31 Days of Cinema, Day Two: “The Asthenic Syndrome”

For a description of my “31 Days of Cinema” challenge, as well as the complete list of films I’ll be watching for it, click here.

In his true-life mystery Dora Bruder, Patrick Modiano—last year’s Nobel Literature winner—writes:

In 1942, my father and his accomplices had plundered the SKF warehouse on the Avenue de la Grande-Armée [in Paris] of its stock of ball bearings, loading their lot onto trucks and transporting it back to the den on the Avenue Hoche from which they operated their black market business. According to German decrees, Vichy laws, and articles in the press, they were no better than vermin and common criminals, so they felt justified in behaving like outlaws in order to survive. For them, it was a point of honor. And I applaud them for it.

I must disagree with the Laureate on that. Sure, one with a prejudice often holds onto it regardless of how wrongheaded it is or how much proof there is against the myths it produces. But is there not more strength in defying a preconception one has about you than there is in confirming it? The latter risks perpetrating stereotypes and justifying (to some) the hatred you face; with the former, even if it does not diminish that hatred, at least you’ve shown you can stick to your principles. There will always be the moral question of whether Modiano’s father could have survived, or fought back against Vichy France and the Nazis, without resorting to the black market.

Modiano came back into my mind as I was watching The Asthenic Syndrome, an ambitious but in the end dubious take on the Soviet Union’s collapse from Ukrainian auteur Kira Muratova. Critical to reading the film is understanding the title in the context of Soviet psychiatry. Irina Sandomirskaia, in her essay on the film*, explains that the Soviets used the power of neurological diagnoses to inflict patients with constant self-doubt as to whether their distrust of, or dispassion towards, socialism indicated a rational mind. Asthenia herein “referred to minor dysfunctions of socialization, i.e. smaller, negligible breaches in the discipline of Soviet subjectivity […] [that] the subject was supposed to eliminate […] by himself” (66). Syndrome has two main characters who, among others, appear to suffer from this disorder. We see the first, Natasha (Olga Antonova), in a forty-minute sepia film-within-a-film, burying her husband (an ominous omen for Russia) and devolving into hysterics in her widowhood. When that film ends, we move into the arc of Nikolai (Sergei Popov), a struggling writer and religious schoolteacher who has narcolepsy, and who was hence asleep throughout the screening of Natasha’s film. Muratova thus emphasizes the falsity of her camera’s perspective; if no character inside or outside the meta-film shared its point-of-view, then where does it come from?

You can tell that the director seems to be constructing a Brechtian distance from the audience, yet that doesn’t strike me as the best, or even the most appropriate, tone for this material. An Orwellian satire may have been more effective in questioning what society would look like if politics really did determine pathology. Muratova does show some knack for satire, as demonstrated by the overacting of the extras who surround Nikolai in the various vignettes that he walks into—which Sandomirskaia links to the use of nonprofessional actors and their hackneyed, hyperbolic reliance on the dogmas of Russian theatre. Characters and actors alike appear trapped in the immobile sterility of Soviet culture, and I can sympathize with Muratova’s Brechtian choices in exploiting her art to reflect this; observe the scene when Nikolai recites to his students Soviet philosophical creeds as if from a script—which is to say, literally from a script.

What makes the film troublesome, notwithstanding, is its portrayal of Natasha’s and Nikolai’s asthenias as almost pure neuroses, with no clear political cause. To the extent that these are political metaphors, they’re vacant and rather glib. Natasha breaks wineglasses, acts out at passersby, prostitutes herself and displays savage mood swings insofar that being widowed seems a feeble excuse for such behavior, while Nikolai’s abrupt bouts of sleep usually do not signal any moments of political burden or upheaval. In depicting asthenia as pathology while forsaking satire for a sort of Godardian hyperrealism, Muratova acts as if Russian politics have had no effect on her co-protagonists’ mental states. Though she may do that to scoff at the idea of asthenia as disloyalty, the effect is of an unwillingness to confront the trauma of Soviet socialism—and, worse yet, of a view of psychosis as antisocial that mistakenly buys into the contrived doctrines of Soviet psychology. Not unlike Modiano’s father, Muratova takes the official party definition of asthenia and attempts to use it to reflect the inability of her characters to live under communism, as if to say that we all have the title disorder. But in pathologizing Natasha and Nikolai and refusing to give them any political dimension (except for when Nikolai is rushing through his aesthetic scribbles) and to give us any political alternative, she essentially gives the remaining Soviets a blank canvas on which they can use the asthenias to confirm their neuro-political ideologies, at a critical juncture in history when the Russian government really needed its feet held to the fire.

The effect of this backfiring is to make the characters’ antics tiresome, and that is a shame, as the film does contain some pointed commentary on meta-cinema, and on Russia in the liminal Gorbachev years. The teachers’ meeting, at which one teacher implies that the suppression of kids must not just be “physical” but also “psychological,” and a principal states that school must be like “military” and a “prison,” is harrowing and still relevant today, not least for how it reveals the grip that Stalinism and totalitarianism still holds on these lives. Muratova’s other shock tactics—which (as Sandomirskaia tells us) depend on the vast divergence between official and ethnic Russian speech, and which mean to be a counterpoint to Soviet mind-numbing—have grown dated (unless, I suppose, you are from Russia or know Russian) and made the film itself numbing and wearying. (Nowadays, I feel, the political elite uses shock and sensory overload to control its subjects, whereas art with a methodical, meditative tone can be a tonic to that.) From historical and meta-filmic standpoints, The Asthenic Syndrome is worth watching, even if merely as a case of a filmmaker trying to use the techniques of an oppressive regime—not least of which were glasnost and perestroika, under which this film was notably banned—against that regime, only to find herself further trapped in it.

Grade: C+

*Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 2.1(2008): 63-83. Accessed via EBSCO Host.

Tomorrow: Sticking with the Eastern Bloc, we head to Poland to meet the Man in Marble.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Two: “The Asthenic Syndrome”

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