Tale in the Darkness

[Skazka pro temnotu]

Russia, 2009
Color, 77 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Nikolai Khomeriki
Screenplay: Aleksandr Radionov, Nikolai Khomeriki
Director of Photography: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Production Designer: Liudmila Diupina
Sound: Arkadii Molotkov, Viktor Timshin
Cast: Alisa Khazanova, Boris Kamorzin, Iurii Safarov, Larisa Belobrova, Aleksandr Doluda
Producer: Roman Borisevich, Aleksandr Kushaev
Production: Koktebel Studio

Premiering at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2009, Tale in the Darkness had its Russian debut at Kinotavr, where Boris Kamorzin won Best Actor for the role of Dymich. Later that year it competed for the Grand Prize at the “Sputnik over Poland” Festival of Russian Cinema in Warsaw. Nikolai Khomeriki calls his films neformatnye (inconsistent with traditional genre formats) and Tale in the Darkness is a good example. As its title suggests, Tale relies on fairytale elements and characteristics, albeit in desolate, post-Soviet form. In many ways, Khomeriki’s second full-length film is an optimistic response to the chernukha tradition with which it is so often compared. Despite the film’s visual bleakness, it turns around the axes of love, hope, and language. These elements appear in inverted or disguised form, however, complicating an otherwise straightforward quest for love and family.

Tale in the Darkness follows Gelia (Alisa Khazanova), a policewoman who works in the child welfare division of the local force, as she journeys to find love. Gelia’s job is her life; her police uniform is the sacred and protective armor she dons to connect herself to identity and belonging. In a gentling of chernukha’s frequent use of police imagery, Khomeriki’s police seem to exist only within the tight confines of their stairwell cum fumoir, and take pride in solving murders and rescuing abused children. While there is still cruelty, it is verbal and takes place only between male and female officers. It is not one sided, however; both male and female officers use sexual obscenities and crude gestures to communicate. Not only is this the cops’ primary means of conversing, it is their only means of expressing affection and attraction.
Language in the film has magical properties. The incantatory phrase, “Ia tebia liubliu,” (I love you) frames the movie: it is spray painted on a tree in the opening shot and is uttered by Gelia in the final scene. In between, she clumsily uses it to draw Pasha, her latest surrogate child, into love’s spell. She takes him to play and talks to him in maternal tones. When he responds by telling her she is a “dried up old cunt,” she utters the magic words again: “A ty zhe menia liubish', Pasha” (But you love me, Pasha). “Net, ne liubliu” (No, I don’t). Love, or an intimate connection with another human being, appears to be dangerous to the inhabitants of Gelia’s world. Obscenities and insults provide protection from these perils and are used by all, including children, to ward them off.

Pasha functions much as a traditional folktale helper figure, or Vladimir Propp’s donor. Unnoted by most critics, Gelia has already begun her quest before meeting the child; her tango lessons are the first step in creating space for intimacy and interiority. Her interaction with Pasha propels the plot forward, allowing her to encounter the first of her three romantic trials, another typical folkloric convention. Bagrat, (Iurii Safarov), a Georgian migrant worker, embodies the wild other. After Gelia watches him commune with belugas she brings him home and feeds him. This parody of domesticity is disrupted by his (not unwelcome) sexual attentions. Instead of disrobing, however, she dons her police uniform, a gesture of both self-revelation and repulsion. Her second “trial” suggests a dream, or a return to a mythical and imaginary past. The poet (Aleksandr Doluda) appears to her seated upon a pristine 1955 Ford Thunderbird convertible, recites poetry to her, and transports her to a place of natural beauty, bards, and pleasure. He offers her a cliché image of a lost svoi, or collective: the soulful and sincere shestidesiatniki (men of the 1960s). This experience could be seen as a purification—in order to advance with her search she must first strip herself of present-day cares and cynicism. Her naked body visually demonstrates her successful cleansing.

Her adventure with the poet connects her not only to an imaginary lost narod, or “Russian people,” it also allows her to return to what may be her childhood home. There is something traumatic about this return, yet it is only once she has made this final voyage that she is able to embark on (or return to) her last romantic encounter. She goes to her workplace, finally able to convince her brutish colleague Dymich (Boris Kamorzin) to become her tango partner. He has always been her first choice: in the opening sequence, after he gropes her breast in front of colleagues she invites him to come to her dance lessons. For Gelia, the dance studio is more intimate than the bedroom and the tango more personal than sex. In order to complete her folkloric journey, she must persuade Dymich to progress from the obscenities and blunt sexuality of their workplace to the civilian, sensual space of the tango. She accomplishes this using equal parts seduction, prevarication, and humiliation.

Khomeriki’s choice of location creates a paradoxical impression of endle
ssness and entrapment, revealing much about Gelia’s interiority. Vladivostok occupies a geographical and imaginary threshold: it is bounded by a sea that is at once Russia’s gateway to the Pacific and the edge that inhabitants cannot reach. Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev’s cinematography beautifully captures this liminality. Space seeps: sea and sky become indistinguishable; pollution blurs earth and air. The loss of depth perception flattens and disorients, turning a potentially boundless expanse into a tightly constrained landscape. Indoor space is as gray and claustrophobic as the world outside. As a transitional figure, Gelia appears most often in or is glimpsed through threshold spaces, especially shorelines, hallways, doorways, and staircases. This positioning reinforces the feeling of enclosure and stagnation. Ultimately, Gelia can only free herself from isolation by embracing the constraints of her environment. Both indoors and out, this life is stifling: the only possibility for escape lies in the potential of finding love.

Nikolai Khomeriki (1975- ):

Born in Moscow, Khomeriki graduated from the economics division of the International University in 1996 and the Advanced Courses for Scriptwriters and Film Directors [VKSR] in 2000. That same year he received a grant from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to study directing at La Fémis (France).

2009 Beliaev
2009 Churchill (TV series)
2009 Tale in the Darkness
2006 977
2006 Scars (assistant director)
2005 Two of Us (short)
2005 Regular Lovers (assistant director)
2004 Tempest
2002 Namesake

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