Since my MA dissertation on Le Chat (le chat.pdf) I have been fascinated by the various factors that affect the reception of a film.
I mentioned in November how the description of Since Otar Left in the advertising flyer, biased the audience discussion and no doubt its reception. In that same flyer the film Alexandra was advertised as “Older Women and Younger Generations”. Expectations of the viewer are an important factor in the reception of a film and this tag line seriously misleads. The film was shown last week at the Lexi/U3A film group session. The contributions from the audience covered the main themes: The futility and cruelty of war and the humanising effect of the old woman on the soldiers, the potential tenderness of the men opposed to their killing function in the army, the specific but also universal war situation, the political context, the affection between grandmother and grandson, the immediate rapport between the women on opposing sides. Other comments also made were about the incongruity of an old woman visiting an army base and details of the mise en scene, : the music, the colours and light and close ups of young faces.
But what about the critics? Widely reviewed both in England, France and the US, the majority were very favourable.
Since my main interest is the old woman in films I will start by noting the words used by the critics to describe Alexandra: (I have translated the French reviews)
A very few critics fall in the usual cliches: old lady with rheumy legs, rounded matronly old grandmother, almost comically the quintessential Russian image of the babushka, mother Russia figure, fierce busybody, recently widowed lonely and cranky octogenarian, granny and last but not least, a hive of inconsistencies.
The majority of reviews were very impressed by the presence and subtle acting of Galina Vishnevskaya: Old woman, ageing grandmother, eightysomething woman, elderly female, opiniated, stubborn, proud and not afraid to express her feelings, representative of the warmth of home life, formidably solid, weakened physically by age but very much the kind of Russian woman burnished by WWII, unsentimental and fearless, not a sweet little old lady,confident, imperious manner, performance of monumental depth, no-nonsense, irascible magnetism, down to earth stern and stolid, almost a monument, blunt and plain spoken, warm maternal figure, tender, stately stride of her elderly body, wise for all her years, undaunted, generous baboushka, heavy body, hesitant walk, hair in a silvery bun, her body evokes life long tiredness, a grandmother with a dignified face, soft form and wizened face, stout and sturdy, tough old bird, unmistakable hauteur, redoubtable, rebellious, inquisitive, yet as vulnerable as a nation at war with itself.
This descriptive assortment devoid of ageism conveys a very unusual rich image of an older woman. Sokurov stated in an interview that he made the film specially for Galina Vishnevskaya the famous opera singer. Together with her husband MstislavRostropovitch she fought for cultural freedom during the Soviet regime and had to live and settle in the USA for a while. On their return to Russia in 1990, they were involved in social and charitable work and Galina opened an Opera School. She was 81 during the filming and had recently lost her husband.
It is interesting that the Lexi audience did not comment on Alexandra as a character. Is it because as the critic of Variety says ”she is every mother viewing the wasted lives of young men and wondering why?”
About the incongruous presence of the old woman in an army camp a U3A member recalled a news item she had heard at the beginning of the war in Chechnya the content of which can be found in the Boston Globe (January 25, 1995Fred Kaplan): “When Valentina learned that her son’s military unit was being sent to Chechnya to fight in the war she drove 300 miles to his army base tracked him down, had him change into civilian clothes and brought him home to Moscow. In recent weeks more than 500 mothers have done what Valentina did at army bases all over Russia.
Another source : http://www.alliance21.org/2003/article3017.html also is witness to the likelihood of some scenes in the film. “We are in close contact with the Chechnyan women. We understand each other very well. We share the same pain and misfortune and we think we can overcome them together. When our Russian mothers go to Chechnya, they live in the houses of the Chechnyan women and share their bread with them. When the Chechnyan women come to visit us, we help them as we can, with medicine for example, and we take the list of their missing and try to publish it.”
Whereas the audience at the Lexi perceived the film as an anti war film, some critics took an exclusively political point of view. Thus it is reported that the film was received at the Cannes Festival with cheers but also jeers. For some reason commentators saw it as Russian propaganda.
I will come back in my next post on these points and on the fact that some reviewers talk of ‘a bizarre sexual pulse, near erotic fondness and homoerotic images.