Oblomov (Mikhalkov, 1980)

Oblomov is an odd film.  Its pacing is slow and deliberate at times, and there’s a voiceover that makes it seem more of a fable than perhaps it is (very little else points in that direction: the production design, narrative, etc, are all rather realistic).  It’s also a good example (among many others) of a misleading Netflix description.

I’m only familiar with two other Nikita Mikhalkov films; Burnt by the Sun from 1994, which I can’t recall in great detail, and 12 from 2007, a remake of 12 Angry Men, which I found interesting but fairly unnecessary.

Oblomov is one of those films that lost me at times, and then would come back incredibly strongly.  It got me thinking of the nature of voiceover (I suppose ‘narration’ to be more specific) and how it adds to a fairy-tale feeling.  I think the obvious is that fairy tales – at least your classic, Grimm brothers variety – are told in the third person (who I imagine to be a kindly old man).  But during Oblomov it struck me that the narration also takes some of the power away from the main character.  Oblomov (Old Tabakov) can’t really even tell his own tale; he’s at the mercy of some great unknown voice from above (leading to a deus ex machina-like ending).  Fairy tales, those meant to have some kind of a moral, seem to feature characters whose purpose is not to live their own life or control their own narrative, but only to serve the greater aphorism.  This is (somewhat ironically, since the narrative of Oblomov is about learning to live one’s own life) the case in Mikhalkov’s film.

Anywho, for a film that sometimes featured frantic blocking and a handheld camera that moves from doorway to doorway in Oblomov’s small apartment for much of the first 30 minutes, Mikhalkov’s camera is also quietly reflective.  Here’s a moment in a bathhouse where Oblomov talks to his friend Stoltz (Yuri Bogatyryov).  The camera slowly moves off of Oblomov and onto a nearby plant on the windowsill during the monologue, which you can see part of in the subtitles:

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It then returns, still finding Oblomov speaking:

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The investigative camera, mirroring what Oblomov is saying is not only quite pretty in its execution, it’s also searching in the same way that the main character seems to be.  My favorite part of this scene, however is the reverse shot of Stoltz:

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The usual purpose of a reaction shot is – obviously – to see said reaction.  The smoke here obscures Stoltz’s face almost entirely, so we can’t see what he’s thinking, rendering, in some way, the reaction shot something else altogether.  It’s rhythmic, for one – a way to somehow poetically mirror the camera movement off and back onto Oblomov.  But it’s also intentionally obscuring.  It’s not that, were we to see Stoltz’s reaction, we’d have some groundbreaking bit of exposition, but rather that Oblomov’s meaning seems to skirt all others around him, including his friend.

Here’s a random shot of a boom in frame (top right):

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And here’s another of my favorite moments of the film.  Oblomov, socially awkward, is introduced at a party by Stoltz.

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Mikhalkov holds in the wideshot and lets off-screen sound and the actions of minor characters tell the story of what’s going on behind closed doors.  A butler comes out, at first stoic and then breaks into laughter (this reminds me of a shot I wrote about recently in Yo-yo):

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A maid comes and listens, giggling at the door.  The butler shoos her away, and then again collects himself to re-enter:

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The maid rushes back in timidly to get her duster:

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It’s a unique way to not only tell the story, as mentioned above, but also to get a look at the differing social classes and how something as silly as a wooden door can entirely change someone’s composure.  Still in the same static wide, Oblomov exits in a huff:

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Mikhalkov finally moves the camera, panning with him as he finds his coat to leave.  One thing about this last still that struck me throughout the film.  In cinematographic terms, Mikhalkov and DP Pavel Lebeshev (who also shot for Larisa Shepitko), the interiors seem to favor one significant source of light, almost overblown, yet still soft, where characters will often stand in pockets of darkness just outside of that spill of that light.  It leads to a hazy, but still somehow unsettling image like the one below:

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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