Glamor Discourse (“Rusalka” Roundtable, #2)

Anna Melikjan’s Mermaid (Rusalka, 2007) is one of several recent Russian films dealing with the Cinderella story in the context of contemporary Russia. In Rusalka as well as in Pops (Popsa, directed by Elena Nikolaeva, 2005) or Gloss (Glianets, directed by Andrei Konchalovskii, 2007), the female protagonist comes to Moscow from the provinces in the hopes of changing her life for the better. In Rusalka, Melikyan puts together elements from various narrative models of female life-stories – the biography, the melodrama and the fairy tale. They complete each other, comment on, or contradict each other. Depending on the point of view, they allow for different interpretations of the events in Alisa’s life. I will first analyze the different narrative patterns in Rusalka and their impact on the protagonist, Alisa. Second, I will consider how these patterns function against the background of the glamour discourse.

The film begins with Alisa’s conception and then concentrates on two stages in her life, Alisa as a little six-yearold and Alisa as a young seventeen- and eighteen-year-old woman. The story is divided into thirteen chapters accompanied by commentaries. The first three chapters take place in Alisa’s childhood and the remaining ten concentrate on her teenage years. The titles are meant to indicate important events and stages in Alisa’s life and to illustrate the development of her character from early childhood to adulthood (friends, lovelife, important events). It is ironic that such broad titles are accompanied by overly precise dates.

Furthermore, the subsequent events frequently contradict the meaning of the titles. Thus, the titles emphasize the failure of Alisa’s development. For instance, the chapter entitled“Adult Life” covers only one day at the end of which Alisa tries to drown herself in the Moscow River. The chapter entitled “First Date” ends with Alisa realizing that there will never be a love story with Sasha. The title “Friends” turns out to refer to the accidental talks with a homeless woman whom Alisa periodically meets on the street.

Alisa’s biography seems to tell the story of disrupted personal development and the failure to grow up. Thus, as a teenager, Alisa keeps her childish appearance and sticks to her childhood dream of becoming a ballerina. Her story is peppered with with themes derived from Freudian psychoanalysis. Harkening back to the myth of Electra, Alisa similarly curses her mother, when her hopes of finding her father are frustrated upon discovering her mother in bed with a strange man.

A Freudian twist is also suggested by Alisa’s dream in which Sasha asks her if she misses her father and she anwers: “No. Now I have you.” A psychoanalytical interpretation of the dream explains Alisa’s sudden and unrequited feelings for Sasha as an unconscious substitute for her lost father.

Alisa seems to be stuck in her childhood. She dares to come close to Sasha only in the form of a childish play in which she plays dead while he has to try to make her laugh. As a child, she refused to acknowledge the fact that her father was not coming back, and now, as a teenager, she ignores the fact that Sasha remains indifferent to her. When she catches him and Rita in bed, she curses him as a traitor in the same way she formerly cursed her mother. In defiance of his rejection, she offers herself to a complete stranger, thus taking on an adult role that is obviously not appropriate for her. For her “own pleasure” she buys lollipops instead of condoms. Her later act of sucking on these lollipops in the metro can be interpreted as a manifestation of “oral eroticism” – a childhood stage of what classical psychoanalysts would call adult genital eroticism.

The film’s second narrative pattern is centered around the classical melodramatic portrayal of female destiny. The story of a marginalized girl in search of love who dies at the end is a typical feature of the earliest Hollywood melodramas, such as Broken Blossoms (1919). For the melodramatic heroine, love is her ultimate goal in life. She directs all her efforts at finding love, and gives it freely, without demanding anything in return.(Wernet, Simone, “Leben ohne Liebe bleibt Imitation,“ Melodramatische Leinwandheldinnen. (St. Augustin: 2003), 33.)

Once Alisa meets Sasha, her love for him seems to become the most important thing in her life, despite the fact that he pays no attention to her. Her initial plans to continue her education fade away. Mirroring the genre conventions, Alisa is unexpectedly overcome by love, but it remains unrequited.(Wernet, 14.) In melodrama, obstacles may stem from society, misunderstandings, unlucky circumstances or the chosen partner himself.(Wernet, 33.) In Rusalka, Alisa’s love seems impossible from the beginning because of the irreconcilable differences between the naive provincial Alisa and Sasha’s decadent Moscow lifestyle.

Just like Alisa’s character development, the narrative in Rusalka is filled with irony. On the one hand, the story corresponds to the classical melodramatic narrative in which real love can only happen once in a lifetime and the death of the female protagonist is the only possible solution to unrequited feelings. On the other hand, this feeling of love seems to originate more from Alisa’s illusions than from the fate itself. The melodramatic version of the story stands in stark opposition to the “character development” interpretation, according to which Sasha is just a substitute for Alisa’s father.

