Skorbnoye beschuvstviye (1987) Poster

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Staggeringly beautiful film has lots of warnings regarding life's pitfalls
This film was made some time earlier than the official 1987 release date but seems to have been adjudged as potentially debilitating to the ethic of the people by the Soviet panjandrums. Quite why someone living in the glorious Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would make such an oblique, surreal, and decadent film must have undoubtedly proved perplexing to them. The level of aesthetic wallowing in a film adaptation of a work that rails against decadence seems to me to be a comment on George Bernard Shaw, who Sokurov suggests, maybe protests too much! What else is an author other than a professional decadent? Surely a Fabian fabulist must be a very tortured beast.

Shaw actually appears in the movie as a character, both in stock footage, and played by an actor. He's portrayed as a creature as much a creator of the characters in the film. Sokurov was apparently intensely interested in Shaw from a biographical perspective and apparently very knowledgeable on the subject, even visiting Shaw's Corner whilst in England.

Heartbreak House (it was shown under the play's name in the UK at one point, which is much better than the over-literal translation Mournful Unconcern) is the movie that first got Sokurov noticed by the international film crowd. The play it adapts concerns Shaw's feelings that the The Great War happened because the decadent elite did nothing to prevent it, were entirely unconcerned by the plight of the many, and were uninterested in any higher purpose or reform of old models of society. It had a deliberate Chekhovian feel to it and thus was a natural for a Russian director to pick up. I think Sokurov goes for an altogether darker take, with genuine surreal credentials on display. Certainly a lot of Shaw's elements are gone, the working class youngster Ellie is just as decadent as a whorehouse rake. A big part of the play is concerns how our perceptions of the characters change over time, here they don't seem to change one bit, excepting Mazzini's admission that he has not read any of the books he claims to have read (by Shaw-ian avant la lettre folk such as Saint-Simon), which comes over as a statement of the bleedin' obvious as opposed to a revelation. The plot concerns a group of individuals holed up in a house, steadfastly ignoring the world outside them (they can hear machine guns firing but describe them as mosquito humming). They are all heartbroken, or to break the modern romantic association, have more simply have lost heart. The drama of the play alternates between the bizarre goings on in Heartbreak House and found footage of new killing technologies from World War I (staggering highly select footage, stretched to a wider aspect ratio, which just gives it this really odd feel). One shot of a dirigible against a plain with a system of meanders is astonishing. Footage of experimental bombs is also skews the mind.

It's hard to describe what goes on as there is nothing much going on, although it always feels nothing less than concerning and riveting. Maybe the folks inside the house have perfected the art of doing nothing. It's a modern version of the Medieval Ship of Fools. Always there's leaden music in the background. The more universal element of the play is drawn out, the existential failure seems to have been that none of them have been interested in educating themselves, nor concerning themselves with the possibilities as opposed to the trivialities of life, of the chain reactions that can come from collaborations and synergy and doing things for each other together.

The interior of the house is dingy, and covered in palms and cheese plants, there is even a lazy pet boar and a dolorous heron.

Viktoria Amitova (Ellie) is a particular beautiful woman, and I can't quite work out why, but the scene where Gessiona is cradling her won't leave my mind.

Haunting, deliriously beautiful , and containing truths that are as relevant know as they have always been on the nature of existential barbarism.
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Commentary of a specialist of contemporary Russian cinema
shusei10 April 2000
In this film one can feel even stronger the eccentricity which will appear in the following film of the author "The Days of Eclipse"(88). Characters with extraordinary behavior, horizontally flattened documentary materials of 1-t World War and of people and wild animals in Africa, and at last, a soldier and an airship intruding into the drama of the characters as if from the documentary shots... Growling sound of cannons or guns and monotonous music of electric gongs link these two parallel worlds to concentrate the dramatic tension up to the unbelievable finale, where deformed birds and giraffes run away from the absurd, lunatic world of human being.
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A surreal version of Bernard Shaws Heartbreak House
weintraube27 January 2002
Beautiful dream/nightmare-like film interlaced with documentary footage. I can bet you never see anything like this. It is most original film I ever saw. It is very far from realistic, despite use of the documentary footage and Shaws diary fragments. Can not describe it in words!
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A heavy Chekovian version of "The King of Hearts"
maple-218 February 2001
Without subtitles, it was difficult to follow this Russian version of "The King of Hearts", not as whimsical but another juxtaposition of the madness of World War I and the clarity of the asylum. The focus of this film is the set of relationships in the asylum which are not entirely bound by conventions from the outside world. Frequent images of Africans, Asians and fleeing animals seemed heavy handed distractions from a potentially more effective critique of the human condition. The theme music from 1930's jazz and 1950's pop culture, so obviously out of place in the World War I period, was an effective addition to the craziness of the film.
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