Winter Sleeper
by Chloe Lizotte

NYFF 2017
A Gentle Creature
Dir. Sergei Loznitsa, France/Russia, no distributor

Two clashing sound cues initiate the viewer into the world of A Gentle Creature during the opening credits: a stuttering car ignition seems to grind itself to a pulp against the introductory piano flourishes of Oleg Karavaichuk’s “Waltz of Catherine the Great with Her Favorites.” At first, the noisy engine contrasts neatly with the stately waltz, but the Karavaichuk piece, a twentieth-century composer’s interpretation of the unstable grandeur of the Russian Empire, is hardly a traditional suite: as it progresses it seems to collapse in on itself with sudden crescendos, dissonant harmonies, and reverb-heavy percussion. But in defiance of that certain doom, we hear the car successfully rev up and drive away at the end of the credits—the driver isn’t confronting his worn-down system’s decay anytime soon.

Neither is the Russia depicted in A Gentle Creature, the third fiction feature from Belarus-born, Ukrainian-raised Sergei Loznitsa. His new film joins a 20-year body of work—featuring short and feature documentaries in addition to fiction films—that is most broadly invested in the consequences of ignoring history. His 2010 fiction debut, My Joy, descends into a Dante-style spiral through a post-Soviet rural Russia stunted by amoral carnage; his most recent documentary feature, 2016’s Austerlitz, observes the disturbing paradox of contemporary tourists sightseeing at preserved World War II concentration camps. With A Gentle Creature, Loznitsa suggests that contemporary Russia is something of an all-consuming prison without borders; a human rights activist in the film remarks that “they ran out of barbed wire” to keep all the people in. But another character, a taxi driver, points out that “prisons keep people safe”—an angle that fascinates Loznitsa. His film becomes a study of passive groupthink and collective nostalgia, security blankets that eventually induce a dream state that consumes his protagonist.

A Gentle Creature ends up in almost entirely different narrative territory from the Dostoevsky short story of the same name that inspired it; while the original story narrates an insecure ex-soldier’s obsession with holding power over his withdrawn younger wife, the film follows the “gentle creature” (Vasilina Makovtseva) as she tries to locate her husband, who seems to have gone missing in prison. The details are sketchy; she first senses something is amiss when a care package is returned to her without any explanation. We piece together scant details from passing conversations while she travels to the prison where he’s supposedly jailed for murder. Like My Joy, the film shepherds our protagonist through a winding maze of encounters with fleeting characters—postal workers, customs officers, mob bosses, prostitutes—and as each one tries to learn more about her, Makovtseva keeps her jaw locked tight, preferring to keep any revealing details close to the vest. When a member of a raucous drunken sing-along in her boarding house demands to know her name, she admits it’s “Alyonka,” but we will never know if this is true (in the end, Loznitsa only credits her as “a gentle creature”). By staying guarded, she tries to keep herself cloistered from her violent surroundings, where eye contact incites arguments and fistfights outnumber conversations. Despite her solidity, she often appears diminutive within the frame, and at various points she’s aggressively strip-searched and blockaded by walls of hulking men.

One character tells Makovtseva she’ll have a great time searching for her husband since she’ll get to meet people outside of her village, but based on the run-ins that structure her journey, Loznitsa takes “hell is other people” as a literal edict. When she’s not intercepted by passing cars whose drivers refuse to tell her where they’re taking her, she’s waiting in boisterous lines to talk to ornery bureaucratic officials, each a new dead end. Loznitsa reteams with frequent cinematographer Oleg Mutu to choreograph serpentine long takes through these waiting rooms, which seem to unfurl organically as they weave a dense web of movement and voices. But A Gentle Creature departs somewhat from his earlier fiction work in his framing of large ensembles: he’ll often pack a tableau with a crowd of unfamiliar faces, then almost imperceptibly shift the camera angle to reveal Makovtseva on the edge of the group. Sometimes she cautiously watches the others, most often she keeps her eyes averted from all eye contact, but Loznitsa’s camera always reinforces that she’s listening. His sound design overflows with heightened conversations about death and destruction, whether it’s nuclear war, unidentified body parts, or a mental institution burning down in an infernal fire. By keeping an emotional and critical distance from the world around her, Makovtseva clings to her agency to cut through the noise of a broken system. One could say that some of Loznitsa’s documentaries take the same observational approach as Makovtseva’s character, but in his fiction films, that sort of logic proves to be futile. Decay is the only outcome his characters can count on, so Loznitsa structures his narratives to collapse on them, and like the Karavaichuk piece from the title sequence, he leverages societal critique through self-reflexive rubble.

