a book by Isa Willinger

Introduction: Kira Muratova's Cinema of Subversion


An aged woman in saucy lingerie; a lank exhibitionist wearing giant rectangular glasses; a diva in the style of Hollywood-blondes, who kills other women for moral reasons. Checked fabrics, sometimes in combination with dots; legs and arms in plaster; and again and again, a doll, thrown away carelessly, or alternatively, starring into the camera in an upright posture. Characters with artificial facial expressions and gestures, repeating their lines mechanically, sometimes for several minutes. Some of them seem closer to marionettes than humans. At times these eccentric characters erupt into a dance, which is not directed towards other characters, but towards the film-audience. Kira Muratova's films are full of subversive power. In this book, I explore where exactly their subversive potential is located.

Muratova, born in 1934, was the most important female Soviet film director, and she remains one of the most significant filmmakers of Russian-language cinema to this day. Her oeuvre begins in the 1960s, when the liberal Thaw had just come to an end, and it runs through Perestroika and the anarchic 1990s until the present, as the director continues to work in Ukraine.

In contemporary Russian-language film, Muratova is, alongside Alexander Sokurov, considered to be the most idiosyncratic film director. Nevertheless, the broad public in Russia can only recall her second film The Long Farewell.1 Her audience is composed mostly of cineastes and film festival visitors, but even those react dividedly to Muratova's films: some celebrate them as cult movies, others can barely tolerate them.

It is difficult to place Muratova in one category of filmmakers, Russian or not Russian. Hans-Joachim Schlegel once fittingly remarked that a connection could be drawn to Vera Chytilova's Czech New-Wave-films, especially Daisies.2 Moreover, it seems to me that Muratova's film language is in some ways closely related to Peter Greenaway's surreal theatricality.

Muratova's career as a film-director started in the 1960s, the time when an urge for social renewal was still spreading through Soviet Union. The Thaw-atmosphere of the Khrushchev era was over, but de-Stalinization had left its marks on society and oppositional groups were increasing. The art scene broke into two camps, one official and one alternative3. Muratova belonged to a small group of auteur filmmakers, like Andrey Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov, Alexey German and Sergey Paradzhanov, who all broke away from Socialist Realism, the artistic scheme prescribed by the Soviet State. The independent filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s did not form a common artistic school, though; each one of them developed their own film poetics. Nonetheless, what unites most of Muratova's contemporaries is a tendency towards spirituality or mysticism, which was excluded from official Soviet culture. In contrast to this spiritual movement, Muratova's films are marked by a constructivist perspective: they expose human ideas and rituals of social coexistence as culturally constructed fictions. This angle gives her oeuvre an extraordinary position in the context of Soviet auteur cinema.

In Muratova's early films, in which the director stages emotional worlds, she is to some degree still affirming the human subject. But even in these partially romantically tinged films, there are aspects that make one doubt Muratova's harmonic view of the human. Again and again in those films, ritual actions become the target of parody. Sometimes, rituals of official culture are estranged, often, however, Muratova parodies her characters' daily conduct: A typical woman-to-woman-talk at the hairdresser's, or mothers who soliloquize about their babies, oblivious to the world around them. Often, it is a technique of verbal repetition that serves to unmask patterns of human conduct as socially constructed, exhibiting their fabricated effect. This unmasking was incompatible with the Soviet State's ideology, and yet, the constructivist approach to it, ironically, bears an undeniable relation to Marxist theory.

Muratova's constructivist view is also reflected in her production design and her costumes - a necessity the costume designer Rustam Chamdamov taught her in 1976:
He said: "When you put a necklace on an actress, let the string between the pearls be seen. Let there be gaps between the pearls, so that the construction of things becomes visible. So that it becomes visible that the pearls are lined up on a string." For me this was a revelation: In everything there is another hidden layer. () We understand the construction. And you start to think. Everything is constructed, not only the costumes, but everything.4


Defining Motives and Techniques

One returning principle in Muratova's oeuvre is the parodying of gender roles, gender being the maybe most fundamental constitutional category of identities, human relations and hierarchies. Misogynist remarks like "Women are weaker, so that men can rape them," as well as exaggerated femaleness, become the focus of grotesque, satirical and unmasking caricatures in her films. These parodying scenes point in the direction of a performance that - in the terms of deconstructivist feminism - "reveals the performative status of the natural itself."5

Muratova's view of the human subject as incomplete and instable also finds its analogy in the fact that characters constantly fail at intersubjectively forming a common reality. When the characters communicate, they often do not understand each other or they drift off into monologues that do not have any listeners. In the early films, broken telephone lines prevent connectedness rather than enabling it. Or alternatively, the characters repeat one sentence over and over, until it has lost its original meaning. In many of the later films, the verbal repetitions are taken to the extreme, creating an atmosphere of lunacy and partially dehumanizing the characters.

The image of the doll and the motif of the twins, appearing in almost each one of Muratova's films, function in a similar way. They are distorting mirrors of the human subject. Both of them - one as a freeze and the other one as an unreal doubling - render the human and his or her doings grotesque. In this context of deconstructing identity, Muratova's striking presentation of animals can be understood, too. In certain respects, the animal performs the function of radically questioning human subjects and their actions.

Muratova, however, does not merely present these decentered subjects to her audience. Her films aim at destabilizing the spectators as well. An exuberant visuality, in conjunction with sound and montage techniques, helps to destroy narrative cohesion and disorient film reception. In the early black-and-white-films, fragmentary, collage-like montage sequences unhinge the photographed objects from their meanings. This, together with an intense soundtrack, activates the spectators' sensual perception beyond cognitive deciphering.

In later films, collage remains an important formal technique. At the same time, these films are characterized by colorful and ornamental production designs, by characters performing showily directly to the film audience and by montage sequences, full of affective contrasts, similar to Sergey Eisenstein's montage of attractions. Muratovas films, I argue, aim at a strongly physically oriented perception stimulating the body's senses and affects, as cognitive certainty is continuously undermined.

The Composition of the Book

In this book, I am examining the techniques from which the subversive power in Muratova's films grows. I am putting Muratova's idiosyncratic aesthetics into a theoretical context of bodily affect, critique of the human subject, gender and performativity. This book is - perhaps infected by Muratova's films - organized according to the principles of collage: Some chapters focus on the analysis of single films, while others trace the development of a motif or a technique in Muratova's oeuvre. As mentioned above, I draw a connection between the subject-critical elements that can be observed on the narrative plane and Muratova's visual language that involves the spectators physically.

In the chapter on The Asthenic Syndrome, I am putting the focus on the topic of the deconstruction of the subject, but I am coming back to different techniques of deconstruction, when I am analyzing gender configurations, the motif of the corpse, and the presentation of animals. In the chapters on Little Passions and Three Stories, I am examining a transferal of diegetic deconstruction onto the spectators' cognitive processes of perception with the help of theories of performativity and of the grotesque. Here, I am arguing that, in film perception, the body's sensuality, as well as its affects, play crucial roles. Especially in moments when signification is made difficult, the physical component of film perception comes to the fore. ()

1. Cp. Abdullaeva 2008, p. 7.
2. Schlegel 2008, p. 148.
3. Cp. Engel 1999, p. 152.
4. Muratova interviewed by I. Willinger, included in this book.
5. Butler 1990, p. 146.