Nevertheless, the melodrama is not to be dismissed as purely the product of Alisa’s imagination. At the end of the film, the melodramatic outcome seems to be entirely possible. After Alisa’s phone call saved Sasha from boarding a doomed plane flight, he walks through the streets of Moscow searching for her. The two walk past each other several times to the sounds of a kitschy song with melodramatic lyrics. A happy ending – the love story of Alisa and her Moscow prince – finally seems to be within reach. However, at the end of this scene Alisa is run over by a car. According to the principles of melodrama, it is “too late” and the happy end cannot take place. The following scene unmasks the possible happy ending and the fateful love-story as illusionary. Sasha, still in search of Alisa, accidentally bumps into Rita who broke off with him in the morning of the same day. To her question: “Are you looking for somebody?” he absent-mindedly answers “Yes, for you.” They then hug and kiss and disappear into the crowd.

The third narrative pattern in the film is the fairy tale, above all Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” from which Rusalka borrows its story line and several motifs. Andersen’s Mermaid has to give up her voice in order to leave the sea and live in her beloved prince’s castle. The prince does not recognize the mute beauty as a potential fiancé and marries a princess. The mermaid first wishes to kill him but then sacrifices her own life instead. Mirroring Andersen’s story, Alisa saves Sasha who – lives in a high-class Moscow apartment – from drowning. As in the fairy tale, she saves the prince a second time but has to pay for it with her life. Also similarly to Andersen’s story, Alisa has magic powers which make her wishes come true, however often with unwanted side effects.(Gobrecht, Barbara Gobrecht, Harlinda Lox, Thomas Brücksteg (Eds.) Der Wunsch im Märchen. (Kreuzlingen: München, 2003), 14.) Three of Alisa’s wishes seem to be thus fulfilled: first the falling apples in her schoolyard, then her family’s removal to Moscow, and finally her admission to a university. After her third wish, she refuses to make other wishes, because their fulfilment apparently harms other people.

The motive of muteness as the price for the magic powers also seems to originate from the Andersen’s tale. Just like Andersen’s mermaid pays for her wish to leave the sea and join her prince with the loss of her voice, the power of Alisa’s wishes seems to be connected to her muteness. She stops speaking when her mother angrily tells her that there will be no father coming to see her. She only begins to speak again when she meets Sasha. From that point on, her magic forces seems to be rather illusionary. When Alisa stands on a bridge over a highway, buidling a “roof” with her fingers, “leading” cars past the drunk staggering Sasha on the street, she uses the optical reduction of three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional picture. Her forces are thus relocated into the realm of illusion and chance. The same “magic” trick she already used as a child, when, standing on the beach, she “pushed” the ships on the horizon forward with her fingers.

For Rita, magic is a game. Ironically, she suggests to Alisa to perform a magic trick together. Theyeach write the name of the man they love on a cigarette and then smoke it. The trick is supposed to make the man fall in love with the girl who smokes the cigarette with his name on it. Rita and Alisa both write Sasha’s name on the cigarette, but it does not work out for either of them. The fairy tale motifs are thus undermined when it becomes clear that they are no more than just Alisa’s illusions.

In the end, this realistic reading of the film is not more valid than the fairy tale or the melodrama interpretations. The last sequence of the film makes it completely unclear which pattern is the one really at play. After Alisa sees the plane crash in her dream, she phones Sasha and tries to persuade him not to fly. In that very moment, Sasha gets involved in an accident so he misses his plane. He survives, but Alisa is run over by another car. At the moment of Sasha’s accident, Rita throws an ashtray into the aquarium of Sasha’s beloved goldfish. It is therefore unclear what really prevented Sasha from taking the plane – magic, fate, illusion, or mere chance. Like the story about character developmentand the melodrama, the fairy tale is inconsistent. The film thus mixes contradictory patterns of fictional life-stories involving women and then plays them off against each other.

In the narrative patterns discussed above, the life of the female protagonist seems to be more or less predetermined by external circumstances. An absent father, fateful unrequited love, or Andersen’s promise of compensation in the hereafter for suffering and good deeds – all these stories are not an attractive option for a contemporary young girl.

