Cannes 2017: Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature

On Film / The Daily — May 25, 2017

“Sergei Loznitsa’s documentaries are conceived as silent commentary,” begins Jay Weissberg in Variety. “His rigorously edited, coolly composed shots contain all the information needed for viewers to feel the weight of his argument. By contrast, his fiction films (My Joy, In the Fog) play with storytelling in a freewheeling way, combining narrative and cinematic audacity in scenes that shift from the sublime to the phantasmagoric. After five years of canonical nonfiction from the director, it’s something of a shock to watch A Gentle Creature, a dense, nightmarish feature that takes aim at Russia’s befouled soul, in which a nameless woman [Vasilina Makovetseva] tries to learn why the package she mailed to her prisoner husband was returned without explanation.”

“Discovering relatively quickly that this was no simple administrative snafu, the woman then gives herself over to the pimps and racketeers in the hope that she’ll somehow find her answer,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies. “She seems utterly untroubled by danger, constantly handing over her passport to random tyrants who claim to want to help her (even though she’s been hoodwinked over and over again). She goes deeper and deeper down this festering rabbit hole, and all you want her do to is get back on the train, go back to her country shack and play with her dog. This inevitably makes for dreary and punishing cinema.”

“Powerful though bloated, A Gentle Creature is a companion to Loznitsa’s phenomenal first narrative feature, My Joy,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage. “Though not as successful as its predecessor, Loznitsa’s latest nonetheless confirms the director’s place of honor amongst cinema’s most vociferous critics of Putin’s kingdom. . . . Were it not for the redundant dream sequence that takes up A Gentle Creature’s final half-hour and completely derails the film, Loznitsa may well have pulled off a masterpiece—if a supremely unpleasant one at that.”

This is “a 143-minute odyssey of frustration and despair, featuring maybe 100 speaking roles, and expressing a pessimism so thick it makes last week’s fellow Cannes competitor Loveless look like cornball wish-fulfillment by comparison,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “In its endlessly repeating note of failure, in its gallery of miserable characters, in the way it attempts to make the audience feel every heavy step its heroine takes, A Gentle Creature is not an easy sit. What’s more, the final passage is a major miscalculation, abandoning what works—albeit gruelingly—about the rest of the film. All the same, the sheer scope of the project demands recognition. It misses the moon by a galaxy, but at least it is has the nerve to take the shot.”

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds the film to be “gripping and absorbing in its way, although perhaps too conscious of its own metaphorical properties and opinion may divide as to whether its expressionist element works. Yet there is no doubt as to its power, and its severity.”

In the Hollywood Reporter, Leslie Felperin notes that it’s only “tenuously related to the Dostoyevsky story of the same name and the 1969 film adaptation of that source material by Robert Bresson” and “there are piercing echoes here of absurdist fiction by Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka and others, as well as mythical journeys to the underworld.”

“The film needs to be viewed as a fantasy, first and foremost,” argues Nikola Grozdanovic at the Playlist. As for that dream sequence, Barbara Scharres, writing for RogerEbert.com, sees it as “the film’s magic-realist relief and a touch of almost Kaurismäki-like humor. Like almost everything else in this film, the trip to a fairytale cottage in a horse-drawn carriage goes from dream to bureaucratic nonsense to true nightmare.” At Cineuropa, Fabien Lemercier considers it to be a “suicidal stylistic about turn (which will nonetheless perhaps acquire cult status in time, who knows).”

Screen’s Lee Marshall: “Working once more with Moldovan cinematographer Oleg Mutu (whose credits include 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, In Bloom, and Beyond the Hills), the director is on top cinematic form in A Gentle Creature, juxtaposing a few brief, melancholic golden-hour landscape shots with cramped interiors—buses, train compartments, waiting rooms, cars and nightclubs—that suggest Russian prisons are not just of the penal variety. A masterful multi-layered shot that occurs during the woman’s police car ordeal is just one of several small miracles of visual storytelling. Music is mostly diegetic, with Soviet-era military anthems and sentimental love songs belted out by several characters along the way, stoking a maudlin patriotism whose dark underbelly Loznitsa sets out to illuminate.”

“I’m passionate both about fiction and about documentary,” Loznitsa tells Variety’s Alissa Simon. “And yes—I work all the time. The next fiction project is called Donbass. It’s a contemporary story taking place in Ukraine. If everything goes according to the plan, we begin the preparations in September or October.”

Update, 5/26: The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin sees “debts to the intricate and savage 19th century satires of Gogol and Saltykov-Shchedrin” as well as “strong flavors 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 maneuver 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.”

Update, 5/27: Dispatching to Film Comment, Jonathan Romney writes that “what Loznitsa is showing us is the rancid back-of-beyond flip side to the glossy emotional desert of Loveless’s Moscow story. But the director has previously depicted Russia as a country that’s still, in many ways, trapped in the horrors not just of its 19th century but also an older past. In his similarly horrific fiction My Joy (2010), it’s suggested that anyone misguided or unfortunate enough to drive off a main road in the deep Russia of small villages is risking descent into madness and violence: the dilapidated settings, the faces of the haggard wrecks and drinkers of A Gentle Creature say as much. It depicts the Russian experience as an intersection between Dostoevsky and Kafka, although that doesn’t quite begin to capture its extremity—or suggest the redeeming grain of hope that, despite everything, its heroine embodies.”

Update, 5/28: For Marc van de Klashorst at the International Cinephile Society, the film confirms “the oppressiveness of the Russian collective and the position of the individual within it, a carefully painted image of a society that cannot move forward as a result of a system that pushed out the individual, leading to a shared sense of defeatism and fatalism, and a denial of culpability and the negatives that the system brought with it.”

“Loznitza is known for his political outspokenness, a trait that is on conspicuous display in the following interview,” writes Richard Porton at the Daily Beast. “He needed little prompting to express his contempt for the Russian government, Donald Trump, and bureaucratic stupidity.”

Update, 5/30: Notebook editor Daniel Kasman tells us that, in the dream sequence, “many of the passing characters in her journey testify to their involvement in her suffering,” and this “confirms that it’s not just the government apparatus at fault, but rather that the entire society is guilty of abetting such obfuscation, cruelty, selfishness and a near complete absence of compassion. The vision is uniformly bleak, but Loznitsa’s frame, as in his recent political documentaries Maidan, The Event, and Austerlitz, is at least itself a force of analytic compassion, able to gather people together, even in unhappiness, and ask the hard questions.”

Update, 6/1: For Film Comment, Jordan Cronk talks with Loznitsa about “the suppressed state of political cinema in Russia, the importance of aesthetics in his films, and the everyday absurdity of provincial life in the former Soviet Union.”

Update, 7/4: “As a comedic canvas, A Gentle Creature reliably surprises, bringing its own special energy to a Russian tradition of grotesque social panoramas (à la Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God or Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4),” writes Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold. “Loznitsa concludes with a vision of Russia sleeping through waking catastrophe and encountering only more nightmares, revealing that the film hasn’t just been skating by on horrors; the pain is real.”

Cannes 2017 Index. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.