A Gentle Creature

 

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A longer review to explain why a potential masterpiece falls short.

   Gentle Creature, A

Vasilina Makovtseva

 

From time to time after seeing a misjudged movie I find myself taking the view that within it there was a good film trying to get out. What makes Sergei Loznitsa’s Russian feature A Gentle Creature unique in my experience is that in this case the film trying to get out is not merely a good film but a masterpiece. The storyline here is simplicity itself. At the outset, a wife (Vasilina Makovtseva) has a parcel returned to her, one that she had sent to her husband in prison. Since no explanation comes with its return, she leaves her country home to travel to the spot where the distant prison is located, believing that her husband may well be dead but anxious in any case to discover all that she can. What ensues as she tries to gain access to the prison is a bureaucratic nightmare, one that can only be described as Kafkaesque.

 

Although there are references to Russia’s past in the days of Stalin, this tale appears to be more or less contemporary and its portrayal of Russian society could hardly be bleaker. Our heroine not only faces disdain and obstruction but people take advantage of her too. In addition to that, overheard conversations on her journey indicate that, even if the world outside Russia is seen as a threat, within that country many people have tales to tell no less dark than the one being narrated in this film. Furthermore, the fact that no characters in A Gentle Creature are known to us by name - not even the heroine - suggests that they exist in a society in which individualism has been blotted out entirely: human beings are no more than ants living a controlled existence.

 

This may be a grim subject but the film holds the viewer magnetised and it achieves this for two reasons. First of all, the casting of Vasilina Makovtseva is perfect. Since the screenplay gives us very little information about the heroine’s background, it is vital that we should recognise and applaud the persistence that she brings to her mission. Makovtseva expresses this quality in the most extraordinary way: we feel it as though it comes from the deepest depths of the character she is playing. But equally crucial is the approach that Loznitsa brings to the material. This won’t appeal to all viewers because there are audiences who find a slow pace difficult to accept and here the pace is very, very slow. Its effect, however, is to make us take in the setting as something wholly real and, with the director often favouring static shots, we are encouraged to focus on this central figure who is present almost throughout. One example can be given by way of illustration. When our heroine is due to take a bus back into the country to the stop nearest to her isolated home, a long held shot shows us a queue lined up in the street. Then, without any movement of the camera being added, we have the arrival of the bus followed by a distant but clear view through its windows revealing that the vehicle is becoming so full that some passengers are having to stand. After this the bus moves off leaving the camera still observing the street seen now minus any queue but with traffic passing. Then, but only then, does Loznitsa cut: this is a world that we can recognise and enter.

 

Given the remarkable quality of the lead performance and the acute judgment of the visual presentation, one has to ask how it is that by the end the film seems to have betrayed its potential. The answer is threefold. First of all, there is the question of the running time, for A Gentle Creature lasts only seven minutes short of two and a half hours. To include a drinking scene is doubtless authentic to Russian life, but to show two such episodes only adds to our awareness of the excessive length. Indeed, this misjudgment over timing is directly connected to the second weakness, the fact that although the film has powerful points to make it goes on making them over and over again, not so much developing its theme as repeating it. The third element undermining the film is its inconsistent style: for much of its length there is a strong sense of harsh reality with the Kafkaesque aspect stopping short of the surreal but then, within its last section, there is a totally different approach. This comes in the form of a long, stylised scene featuring an official dinner at which most of the people encountered by our heroine on her travels reappear. Since this happens so late in the day and so unexpectedly (a possible explanation of it becomes apparent only afterwards), it is all too easy to lose patience with the film just before it reverts to its earlier style to give us an appropriately harrowing conclusion.

 

None of these misjudgments can reduce the impact of the central performance and so much of the film is of the highest artistic merit that despite its major flaws it deserves to be seen. As though to confirm how good A Gentle Creature is at its best, the final shot of the film is quite perfect.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Vasilina Makovtseva, Marina Kleshcheva. Lia Akhedzhakova, Valeriu Andriuta, Boris Kamorzin, Sergei Kolesov.

 

Dir Sergei Loznitsa, Pro Marianne Slot, Screenplay Sergei Loznitsa, Ph Oleg Muti, Art Dir Kiril Shuvalov, Ed Danielius Kokanauskis, Costumes Dorota Roqueplo.

  
Slot Machine/Arte France Cinéma/GP Cinema Company/LOOKSFilm/Studio Uljana Kim/Wild Bunch-Arrow Films.
143 mins. France/Germany/Lithuania/The Netherlands/Russian Federation/Ukraine/Latvia. 2017. Rel: 13 April 2018. Cert. 18.