Eugénie Zvonkine: Kira Mouratova. Un cinéma de la dissonance

Eugénie Zvonkine: Kira Mouratova. Un cinéma de la dissonance

Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme 2012, ISBN 2825141062, 9782825141069, 592 pp.

Irina Schulzki
Kira Muratova; Soviet cinema; post-Soviet cinema; Ukrainian cinema; cinematographic dissonance; censorship

Kira Muratova’s idiosyncratic style has become an analytical conundrum for those critics who have ever engaged in interpreting her films. Eugénie Zvonkine’s remark on this score is worth noting: “this heterogeneous oeuvre resists analysis and does not immediately reveal its profound aesthetic coherence” (2012: 15).1 Zvonkine’s own comprehensive monograph, the first Francophone book on Muratova’s cinema, attempts to overcome that very distinctive eclecticism and outward heterogeneity by introducing the unifying concept of dissonance. This study is the fifth in a series of monographs published over the course of the last three decades, and devoted specifically to Muratova. Pioneered by Viktor Bozhovich (1988), a systematic study of Muratova’s film aesthetic was continued most notably by Jane Taubman (2005), followed by Zara Abdullaeva’s essayistic book (2008)2 and culminated with Mikhail Iampol’skii’s theoretical monograph (2008). Remarkably, recently another monograph on Muratova appeared, this time in Germany (Willinger 2013), confirming the enduring interest in Muratova’s oeuvre, and her now definitively established status of a “living classic of the Soviet and post-Soviet cinema” among film scholars worldwide (Zvonkine 2012: 175).

Indeed, Muratova had and seems still to have a particular if not marginalized status on the international cinematographic map, for reasons from the years of artistic persecution during the Soviet time to her dismissal from the Odessa film studio, right up to the filmmaker’s deliberate nonconformist self-positioning as enfant terrible of post-Soviet cinema (cf. Taubman 2005: 10). Zvonkine’s dense film historical narrative recreates a vivid and voluminous image of Soviet and post-Soviet film history over the past fifty years and can both be appreciated by the general public and serve as a rich source of information for scholars. One of the novelties of Zvonkine’s approach is the combination of a thorough study of primary sources with an elaborate analysis of Muratova’s film aesthetics. This multiple perspective (historical, theoretical and analytical) illuminates Muratova’s filmmaking in in its entirety against the backdrop of the historical and cultural context.

Thus, in Part One, Chapters I and II, Zvonkine carefully consults archival documents concerning all stages of the films’ conception, production and distribution: scripts’ drafts, official reports, newspaper and journal reports as well as utterly new materials, such as unpublished documents from private archives.3 Proposing a convincing chronology of Muratova’s filmography from the 1950s until today, Zvonkine also gives an overview of Muratova’s critical reception in Russian, Ukrainian, English and French publications (Chapter III). To outline Zvonkine’s central theses, it is necessary to follow her logic of periodization:

(i) The Soviet period of Muratova’s biography was foremost marked by her precarious relation with a once important agent of filmmaking process – Soviet censorship which influenced the filmmaking dramatically from first drafts to post-production and distribution. It resulted in some of Muratova’s projects being shelved as early as at the stage of preproduction, while others were shot and edited, but shelved for several years, for example Dolgie provody / Long Farewells, finished in 1971 and released only in 1987 (USSR). Despite the complexity of the censorship machinery and the virulence of the criticism, the censorship criteria were rather obscure. Zvonkine speaks of typical censorship rhetoric and codes that censors routinely used as a set of general expressions under which any drawbacks or ideological ambiguity could easily be subsumed. Terms such as “ideological-artistic level”, “formalism”, “naturalism”, “gloominess”, “trivial subject matter” appeared with unfailing regularity in official documents on Muratova’s films, and were willingly adopted by Soviet film critics (Zvonkine 2012: 151ff.). The paradox, Zvonkine insightfully concludes, is that those numerous official reports (Delo fil’ma), by the same token, served as the first systematic critical examination of Muratova’s film style. The points of critique, therefore, turned out to be the very elements of Muratova’s (later much praised) film aesthetics, and her most rigorous censor-editors, thus, the first penetrating investigators of her oeuvre (ibid.: 79f).

(ii) This radical change occurred during perestroika and a subsequent short period of almost absolute artistic freedom. 1986 serves as a caesura not only in Muratova’s but also in the cinematic biographies of many other filmmakers. That year, the 5th Congress of Filmmakers assembled the co-called “Conflict Commission” (Konfliktnaia Komissiia) which fully “rehabilitated” Kira Muratova along with Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii, Marlen Khutsiev, Aleksandr Askol’dov and others (ibid.: 109f). This decisively transformed the critical perception of Muratova’s cinema. Critics suddenly became enthusiastic, and the first serious attempts to analyse Muratova’s aesthetics appeared. This was also when Western audiences became acquainted with Muratova’s work for the first time.4 The reaction was predominantly enthusiastic, albeit, as Zvonkine notes, interest in Muratova was heightened by the political agenda, i.e. by the fact that her artistic destiny had been destroyed by the Soviet system. The majority of Western publications on her films, therefore, covered the debates about glasnost, freedom of expression and creativity in the Soviet Union.

