Dir: Sergei Loznitsa; Starring: Vasilina Makovsteva, Marina Kleshcheva, Lia Akhedzhakova, Valeriu Andruiuta, Boris Kamorzin, Sergei Kolesov. Cert tbc, 143 mins.
“Man is a wolf to his fellow man,” a taxi driver tells his passenger in Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature, as their vehicle wends its way towards a monolithic prison block. “And how do wolves live? In packs. Got it?”
If you haven’t, you will soon enough. Loznitsa’s extraordinary new film, which screened in competition at Cannes last night, is a wildly ambitious and persistently jaw-dropping odyssey into Russia’s heartless darkness, where humans circle one another in predatory spirals, churning up whirlpools of violence, corruption and sleaze from which there can be no escape.
For a film that runs to almost two and a half hours, its plot is comically simple – a woman tries to deliver a parcel – with no obvious debt to the Dostoyevsky novella from which it borrows its name. But the shadow of the great Russian novelist looms from every corner – one character even recites Captain Lebjadkin’s poem about the cockroach from The Possessed – while debts to the intricate and savage 19th century satires of Gogol and Saltykov-Shchedrin are also sharply felt.
There is also strong flavours of Ken Russell and Gaspar Noé in an intentionally head-spinning 11th-hour twist, which prompted raucous booing at the critics’ screening here. But this preposterous manoeuvre lays the groundwork for a final shot that’s so intensely chilling, it as if a draught of arctic air is rolling off the screen and through the audience’s bones.
The passenger in the taxi is a nameless woman, played by Vasilina Makovsteva, who is trying to deliver a parcel of food and clothing to her incarcerated husband in person, after it’s unexpectedly returned with a 200-rouble handling fee. She retrieves the parcel from the post office – a job that feels less like an errand than a hostage negotiation, thanks to the undisguised hostility of the counter clerk – then journey’s by bus, train, taxicab and finally on foot to the Siberian fortress in which he’s being detained.
The story unfolds in present-day Russia (it was shot in southeastern Latvia), but the prison town she arrives in feels stranded in a darker age. Like the village at the foot of Kafka’s Castle, the whole place, from the police force to the prostitution racket, is in the institution’s thrall – it’s also a “strategic location,” someone confides in her, “and every strategic location has its bosses.”
Identifying two of them doesn’t take long. The streets are named in honour of Marx and Lenin, and a stone bust of the former Soviet ruler almost seems to turn and stare the woman down as she leaves the railway station in a taxi – one of countless hair-raising shots here from cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who also worked with Loznitsa on his previous narrative features, My Joy (2010) and In The Fog (2012). (Two equally challenging documentaries, Maidan (2014) and Austerlitz (2016), came in the interim.)
Progress seems impossible – the woman is stonewalled or diverted everywhere she turns – so she takes a bed at a local guesthouse on the insistence of its owner (Marina Kleshcheva), a beady-eyed, mouldering potato of a woman who sidles up to her outside the prison gates. The place is as coarse and crowded as a Hogarth print – the evening’s entertainment is a vodka-charged frenzy of singing, groping and urination, while children clamber over the furniture behind. As the locals roar and swear, there’s a creeping sense that the entire town is imprisoned inside an endless cycle of its past mistakes.
Loznitsa’s construction of this world apart – which is, of course, a grotesque allegory for Russia itself – is as immersive as it is unnerving. Scenes splutter and bubble like boiled-out pans of broth, thanks largely to the constant presence of violence in the frame – whether in unexplained brawls between townsfolk that play out in the middle distance, or the snatches of eavesdropped conversations that the woman overhears as she’s buffeted between waiting rooms and queues.
Even in the post office, an unseen man contentedly mulls over the prospect of nuking the United States: “You think Russians don’t know how to aim?” he rumbles. “There are many ways to blow up America with a single nuclear missile.” One anecdote ends with a body being torn apart so that it resembles a Union Jack. The punchline of another involves a man discovering a familiar hand in a mound of severed limbs. Like the barking dogs and radios blasting Russian pop music, the words are just another part of the fabric of this world.
The quality of gentleness in Loznitsa’s title is a kind of passive forbearance which, in this red-tape-entangled hell at least, is a precondition of survival. I might be wrong, but I don’t think Makovsteva smiles once throughout the film, and her expressions often somehow seem older than the face they’re stretched across. Her work is muted and morose, but also nuanced and riveting, and there’s an exactness to her slow build of despair as she realises she may be snagged in a trap from which there’s no escape. What destroys you is she presses on.