A room and a half (LFF, Cine Lumiere 23 October)



Or Полторы Комнаты, Или Сентиментальное Путешествие На Родину

Three guys appeared at the front with a smaller number of working microphones.  One of then said that he was an important person connected with the LFF and the film had a UK distributor so we could in fact see it again. The director, a rubicund old guy with white Asterix moustaches, said how happy he was to see all of us.

Then we had the film.  Joseph Brodsky rang his parents’ empty flat from New York, then dreamed of making a flying visit to Leningrad by way of Helsinki, so avoiding the visa regime.  Then he was on a ship with mildly supernatural happenings, and I thought it was all going to be bloody irritating.  Then there followed scenes from Brodsky’s early life, switching between sepia, black-and-white and colour.  As his mother, Alisa Freindlikh did not grow any younger in the earlier scenes but she did age in the later ones.  And after ten minutes or so she stopped giving her invariable performance as Alisa Freindlikh and started taking it seriously, which greatly improved my mood.

It all became rather wonderful.  Young Brodsky daydreamed at school, marched with his father in an army of two and tripped across a frozen Neva.  As his family prepared to relocate far away following the start of the Doctors’ Plot, their piano rose into the air and joined streams of musical instruments flocking together over Petersburg.


There were many passages of animation inserted into the live action.  As Brodsky’s parents spent their time watching ice-skating on a small old TV, cartoon crows skated together and then watched it on their TV, wrapped in a red scarf Mum had knitted for Dad.

And there was lots of music–from Bach to Schnittke and beyond.  Poems were read on the soundtrack, and in the cartoon world Pushkin and a cat shared poetic duties, occasionally adapting each other’s lines.  Brodsky rang his parents from a party in NY and each side thought the other was in a bad way.

The flashbacked formation of Brodsky’s character reached a height of yearning as the teenager took girls to parties–to bed–talked nonsense from the roofs of high buildings–argued with his friends in the Summer Garden.

So then (in his dreams!) Brodsky arrived in SPb and progressed unsteadily through chaotic and alienating scenes of modern Russia, entered his parents’ empty room-and-a-half in a communal apartment, saw nostalgia-soaked absent articles and sat down to dine with his deceased parents, even asking how they had died.  When they asked him how he had passed away, since he could not otherwise be talking with them, he was nonplussed.

And here (near enough the end in all conscience) it began to lose me again.  The billowing net curtains of estranging eternity and inconsequential conversation among the presumably departed did rather resemble an autopilot Tarkovsky, and then the parents appeared in Japanese costumes and dissolved in front of a blank wall…oh well, never mind!

The credits included a disclaimer to say that all characters and events were purely imaginary, which seemed to be there to let somebody off some hook.  As I recall it, in Brodsky’s essay that gives the film its title he describes how shitty his childhood was and you realise against his will that he yearns for it, without losing any of his bitterness towards the Soviet Union, but in the film we more had nostalgia seasoned with picturesque inconveniences in the dreamtime.

At the end we all clapped and many had tears to wipe away.  Khrzhanovsky thanked people for their kind words and explained that the film’s approach was one of polystylism, which he had discussed with Alfred Schnittke.  As for detailed questions about him and the composer, he would be discussing them in the Schnittke Festival in November.  The important guy repeated that the film had a UK distributor so we could see it again.  (And indeed it will be on in November at Pushkin House.)

We clapped some more and left the hall and went downstairs and out into the sunlight.

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