(iii) Finally, the phase after the dissolution of the Soviet Union naturally entailed new conditions of film production: ideological constraints were replaced by the free market with its own (mainly financial) difficulties and impediments. It is noteworthy that already after the release of Muratova’s Chuvstvitel’nyi militsioner / The Sentimental Policeman (1992, Ukraine, France) and especially after Tri istorii / Three stories (1997, Ukraine, Russia, ), even her most zealous adherents admitted that they were unable to “like” her new films. The subjective criteria of “likability”, “mine/not mine” became the most frequent and ingenious explanation of the (un)acceptance of Muratova’s aesthetics; the filmmaker was repeatedly reproached for not having enough “compassion” and “love” towards human beings (ibid.: 172f.). Abroad, her destiny turned out to be even less viable. After the controversial collaboration with a French production company on Chuvstvitel’nyi militsioner, Muratova’s subsequent films have never been released in cinemas abroad and have been shown only at occasional screenings and film festival retrospectives. Zvonkine rightly explains this disinterest by the apolitical agenda of her films especially against the politicized background she initially became well-known in the West. In addition, the multiple insider-references to Soviet and post-Soviet culture, the use of dialects and non-literary language make Muratova’s movies difficult for audiences not deeply acquainted with Russian language and culture. It is probably the last factor that explains why her cinema has drawn growing attention from Western scholars rather than film critics.5

Summarizing the history of reception, Zvonkine claims that the first real analytical hypotheses regarding Muratova’s films thus have emerged from 1986 onwards. These utilized a number of notions, such as: incommunicability, rupture, repetition, carnivalesque reversal, tautology, subtext, heteroglossia or glossolalia (ibid.: 202ff.). The most audacious and successful Zvonkine argues, approached Muratova’s aesthetic from the angle of “sound collision” (carambolage sonore, 210) that recalls the Bakhtinian heteroglossia. This was first suggested by Jane Taubman (1993: 367f.), albeit metaphorically: in regard of the different voices in Muratova’s films. Graham Roberts similarly speaks of “cacophony” (1997: 321). Finally, Irina Sandomirskaja who also addresses Muratova’s soundscapes, mentions the filmmaker’s “strategies of disrupting harmonies“ (2008: 68). One aspect common to all these studies, Zvonkine notes, is their emphasis on the “disturbing” character (dérangement) of Muratova’s soundtrack (2012: 222). Zvonkine wonders why none of these researchers apply another Bachtinian concept to which heteroglossia is directly linked: polyphony. Zvonkine argues that polyphony as a harmonic union of different voices has been ignored in Muratova for one single reason: harmony has not been considered to exist in her cinema at all (ibid.: 224).

In Part Two, Chapter I, Zvonkine develops the central idea of her research – cinematographic dissonance – which, she believes, serves as a key notion for understanding Muratova’s aesthetics in all its diversity. In order to pursue the evolution of the term “dissonance”, Zvonkine naturally addresses the domain of its origin: music. She returns to the term’s first appearance in French, in Evrart de Conty’s translation of Aristotle’s Problems (around 1380) which determined the concept of dissonance for centuries thereafter (ibid.: 267f.). In this classical understanding, dissonance was produced by at least two sounds that never fused, and, building tension, provoked a desire for resolution which according to the rules of harmony could be attained only by returning to consonance. A fundamental redefinition of dissonance occurred in the 20th century – in the theoretical works by Arnold Schönberg (1911) and Theodor Adorno (1970). Not considered as an effect of sound disturbance anymore, dissonance becomes, first, an evolutionary phenomenon (i.e. dependent on perceptual habits), and, second, a decisive part of, if not more important than harmony itself. The term proliferated in other disciplines, such as fine arts, literature and sociology, at the same time becoming more and more obscure in meaning. Outside the scope of musicology, Zvonkine observes, dissonance was mainly understood and applied metaphorically (ibid.: 278).

