All kinds of grim, including both the good and the bad kinds, A Gentle Creature (Krotkaya) from Belarus-born director Sergei Loznitsa peers deep into the Russian soul and finds there an unfathomable blackness. Only tenuously related to the Dostoyevsky story of the same name and the 1969 film adaptation of that source material by Robert Bresson, this harrowing tale revolves around a stoical unnamed woman (Vasilina Makovtseva) stuck in a nightmarish Siberian prison town. Although there are piercing echoes here of absurdist fiction by Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka and others, as well as mythical journeys to the underworld, Loznitsa’s approach is uniquely cinematic and of a piece with his earlier work, both his two previous fiction features, My Joy and In the Fog, as well as his many potent, minimalist documentaries, like Maidan and Austerlitz.
On the old-fashioned theatrical circuit, A Gentle Creature has about as much chance of commercial success as a hothouse orchid does of surviving a Siberian winter — which is a particular shame since Romanian DP Oleg Mutu’s digital cinematography looks lush on a big screen. At least Loznitsa’s growing reputation and Creature’s slot in the Cannes competition will give this a marketing edge on newer distribution platforms.
In an extensive interview for the film’s press notes, Loznitsa observes that very few Russian films depict in detail the country’s vast penal system, a nexus of crime and punishment that has had a profound impact on the nation’s psyche, having touched so many citizens’ lives one way or another. While the heroine of this film doesn’t even get through the gates of the prison or even succeed in handing over a care parcel for her incarcerated husband, Creature is exceptional in its depiction of the Byzantine bureaucracy that encases gulags, and how the towns adjacent to Russian prisons tend to be seedy snake pits of crime and venality.
The protagonist, called only “une femme douce” (a sweet woman) in the French subtitles in Cannes, lives in a provincial village which — just like her and the town to which she will eventually journey — has no name or geographical specificity. In fact, snatches of conversation overheard on the bus and in the post office (voices unrelated to what we can see onscreen, per Loznitsa’s frequent habit) refer to nuclear threats from the Americans and the general hostility between the two countries. Viewers, especially non-Russians, might be forgiven for assuming this story is set during the Soviet era until mention is made of cell phones, while elsewhere logos on the uniforms clarify that the nation in charge is specifically Russia, not the USSR.
The inciting incident that sends the heroine on her way is the return of a care package of “stuff” (packets and cans of food, spare clothes, a carton of cigarettes and so on) she sent to her husband in a distant prison. The grumpy bottle blonde in the post office (Larisa Simonova) has no idea why it was sent back, nor does she care. The gentle woman realizes that the only way to get her gift to her man — and find out if he’s still alive — is to visit the prison herself with her care package in tow.
So her journey begins, a long and winding trudge via various forms of transport to a grotty town somewhere in Siberia where the reception from strangers grows increasingly colder and crueler the closer she gets to her goal. After a dull bus ride, she is needlessly patted down by male police officers and verbally abused by a drunk in a nearby cell before boarding a train going East. In the crowded carriage, a typically Russian scene unfolds involving communally shared vodka and the singing of old Soviet tunes, led with gusto by a baritone (Vadim Dubovsky) with accompaniment from others including Loznitsa-regular Viktor Nemets. (He’s unflatteringly described as “man with goat face” in the end credits, possibly the only moment of humor in the entire film.)
A Gentle Creature probably doesn’t need to be 143 minutes long, but it’s clear that Loznitsa has carefully mapped out how each long take, another directorial trademark, will get from plot point A to B with assistance from a company semi-improvising their dialogue along the way. Thus the film unfolds via a series of showy, thickly populated set pieces of Hogarthian proportions that are reprised in new forms as the story progresses.
It’s as if protagonist is caught in an ever-tightening spiral, trapped like a mouse in the contracting muscles of the serpentine social order. The several drunken gatherings depicted, including an especially bawdy party at the home of a sinister, butch-looking woman (Nadezhda Ivanova) who offers the heroine free shelter, for example, are echoed by a banquet at the very end, where many of the characters come back. Cleaned and groomed, and dressed in white and red costumes as they make empty, hypocritical speeches, they form a dream-state Politburo of evil whose appearance presages the darkest moment for the heroine (spoiler alert), a brutal rape that, the final scene suggests, will happen over and over again. As Loznitsa says in the press notes, the only thing worse than rape is a hell of infinitely repeated rapes.
This probably all sounds like a grueling ordeal, and indeed A Gentle Creature is not what one might call a fun watch. But it’s also obviously not just horror for horror’s sake. Loznitsa has always been a director fascinated by faces, the sheer variety of human expressions and physiognomies, so even if the film seems underscored by a steady drum beat of fury at the cruelty people can inflict on one another, there’s also a keening air of sorrowful, empathic humanism, like the sound of distant violin.
Speaking of sound, designer and recordist Vladimir Golovnitski creates a thick atonal symphony of overlapping dialogue and noise, flecked with the cries of birds and perhaps even a woman in distress, that glues the work together while all is anchored by Makovtseva’s staunchly impassive but not inexpressive performance. The Russian title, Krotkoya, can also be translated as “meek one” but this relatively unknown actor holds the strands of the film together with impressive command and strength.
Production companies: Slot Machine, Arte France Cinema, GP Cinema Company, Looksfilm, Studio Uljana Kim, Wild at Art, Graniet Film, Solar Media Entertainment, in association with Wild Bunch, Haut et Court, Potemkine Films, Atoms & Void, Film Angels Studio
Cast: Vasilina Makovtsev, Marina Kleshcheva, Lia Akhedzhakova, Valeriu Andriuta, Boris Kamorzin, Sergei Kolesov
Director-screenwriter: Sergei Loznitsa
Producers: Marianne Slot
Executive producers: Carine LeBlanc
Director of photography: Oleg Mutu
Production designer: Kirill Shuvalov
Costume designer: Dorota Roqueplo
Editor: Danielius Kokanauskis
Casting: Maria Choustova
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Wild Bunch