Released in 1989, Kira Muratova’s The Asthenic Syndrome immediately became a sensation and still remains one of the most groundbreaking films of the late 1980s. An epic and shocking portrait of those turbulent times, it is also a clear manifesto of Muratova’s vision.
This is a highly transitional work, in which Muratova makes a shift from her earlier, more or less “narrative” period to a contemporary, avant-garde one. She was always ahead of her time, and The Asthenic Syndrome is no exception. Its aesthetic radicalism is perfectly in tune with the grand historical changes that preceded and followed the film’s release.
The title alone of her previous film Change of Fortune (1987) already acted as a kind of premonition. In this sense, The Asthenic Syndrome depicts the world after change. The Asthenic Syndrome has been called “the last Soviet and the first post-Soviet film” and even “the apocalyptic fresco”, the latter referring to the ultimate sense of transition that dominated that historical moment. But Muratova went beyond that and made a universal portrait applicable to any time and any place. She both captured the moment and transcended it simultaneously.
The Asthenic Syndrome begins as a black-and-white drama about a recently widowed woman who desperately protests against the world, and is about to destroy everything (mainly herself.) But this section ends abruptly, and is revealed to be a film-within-a film: the images change from black-and-white to color, and the action shifts to the crowded cinema venue where this black-and-white movie has premiered.
Muratova disrupts and estranges the narrative almost in a Brechtian way here as she begins the second chapter. Shot in color, it is focused on an exhausted and disillusioned man who fell asleep at the screening of the black-and-white film. Other people simply disliked it, and do not stay for the Q+A with the film’s actress: here Muratova ironically mocks the general public’s response to her own films. This sleeping schoolteacher awakens and leaves the theatre, but falls asleep again in the overcrowded subway and then at a meeting at school. His apathy is a striking contrast to the overwhelming chaos of the city, and serves to protect him from it.
In The Asthenic Syndrome, Muratova for the first time explicitly used the two-in-one composition that would become the distinctive signature of her late period with films like Chekhov’s Motifs (2002), Two in One (2007), and Eternal Homecoming (2012). She has always been fascinated by the interplay of similarity and diversity, and interested in things that simultaneously look the same but are yet different (or even opposite). Her films are full of twins, doubles, and couples that look alike, and of course all sorts of repetitions.
Repetition is one of the key elements of her style, a philosophic concept with many meanings, and an artistic tool to investigate both the diversity and monotony of life. Muratova’s characters are constantly repeating the same phrases, which are usually on their own insignificant. They pronounce the same text many times, but in a slightly different way as if they are trying to both be heard and to hear, defining their own voice and tone.
The first and the second parts of the film are stylistically different, but they repeat (or rather, mirror) each other on this deeper level. This creates a multi-dimensional effect, as if reality is being reflected in a mirror labyrinth: it is doubled, even tripled, but the reflections are not the same. Muratova herself captures this in her description of the film as a huge mosaic made out of multitude of tiny pieces.
The black-and-white section of The Asthenic Syndrome is as nervously shot as Muratova’s own early work. Even though it deals with states of extreme rage and despair, this film-within-a-film has moments of pure poetry, and recalls the lyricism of Brief Encounters (1967) and Long Farewells (1971). Here, Muratova sharpens her “classic” lyrical style, and fills it with contrasts that are both dark and grotesque: she juxtaposes a cemetery and hospital wards with older people, funeral portraits with photographs of smiling people, dolls with dead bodies. The main character in this film-within-a-film is a widowed woman who expresses all shades of anger and confusion, ranging from hysteria and aggression to sheer indifference and irrational laugh. “I speak like I feel”, she says, a comment that could have been made by Muratova herself.
The widow’s journey begins at a cemetery among grey stones (Among Grey Stones is, by the way, the title of Muratova’s 1983 film) and leads her to deserted urban places a universe away from the bizarre romanticism of Muratova’s Getting to Know the Big Wide World (1979), an unconventional love-story set on the huge Soviet construction set.
Change of Fortune (1987) was already the first big step for Muratova towards the deconstruction of illusion, including the very nature of film itself as an illusionary artform. As a pure modernist, she does this by neglecting and undermining the conventions of mainstream (psychological) realism. Life is never actually “realistic” in The Asthenic Syndrome: it is always balancing on the brink of surrealism, the highest (or arguably even final) level of realism.
As a pure avant-garde artist, Muratova also reflects on the paradoxical relations between art and real life, and questions how both are perceived. Since the first section of The Asthenic Syndrome is revealed to be a filmic illusion, the second one is by association automatically understood by the spectaor as an actual reality. But this second “world: turns out to be even more surreal and absurd than the film-within-a-film we see at the beginning. Muratova is commenting critically here on the infinite nature of real life to exceed the limits and possibilities of any artistic representation, and thus challenges the artist’s will to express it fully.
It is not accidental that the protagonist of the color section begins his trip through the hellish, mundane world as a film spectator suffering from sleeping sickness. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the asthenic syndrome of the contemporary audience themselves, living their lives and watching films with eyes wide shut. By deconstructing her own film, Muratova has the opposite effect: she awakens us from the deep lethargy we experience day by day, a lethargy produced by mainstream and mass media, politics and religion.
The Asthenic Syndrome (Астенический синдром 1990 Soviet Union 153 mins)
Prod Co: Goskino / Odessa Film Studio Prod: Mischa Lampert Dir: Kira Muratova Scr: Alexander Chernykh, Kira Muratova, Sergei Popov Phot: Vladimir Pankov Ed: Valentina Oleynik Prod Des: Oleg Ivanov Sound Des: Elena Demidova Cast: Sergei Popov, Olga Antonova, Galina Zakhurdayeva, Natalya Buzko