It must be noted, however, that exactly the same happened to Zvonkine’s own concept of dissonance once she applied it to cinematography. In grounding her future definition of cinematographic dissonance, she first makes a thorough analysis of three films representing each period of Muratova’s artistic biography. These are Dolgie provody for the Soviet period; Peremena uchasti / Change of Fate (1987, USSR) for the period after the filmmaker’s “rehabilitation”, and Melodiia dlia sharmanki / A Melody for a Street-Organ (2009, Ukraine) for the latest phase of her work. All three, Zvonkine argues, deviate from traditional forms of film narrative by constructing paradoxical narrative spatialities (unstable spaces and ambiguous sequences that cannot be fully explained by the logic of the narrative), by semantic and rhythmic gaps (created by particular editing techniques, such as abrupt cutting, as well as by discordance between image and sound), and, at last, by the characters’ search of once-lost harmony (interpreted by Zvonkine on the level of the film plots). Such “disturbances” (dérangements) of different and, I would add, incompatible levels can be subsumed, Zvonkine argues, in the notion of “dissonance”, which is the opposite of harmony (ibid.: 264). In other words, dissonance in Zvonkine’s interpretation is above all to evoke “a perceptive disturbance” in the viewer (ibid.: 304).

In Chapter II of Part Two, Zvonkine examines how the disturbance of spectator’s “perceptual habit” and “horizon of expectations” takes shape in Muratova’s cinema. Since the category of perception is difficult to define “objectively”, Zvonkine offers four levels of film perception with reference to Claudine Eizykman (1976). These are sensorial, cognitive, diegetic and narrative levels, for each of which dissonance assumes a different form. Thus on the sensorial level, which corresponds to a primary perception of the film’s visual and audible elements, dissonance is created by the “disturbing composition of images and sounds in their simultaneity or in their immediate juxtaposition” (ibid.: 305). The cognitive level refers to the viewer’s comprehension of film elements and their connections to the whole of the film. The diegetic, or fictional, level is about the viewer’s (in)ability to orient themselves in the fictional world: In Muratova, spatial and temporal connections are constantly broken, and, instead, absurdity reigns. Finally, the narrative level is disturbed when diegetic and extradiegetic elements intermingle, causality is lacking, focalisation is multiple, and the tonality changes from a tragic to an ironic, or from a melodramatic to a satiric one in an aleatoric way. One has to notice, however, that the difference between the sensorial and the cognitive levels of perception remains in this context rather hazy. So too, the separation between the diegetic and the narrative levels seems not to be greatly advantageous.

Further, Zvonkine proposes “basic units of dissonance”, i.e. diverse film elements that coexist without fusing with each other, and calls them “blocs” (ibid.: 306ff.). She develops an elaborated system of bloc-concepts according to each perceptive level. Thus, on the sensorial and the cognitive levels, these are sound-, image- and shot-blocs, meaning that image and sound tracks exist very often independent of if not contradictory to each other and to the logical and causal connections of the film story. On the diegetic level, there are spaces-blocs that concern the spatial organisation in Muratova’s filmic universe, as well as blocs of fictional characters. The narrative level is represented by episode-blocs, or whole sequences or filmic events breaking with traditional rules of narration, and by clichés as blocs, i.e. citations or allusions addressing viewers’ cultural knowledge. The meticulous system of blocs and its numerous subcategories (of which we cannot give a full account here) has certain limitations, even if only for formal reasons: the multiplication of homophonic notions is confusing (for example, “personages-bloc” vs. “personage-blocs” vs. “personages-blocs”, etc). They also appear redundant because the author abandons her ramified system of blocs in the following discussion.

An excellent close-reading of Poznavaia belyi svet / Getting to Know the Wide World (1979, USSR) (Part Two, Chapter III) results in the definition of cinematic dissonance that is clearly to be understood in a broad sense, making its relationship to musicology rather fluid:

Dissonance is a unique effect of disturbance produced by phenomena of rupture and overflow (sensorial, cognitive) due to non-concordance, or inadequacy, between at least two clearly distinguished elements, or elements of different natures which, however, are united either by their simultaneity or by a diachronic link that relates them in the spectator’s mind. Dissonance [thus] arises in relation to the viewers’ perceptual habit and horizon of expectations. Finally, dissonance challenges and revolutionises the spectator’s perception of the film. (ibid.: 371, 487)

In Chapter I of Part Three, Zvonkine deploys her concept of dissonance to inform Muratova’s technique of maintaining dissonance in her films, or what she calls a “gradual dissonance” (ibid.: 375). This means that the growing effect of rupture and overflow (effet de rupture et de débordement, ibid.: 20) evokes not only a progressive estrangement (éloignement progressif) of two discordant elements, but also causes the viewer’s perceptual habit to adapt to dissonances progressively (ibid.: 488). The gradual dissonance is achieved, for example, by emphasizing meta-reflexive aspects of the films, by unexpectedly transforming one and the same motif within another film, or by the ornamental quality of film images (of objects, textures, accessories, paintings). It is hard to disagree with the author that paintings have indeed a privileged position in Muratova, and that the way they are filmed, their function in the narrative and in the formal organisation allow them to be considered as a “representation of artistic process” (ibid.: 405). The principal characteristics of this process of creation – estrangement (étrangisation) and redoubling (dédoublement) – transform the filmic imagery into an ornament, which, in turn, introduces a new order: the one of series.6 This astute observation leads us however again away from Zvonkine’s central notion of dissonance.

