In Alexandra, Galina Vishnevskaya has a formidable screen presence which is effective even when it is not known that she was a great diva. Her acting is subtle but Sokurov gives us in this film a woman of 81 who is physically there. In her flimsy shoes, loose fitting dress, and her hair in a bun she moves in the army camp like an old woman. She is hot and tired, she is aware of the smells and sounds of the environment, she expresses physically tenderness and affection. But above all she looks.
Looking is the kingpin of the film, mainly Alexandra’s but the others looking at Alexandra too. To situate a woman of 81 in an army camp is to offer a very unusual view of the army and war. This, Sokurov conveys in powerful images.
In the first few sequences, Alexandra examines her surroundings in a self assured way, whereas two soldiers look out through slit like windows from the armoured wagon of the train. One soldier has got a gun the other has his eyes shut. This contrast between the freedom of the old woman and the constrained view of the men is carried throughout.
There are many kinds of looking. In many scenes Alexandra looks at the soldiers in a way similar to an officer checking his troops. She is acknowledged as they crowd into the train, a panning shot shows her looking as they wait for their meal and she observes them sleeping as she walks between their bunks in the tent.
In one sequence her gaze dwells on the blistered sore feet of her sleeping grandson and she then examines his uniform to the three stars on the epaulettes. In other sequences the look is directed towards the contrasting textures of the war hardware and the vulnerability of the bare chested very young soldiers.
A few shots/reverse close up shots reveal an exchange of stares between Alexandra and different young men. The men start serious and sullen and finish by smiling at her. One guard starts playing with his gun like a child and he is told off : “ stop playing with your gun’”.
Occasionally we see a soldier looking at Alexandra and enquiring: “Are you looking for somebody? why are you staring at me? stop looking at me.”
This emphasis on Alexandra looking often in long takes, stresses the expressions on her face which change from curiosity at the beginning of the first part of the film to infinite sadness in the tank sequence and later ones.
When Alexandra goes to the local market jostling with soldiers and civilians a dramatic change in looks occur. It is Alexandra who is being looked at as she walks. At a stall a young local man does not respond to her enquiry but in a long take, stares at her silent and accusing. It is the first time Alexandra is outstared. A soldier stands and look down at her sitting next to a local woman stall holder. She ceased to be the old woman but becomes the occupier. The women in the market however smile and engage with her and an ex-teacher invites her home to rest. Their conversation is filmed in shot reverse shots of equal exchange. With Ilyas the young man who accompanies her back to the camp the exchange of looks is again equal.
What is interesting in this second part of the film is that the bombed-destroyed and ruined buildings are not seen from Alexandra point of view. They are filmed in long shot with the two diminutive old women walking hand in hand while the foreground in the left corner of the screen is a military vehicle.
In the last part of the film, back at the camp Alexandra eats her missed meal under the stare of four soldiers. In this sequence there is a brief cut away shot of Iliyas walking in the field.
In this third part ‘looks’ become less important except for one instance when a soldier peeps, unseen at Alexandra’s and Denis’ farewell embrace.
In this post I have concentrated on the ‘looks’ in Alexandra because as an older woman I felt compelled to see the army with her eyes in the first part of the film. In the second and third parts I was an onlooker on the effects of occupation and war.
I will consider other aspects of the film in my next post.