Volchok (Wolfy, 2009)
Vassily Sigarev’s debut feature is a raw violent drama of the destructive relationship between a mother and her daughter. A masterpiece of the Russian New Drama.
Vassily Sigarev belongs to the younger generation of Russian directors and is one of the principal representatives of the New Russian Drama. Like the majority of the Drama’s directors, Sigarev is a renowned stage director and writer. He has a theatrical experience for over ten years and his plays have been highly acclaimed both in Russia and abroad. By the age of 23 he wrote Plasticine (2000) which is his first and most successful play.
Sigarev was born and raised near the industrial city of Yekaterinburg close to the Urals, in central Russia, and he belongs to the generation that experienced first-hand the abrupt and violent transformation from communism to capitalism. Sigarev is a self-taught writer; he is always inspired from real events and his thematic is usually classified as underground. He also lived a part of his young life in the underworld since as a driver he had to deliver prostitutes to their clients. In 2009 he is directing his first feature film Volchok / Волчок (Wolfy). The film won the Grand Prize of the Kinotavr Film Festival and the Don Quijote Award – Special Mention at the 44th Karlovy Vary Festival.
The story is set in a small unnamed town somewhere near the Urals. A little girl (Polina Pluchek) is growing up with her grandmother without having ever seen her mother. The day she gave birth to her, the mother (Yana Troianova) was arrested because she committed a crime of passion. After seven years she is released from prison and this is the first time she sees her daughter. The girl will try to come closer to her because she missed her but the relationship between them will be harsh and destructive. The mother does not care for her daughter and she continues her easy life with many lovers, alcohol and continuous absences. Despite all her efforts to reach out and love her mother, the girl receives only rejection, humiliation and neglect from her.
Volchok is a hard powerful drama that follows a strong almost brute narrative that is so impressively realistic and can thrill the viewer. Sigarev wrote his scenario in 2006 and the next year he staged the theatrical play of it. The inspiration behind the story is predominantly based on the personal experiences of the actress and director’s wife, Yana Troianova who was also the protagonist in the theatrical adaptation. The story bears many biographical elements of her life and describes the true relationship with her mother. The title Volchok is wordplay. In Russian, volchok means little wolf but it is also the name for a spinning top toy. That little toy is the gift that mother gives to the little girl the first time they meet each other. While the girl takes care of that precious for her gift, her mother explains to her that this toy has also a symbolical meaning for them. According to mother’s story, she didn’t give birth to the girl but she found her in a cemetery, her body was covered with fur like a little wolf but despite that fact she decided to keep her.
Volchok is a violently emotional film that tries to take side in a continuous battle between love and non-love, because rejection is obviously worse than hate. The heroines are constantly fighting to find a balance in their troubled lives. The mother is unable to be engaged emotionally with anyone and especially with her daughter. She keeps on having an easygoing and unconsidered life following her meretricious passions while she is constantly avoiding any realistic commitments. Furthermore, she is unable to find real love in her affairs with men and women and she transfers this sentimental failure to the only people that still tolerate her; her daughter and her mother. Especially with her daughter, her behavior becomes so extreme and austere that reaches the point of sadism, mostly when the girl is showing her weaknesses.
The girl is inevitably the weak member of this hard relationship. She is experiencing the ultimate abandonment since the moment of her birth but this feeling is even more evident when the mother returns. Now her absence becomes emphatically provocative. The girl is being the victim of a series of consecutive rejections and that lead her to sentimental castration and isolation since she must constantly oppress and avoid her natural attraction towards her own mother. The isolation will also lead her to acts of violence. The various substitutes of love that the mother gives her in order to avoid any other connection will be destroyed. She finds comfort in her imagination and this will be her only way out. She must create an illusion of an idealistic life in order to survive.
