A Gentle Creature, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s third narrative film, is bleak, grotesque and mercilessly compelling. The title’s ‘gentle creature’ (Vasilina Makovtseva), a Russian woman with her husband behind bars, finds one day that her parcel to him has been returned without explanation. Travelling through a shattered country to discover why her spouse has disappeared behind a faceless and snarling bureaucracy, she encounters a grim cast of people. Almost always unnamed, the misery of those she encounters shines through mean, leering and suspicious faces, like characters from an Otto Dix painting. Officials in overcrowded and decaying buildings waylay her efforts with a casual misanthropy that blankets the whole film, and her entreaties fall on deaf ears. Even an innocuous action, like taking her returned parcel onto the local bus, prompts an irate passenger to viciously berate her for cramping her legs.
‘Alyonka’, as the ‘gentle creature’ calls herself, meets with precious little kindness. A human rights activist seems to offer a rare spark of goodness, while an unnamed man at one point offers her a form to complete in her quest to contact ‘the authorities’ over her missing husband. Such events, however, are few and far between. The closest that most characters come to any flash of goodwill is in a mutual sense of crushing gloom and weariness, shared over cheap vodka and drunken recitals of Russian folk songs. By the time a local crime boss tells her “Don’t trust people. They’re pigs too”, it seems like a simple statement of fact.
…its unrelenting tone does succeed in making the film a weighty and powerful spectacle…
A Gentle Creature is very much in keeping with the director’s previous work. Loznitsa’s first foray into fictional cinema, My Joy, which followed the story of a young motorist named Georgy whose kindness is repaid with violence and mockery, even provoked angry claims of Russophobia. Karen Shakhnazarov, a fellow director and noted nationalist, decried its message as tantamount to saying ‘you have to shoot everyone who lives in Russia’. This latest release is therefore unlikely to endear Loznitsa to such critics, and in a sense they have a point. It is difficult to believe that an entire population can be so generally void of any touch of humanity, and yet Loznitsa’s camera shows scant evidence of it.
As a dramatic device, however, its unrelenting tone does succeed in making the film a weighty and powerful spectacle, and if Loznitsa is guilty of an excessive gloominess, it is hardly a depiction that stands alone. Kafka is surely the greatest influence on the director, with the film’s focus on nameless, arbitrary bureaucracy a clear nod to the his writings. Bleak observations on the Russian soul have a long tradition and Loznitsa draws heavily on these too: the film’s title is taken from a short story by Dostoevsky, while many of Alyonka’s acquaintances on her journey could have stepped out of a work by Gogol. While indisputably accomplished, it’s even worth considering whether this is meant as an original work, or simply the skilful transposition of a familiar tale to the screen.
It is by adding his own finale, a sequence at first surreal and then sickening, that Loznitsa has the best claim to leaving his own unique mark. Suffice to say that it features a scene that even the most hardened film-viewers may find hard to watch. Whether it works is more doubtful; by blanketing the final moments of the film with the sort of grotesque and nightmarish content that Loznitsa chooses, it perhaps dumps the previous two hours or so into a shock-induced oblivion. It is however, impossible to dispute the power of the final half an hour or so of the film, even if it can seem overbearing.
This is evidently not a film that will be widely watched. It features a curious and tricky circularity, with half-heard names and familiar themes echoing throughout the narrative, while its brutal portrayal of a life of desolation may understandably turn potential viewers off. Provided that you can brave it however, A Gentle Creature deserves an attentive viewing. The sheer range of poisonous characters and the observation of everyday sadism, drowning out the few sparks of goodness, is a terrible and compelling sight to behold.