Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 38
Elegy of Life
Directed by Alexander Sokurov
Artificial Eye 598DVD
Colour; Russian with English subtitles
Through his career, Alexander Sokurov has made a series of Elegies about great (and often controversial) Russians. In the early years these hit problems, in part because the subjects – Chaliapin, Gorky, Akhmatova and Shostakovich and others – were to some degree at odds with the regime, if not politically then at least philosophically. Many follow a common aesthetic, assembled footage overlaid with Sokurov’s own contemplative commentary. Perhaps assuming that the audience will know the basics, some give scant attention to biographical facts, and their conflicts with the regime are not always spelt out. This detachment and Sokurov’s own lightly inflected voice give the films a floating, unearthly quality.
But while Elegy of Life: Rostropovich. Vishnevskaya (2006) has such moments, there are also stretches of a greater rootedness as, more conventionally ‘biographical’, it does explain some important moments in the subjects’ lives. However it is hardly chronological and there are still oddly Sokurovian moments – speculation as to what an anonymous woman is thinking as she waits to go in to a concert. And of course, his contemplations of the fate of European culture – also the subject of his famous single-shot Russian Ark (2002) which shows high art (and, more controversially, Russia) as a repository for culture, a buttress against philistinism and a way of drawing a direct connection to the past. Here Slava and Galya are seen as vital links to that culture and the gloomy implication is that without them (as now, in 2013, we are) it will be harder to maintain. Yet paradoxically, Sokurov hails them as ‘citizens of the world’ who, after being expelled from the USSR, refused to accept any of the many offers of nationality, since “there can be only one” i.e. that they could never compromise their true status as Russians. Nevertheless practicality demands a passport and we flick through Rostropovich’s seeing his many stamps and visas before the front cover reveals it to have been issued by … Monaco!
The core of Elegy is formed of two philosophising interviews, a concert prepared and given by Rostropovich, a singing lesson from Vishnevskaya, and a celebratory golden wedding dinner. This is attended by various European royals, and post-Soviet figures including Boris Yeltsin, but the point is to show how Slava treats everyone with the same easy familiarity. Before it he dances a clownish tango with Vishnevskaya and at another point enjoys squeezing a Spanish tune out of a barrel organ.
We get some hints of their famously spiky relationship: her imperious and him alternately serious and clownish. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which: at one point he assures us that in fifty years’ time there will be mixed marriages – between earthlings and visitors from other planets!
Her interview is prefaced by a languorous study of her and her richly decorated costumes, overtly comparing her to a Tsarina. She then tells an uncanny story; how she was visiting a hospital that was working on her children’s charity and she realised that it was where her son had died and that that very day was the anniversary. A second or two of footage of Vishnevskaya in Madame Butterfly and accompanying the section with one of Sokurov’s favourite pieces, Kindertotenlieder is enough to underline the parallel.
The three major artistic figures in their lives were Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn. The film concentrates on the writer, to whom they famously gave shelter, and who was interviewed by Sokurov in 2000’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn.
But Rostropovich also discusses composers, contrasting Shostakovich, who loved Mahler, with Prokofiev who had no feeling for him: Shostakovich embodies the Russian people’s strength and Prokofiev their feeling for beauty. There are a few seconds of Shostakovich praising Rostropovich and, unremarked by the commentary, we see Irina Antonovna at the dinner. Prokofiev is represented in photographs and the subjects’ memories.
Rostropovich rehearses a Penderecki concerto with Ozawa, intercut with Vishnevskaya giving a singing lesson in which she is as much concerned with the acting than the vocal quality – she seems almost to be trying to squeeze her thoughts into the singer as she mouths and grimaces along – there a couple of uncanny moments where the student’s voice seems to be emerging from Vishnevskaya’s body. Meanwhile, back with Slava, the occasional shots of the composer make him seem almost incidental to the music’s production!
Sadly, some of the vocal music is not translated, undermining the effect: these are more than ‘illustrative’ of Vishnevskaya’s art, rather they further the idea of the inextricability of it with her life – an effect that becomes overt as we see Vishnevskaya engrossed in playbacks of her own performances and mouthing along with the singers at her music school. When asked if it is possible for a singer to be as physical as a non-singing actor she replies with a simple “Mogu”: “I can” before we see the fight in Shapiro’s Katerina Izmailova film. Oddly, Sokurov’s voice intervenes apologising for “getting carried away” and allowing the clip to interrupt the conversation – almost as if, for a moment we had drifted into his own reverie.
The film ends rather oddly. Vishnevskaya concludes by firmly stating her belief in eternal life: “I am not afraid of death, not of my own death. I might fear for others but not for myself.” Rostropovich rails against idiots such as those who denounced Shostakovich and Prokofiev in 1948. It’s useless to talk to them: only their grandchildren, he thinks, might even begin to understand such geniuses. Then back to the dinner where he looks lovingly across to Vishnevskaya and we cut to a telephoto shot of her. She looks straight into the camera a purses her lips to blow us (or Slava?) a coquettish kiss.
Elegy of Life isn’t as radical, ambiguous or ambivalent as some of Sokurov’s other films, though there are the perturbations of his aural assaults on the fourth wall and the blocks of material are occasionally put together disconcertingly. Nevertheless, it could probably sit quite easily on a moderately adventurous arts TV channel. Perhaps then, it is more interesting for its subjects than as a Sokurov film, though that was probably his intention.
The subtitles are generally OK (though as noted above not everything is covered) but are sometimes out of sync with the soundtrack. It would have been nice to have spelt Penderecki correctly and at one point there’s an example of the increasingly ubiquitous confusion of ‘loose’ and ‘lose’.
Elegy of Life is available in The Alexander Sokurov Collection from Artificial Eye, along with Save and Protect, his 1989 adaptation of Madame Bovary (so tangential that at its release some didn’t recognise the source material) and The Second Circle (1990) about a man dealing with his father’s death.