In such powerful and exceptional drama of characters, the performances by Polina Pluchek and Yana Troyanova are particularly shining. In her first ever role, Pluchek succeeds to stand out with her convincing and natural expression of this little girl that never smiles and always has a melancholic sadness in her eyes. She also balances between the child that she still is and the adult that she should become for her mother’s sake. Troianova, in her debut in cinema, depicts this extreme character with absolute consciousness of the situation. Despite this extremity she manages to stay always impressive by being attractively repulsive and she shows how deeply well she has studied the female roles in Russian dramaturgy. For this performance, she also won the Best Actress award at Kinotavr Film Festival.
Sigarev decides to follow a quite difficult and risky path for his debut, since Volchok has a story which is narratively based exclusively on monologue. The major part of the narration is going through the inner thoughts and the memories of the girl that she never expresses out loud. The heroine exchanges only few words with everyone else because in reality no one wants to listen to her. The girl should manage and even hide her inner feelings especially those that her mother doesn’t allow her to express. This lack of substantive communication will give a highly introverted almost haunted sense to the whole film. Moreover, the director emphasizes this introversion by using Troianova’s voice to perform the internal monologues of the girl. He is implying that in fact the mother and the daughter are subconsciously the same person. They are just two different manifestations of the same woman that are living in contradiction and they incorporate at the same time her needs of freedom and subjugation.
In a more traditional and closer to Russian artistic perspective approach, the role of the mother is an obvious allegory to Mother Russia. Evidently this common symbolism is still cinematically present and its existence becomes interesting when it is creatively renewed. Under that perspective, the relationship between the mother and the daughter is the same as the one that modern Russia and her citizens have. Initially, the country, on the occasion of her newly acquired pseudo-freedom, decided to abandon her children despite their expressed love for her. It is also the same country that when she ended up devastated and toxic for everyone else, she kept her citizens trapped in order to take care of her and protect her. With that same ease, when she was in danger, she also preferred to sacrifice anyone that loved her in order to remain unharmed. This intensely violent soul-destroying relationship was developed between Russia and the impoverished blasted first post-Soviet generation that also Sigarev belongs to.
Volchok confirms that Violence is everywhere. There is no escape for anyone; the emotional void combined with the harsh unbearable reality doesn’t leave any hope. Everything, from the heroines till the house of the drama, seems so hopelessly ruined. Sigarev never tries to embellish the situation nor hint at any time a glimpse of a false superficial optimism that any typical melodrama usually offers. He is so realistically grim that he doesn’t even use any music during the whole film. Everything should follow a truthful austerity and no dramatic exaggerations are needed. Even though the film theoretically has all the elements that could emotionally blackmail the viewer, Sigarev doesn’t follow that predictable route and of course he doesn’t leave any room for a happy ending. Instead he operates subcutaneously, by placing a slow-burning time bomb that would explode inside you after you leave the film behind. Besides the tension that exists during the drama might prohibit a direct connection with the heroines so there must be a release from that in order to touch their esotericism.
For this so gloomy look, Sigarev has been “accused” that in all his works he is obsessed with chernukha. The term chernukha could be roughly translated as blackness and was first used in the late 1980s. It identifies works that present a bleak reality where the heroes are emotionally and financially broken, living in claustrophobic and dirty cities and focused on alcohol, drugs, sex and violence abuse. Volchok thematically could be close to chernukha, although aesthetically feels somehow distant from this tradition. The cinematography by Aleksei Arsentyev makes the film extraordinarily appealing while at the same time keeps its inner bleakness. By using extremely bright colors in his picture everything is presenting so intensely overexposed that seem almost colorless. With this technique he offers a “washed out” inanimate feeling to his colors that matches the almost mournful sensation which conquers the film.
Volchok gives you the feeling of watching an early and rough version of Ingmar Bergman’s Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata, 1978) juxtaposed with Persona (1966). The main difference is that the Swedish bourgeois family here has been replaced with the social garbage that Soviet Union left behind. With his film debut, Vassily Sigarev impresses those who didn’t already know his work in theater. He masterfully creates one of the best Russian films of the recent years and the masterpiece of Russian New Drama. For the austere cruelty of his work, Sigarev explains: “In Russia it’s done more from the head, I mean drama is. Here there is more raw emotion. And generally speaking we are different. We are harder. Melodrama is not our genre.”