There is a counterbalance to this multiple dissonance. This is what Zvonkine (Part Three, Chapter II) defines as “regulatory movements” (movements régulateurs, ibid.: 407). Those play a “reconstructing” role of “filling up the dissonant gaps in the film” (ibid.: 489), and, therefore, give the viewer some keys to understanding the film logic. Without going into detail, the overarching regulatory element specified by Zvonkine is the films’ link to some kind of “original model”, an “entity, pre-existent to the film” (ibid.: 423). The original model can be referring to cinema, but most often it is non-filmic (for example, referring to mythology, or to Russian literature and folklore). Yet the regulation can occur also by references to Muratova’s own films. Zvonkine defines these kinds of allusion as “archetypical representations” (ibid.: 458f.). The original model is usually recognised by spectators and helps establish semantic links and formal coherence within the film narrative. Thus, the interplay of two forces – the gradual dissonance and regulatory movements – constitutes Muratova’s contradictory aesthetics. This double movement of deconstruction and reconstruction forms a new principle of organisation, intrinsic to Muratova’s cinema, which, Zvonkine concludes, is nothing else but dissonance itself.

Transferring the concept of dissonance from musicology to film studies – albeit dissonance is conceived of here foremost as a structural principle – undoubtedly proves to be an original way of approaching Muratova’s cinema in a unifying manner. What remains unclear is whether Zvonkine intentionally avoids references to perhaps the most famous musical metaphors in film theory – by Sergei Eizenshtein.7 Zvonkine’s notion of dissonance clearly goes beyond its acoustic implications and is deployed rather as a broad metaphor comprising numerous multimedia contextualisations including avant-gardist painting, myth structure and literature. In other words, taking the heterogeneous nature of Muratova’s films as the point of departure inevitably turns into a “heterogeneous” theory of cinematic dissonance. It is also quite remarkable that any attempt to approach Muratova’s idiosyncrasy in theoretical or analytical terms, demonstrates that it cannot be made but through figures of negation or deviation, even if they are positivised as in Zvonkine’s reversal of “disturbance” into “dissonance”.8

If one were to be fastidious about the book’s formal aspects, one would not fail to notice that Zvonkine’s style increasingly resembles the object of her investigation: numerous repetitions of the same theses and their variations appear throughout the text, and transitional summaries and conclusions are often attached to tangentially related subchapters, making navigating the otherwise perfectly structured text occasionally confusing. An index of names and key notions would have been helpful. I would also question Zvonkine’s overladen chain of related concepts and categories. The study is written entirely in French and the absence of quotes in the original languages (Russian and English) is a shortcoming, but certainly too much to ask, given the actual volume of the book. One more problem is that the documents and stills to which the author refers in her footnotes, especially in Parts Two and Three, are often not included in the book, though this may be relevant only for the most pedantic readers.

This outstanding study should not be underestimated for either the fields of film history or film criticism. The comprehensive histories of film production and critical and scholarly reception brings a genuinely encyclopaedic scope exceeding all other studies of Muratova’s cinema to date. Beside an overarching bibliography, structured by year and country, the appendix includes detailed synopses and unique materials such as personal interviews with Muratova and her collaborators, archival photographs and stills as well as script excerpts from the unrealised project Vnimatel’no smotrite sny, ili Prikosnovenie / Watch Dreams Carefully, or Touch from 1969. Zvonkine’s critical analysis of Muratova’s films are excellent on their own. All this makes Zvonkine’s book not only a prime example of classic film research and a reference book on Muratova’s cinema, but also a major contribution into the study of East European cinema, as well as a rewarding reading experience.

Irina Schulzki

University of Munich (LMU)


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Muratova, Kira. 1971. Dolgie provody / Long Farewells. Odesskaia kinostudiia.

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Muratova, Kira. 1987. Peremena uchasti / Change of Fate. Odesskaia kinostudiia.

Muratova, Kira. 1992. Chuvstvitel’nyi militsioner / The Sentimental Policeman. Primodessa-Film, Paris-Media.

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Muratova, Kira. 2009. Melodiia dlia sharmanki / A Melody for a Street-Organ. SOTA Cinema Group.

Suggested Citation

Schulzki, Irina. 2016. Review: “Eugénie Zvonkine: Kira Mouratova. Un cinéma de la dissonance.” Ghetto Films and their Afterlife (ed. by Natascha Drubek). Special Double Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 2-3. DOI:


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