, and the way Sokurov moves the camera lends an even more three dimensional quality. When he focuses upon a cloud, the combination of brushstrokes, rippling images, and moving camera, made the cloud pop out, seem real. Paradoxically, the cloud seemed so real even though it was on the canvas. It was so sad, which may be the point, the video, like the painting (a video that was more painterly, a painting that is more life-like), was a record of something past, never to be regained, or experienced again, at least not directly.
The earlier film, Mother and Son
, explores the idea of life as painting, more directly; Sokurov readily admits that his visual style for this film is evocative of the German Romantic painter Carl David Friedrich, and his film captures the melancholy and the sublime of Romantic painting, especially in his usage of landscapes (for more information on Carl David Friedrich and his paintings, click on the painting
). While the film is visually beautiful, it is narratively austere. It features only two characters, and we learn very little about them, not even their names (they are referred to, of course, as “Mother,” and “Son”); in terms of characterizations, they remain cyphers, just embodiments of emotions (the only real personal detail that we learn is that the “Mother” was a teacher). The only other evidence of humanity present in the film is a train, that makes three lonely appearances in the film, twice snaking across the length of the frame, partially obscured by the landscape, though betrayed by the puffs of steam emanating from atop the engine. It’s third appearance is only a disembodied whistle, a mournful cry mixing with the sounds of the wind and birds, as the Son takes his last, solitary walk. There is perhaps another indication of humanity in the film is a shot of a triple-masted sailing ship, silently traversing the ocean waves in the far distance; the only real problem was that the rustic dacha never appeared to be anywhere near the ocean. This scene occurs late in the film, when the Son is walking alone, overcome with grief, and in the context of the shots, it seems that the Son is looking at the ship in the distance, but again, this seems to be impossible. Is it a dream? An image from the past? Of course, it could be related to Sokurov’s interest in Romantic paintings, seascapes and sailing ships often appearing as subjects in various artworks.
That brings me to the film’s visual style and sound design, which were the prime areas of interest for me while watching the movie. The film is roughly 67 minutes long, and is compromised of about 60 shots, with an average shot length of about one minute (these stats come from the program notes, which were written by a grad student who specializes in Russian cinema). To say that the film is contemplative and deliberately paced is an understatement. Most of the film’s shots consist of the Son walking, either alone, or carrying his mother, and the Son watching over his mostly unconscious mother. Except in a few scenes, there is very little dialogue. Instead, we get snatches of classical music and ambient sounds: the howl of the wind through the trees, the low rumble of thunder, the plaintive cries of birds, and the foreboding buzzing of flies. Much of the film takes place outside, and the distant framing causes the two characters to be dwarfed by the surrounding nature (again, much like Romantic painting; most of the film’s close-ups and medium shots occur within the dacha). Sokurov appears to shoot some of the scenes through various types of filters, but most importantly, he shoots through panes of painted glass. Besides distorting the image (mostly vertically, the characters features are elongated, but sometimes, depending on the angle, they appear foreshortened) and throwing the film into a perpetual soft focus, this rather unique shooting technique creates an impression like their are brushstrokes on the film image itself. This technique, when coupled with the distant framing and omnipresent nature, almost perfectly recreates a Romantic landscape painting. Just compare the shots from the film (below) with the paintings of Carl David Friedrich (above). Sokurov creates a landscape of living paintings, a landscape that is both beautiful and familiar, as well as distorted and alien. This unnerving quality is much like grief itself.
The actual structure of the film is quite interesting. The film begins and ends with the Son looking over his mother, except at the end, she has died. He pledges his eternal devotion to her, clasping her hand. The film also features two strolls through the countryside. In the first, the Son and Mother walk together, and he is composed, trying to comfort his dying mother. In the second walk, the Son walks completely alone. At one key point in this second stroll, the Son leans his head against a large and begins to choke back tears, one of the few times that he openly shows his grief (this is also the scene where he glimpses the ship). The Son is dwarfed by nature, the canopy of trees casting shadows around him. He’s alone, ultimately insignificant in the face of nature.