If the end is certain, then it makes sense that A Gentle Creature’s characters tend toward thoughts of the past. The film is awash in textural references to Russian political and cultural history, through statuary, street names, folk songs, literature, and music, which most often contribute to a prevailing culture of pre-1991 Russian nostalgia. While reminiscing about his relatives who fought in the Soviet army, a train passenger breaks into a rendition of “I Remember That Port in Vanino,” a folk song that’s also a Gulag anthem; later, a man giving Makovtseva directions insists that they should have named an avenue after Felix Dzerzhinsky, who founded the Soviet secret police, rather than a mere street. Loznitsa is especially interested in how cultural products can offer a sort of fabricated refuge from addressing the present: characters wax nostalgic for imagined pasts of purpose and order, using them as a sort of anywhere-but-here anesthesia. Rather than leave it there, Loznitsa goes further to imply that this false remembrance could turn reality into a question mark—an imposing bust of Lenin outside the train station might hint that Makovtseva has left the present day and unknowingly journeyed into a peculiar kind of Oz, where iconography eclipses humanity.

In fact, her voyage’s increasing detachment from reality builds up to an actual nightmare. Makovtseva makes the cardinal mistake of nodding off in a train station, much like the slumbering subjects of Loznitsa’s 2000 short The Train Stop, only to be awakened and led to a fur-lined horse-drawn carriage, which whisks her off into a Soviet-era dream sequence. Loznitsa overexposes the sequence to give its whites and lights an uncanny glow, calling to mind the ghostly found footage appearance of his 2012 documentary short The Letter, another film visually detached from time and reality. The haze carries over into a Soviet banquet hall, decorated in lush reds and whites, where a trial seems to be taking place to determine whether Makovtseva can see her husband again. Each character she encountered earlier in the film briefly testifies, but the statements veer into oblique soapboxing: a postal worker discussing her branch’s business is interrupted by wrap-up music and applause, a bus rider who spotted Makovtseva from afar implores the group to pay more attention to their fellow “passengers” in life, and a poet quotes Dostoevsky’s Demons—“the cockroach doesn’t complain.” Instead of lulling one into a trance, the lengthy sequence’s bureaucratic drag only draws more attention to the nightmarish artifice. Instead of a stylistic about-face, the scene feels like a logical extension of Loznitsa’s tone—he heightens everyday characters and situations to almost mythical proportions, stitching them together in a hellish picaresque evoking Dante’s Inferno. In this vein, Loznitsa finds a kindred spirit in Nikolai Gogol, who channeled Inferno into his satire of 19th-century Russia, Dead Souls. But while Gogol is more absurdist than outwardly surrealist, Loznitsa’s gradual removal of the underpinnings of reality is a key element of his game, seeming to indicate how easily truth can slip away if it’s not actively protected.

A Gentle Creature is more of a destabilizing shock to the system than a call to arms, a confrontation with a broken state rather than a blueprint to rebuild it. It confirms Loznitsa as a master craftsman of the impeccably designed and crafted hellscape, politically charged and all-consuming. Although he takes a bombastic route to a horrific finale, it’s often the muted, wordless scenes that linger the most in the mind. At one point in the film, Makovtseva walks down a deserted road in the dead of night, cutting a small shadow into a deep blue frame. The figure of a man slowly emerges from the darkness behind her, only to watch her from a distance before Loznitsa cuts to the next scene. In hauntingly economical moments like this, Loznitsa gives even the punctuating beats of his film a precarious energy, creating the potential for it to devolve into a nightmare at any instant.