Alisa’s own view of the events as expressed by her voice-over commentaries suggests a different interpretation. Her narration comes close to the optimism implied by the chapter titles. Judging by Alisa’s comments, her life is by no means a passive story of suffering and she possesses the force and possibility to influence and shape her life. This is how she comments on her dilapidated room: “Moscow, as is said, prostrates itself before me in all its power, beauty and unpredictability.” Alisa insists that she will have a bright future: “In every big biography there is a period of work as a waitress in a bar, or as a dockworker. This is a temporary stage in the development of a personality. Indeed, that period in my life dragged on.” On the other hand, Alisa either dismisses the negative events in her life as fate, such as her missed ballet audition, or does not comment on them at all.

Alisa invents her own version of her life-story in a somewhat optimistic and illusionary way. In doing so, she also uses narrative patterns and tells her life-story as a biographical development. She ascribes magic forces to herself that can make her wishes come true, even thoughshe does not comment on the negative effects of her fulfilled wishes.

Alisa’s running commentary on of her life ends when she meets Sasha and starts talking again. From this moment on, she abandons her magic forces and the story seems to become more realistic. Alisa views her meeting Sasha as pure chance. For the first time, she acknowledges that her life is not as bright and successful as she thought it was. Her last comment for the time being is: “I did not wait for him. He appeared in my life at the moment of biggest despair.” So the part of the story involving Sasha becomes a more realistic one, where Alisa is talking again and her magic tricks become mere illiustions.

In the last scene Alisa’s voice-over comes back to make a final comment. Having been struck by a car, Alisa comments on this accident as “fate” and cites some statistics concerning the annual accident rate in Moscow. At this point, Alisa’s narrating voice becomes separated from her body and she looses the connection with her fictional character. While her comments in the beginning were associated with the magic aspects of the story, her final comments at the end – in a voice separated from her character – sound dry and realistic.

Alisa’s character falls apart as her body is thrown up like a dummy in the accident, and her voice reduces her death to a mere statistical fact. In the meantime her face burns like a piece of crumpled celluloid stuck in the projector. It first seems as if Alisa’s voice-over comments will make use of narrative models in an individual, maybe even subversive way. In the end, her life is subjected to a story pattern that allows a happy-end for Sasha and Rita. This ending corresponds to the realistic layer of the film, while Alisa is shown as an unreal, fictional person.

At this point I want to expand on Henrike Schmidt’s interpretation of the film. I think that the film’s ending serves as a – superficial – critique of the Moscow media elite. The fact that Alisa teaches Sasha to experience love, which makes the happy end possible, is only one layer of the story.

According to my analysis of the different narrative models present in the film, Alisa is the main protagonist in all of them.. Her life-story is the film’s central topic and it is only at the end that she is reduced to the position of a helper figure. In this way, Alisa’s life stands out against the background of the Moscow glamour world described by Henrike Schmidt.

What makes Alisa interesting to the viewer is her individuality. The film is not a chronicle of an upper class soap-opera romance, but tells a story of an individual protagonist who does not neatly fit into role-models and story patterns and who interprets them in her own way. Alisa has the potential for a unique life-story and not just a second-hand media-based identity. It is precisely her raw and unspoiled naturalness that makes her attractive to Sasha and his customers. As Tom Holert and Heike Mundert have written: “Rather than a creation ex nihilo, glamour is always derived from something else. Glamorous sensations occur only thanks to the memory of real or fictive happenings, [thanks] to the collection or rearrangement of (lost) objects and experiences.”(Holert, Tom Holert, Heike Munder, “Glamour-Genealogies: An Introduction,“ in The Future Has a Silver Lining (Zürich: 2004), 27.)

In Sasha’s empty life there are no real values, only virtual ones, like the lots on the moon he is selling. In his world, Alisa is an exotic creature, connected with the sort of real life that he and Rita lost long ago. Rita asks Alisa to peel potatoes for Sasha’s favourite dish – fried potatoes – because she herself does not want to ruin her artificial fingernails. Fried potatoes remind Sasha of his childhood, a splinter of lost reality in his urban glamour lifestyle. In contrast to Henrike Schmidt’s analysis, I would see Rita as a representative of the Moscow glamour world, but not as a figure with whom the female viewer can identify. The naive, childlike and natural Alisa stands in sharp contrast to model-like, dyed blonde and stylish Rita who talks about her childhood games as a sign of originality and individuality.

Alisa’s exotic naturalness turns out to be an object of desire that is difficult to produce artificially. The women and children who lend their faces to the virtual lots on the moon at Sasha’s photoshoots look artificial compared to Alisa’s natural charm. The women’s eroticism seems to be unnatural and exaggerated, and the children’s smile is distorted into a pitiful grimace. When Alisa accidentally appears in front of the camera, her smiling face is taken for Sasha’s advertising poster.

In the Moscow glamour world Alisa functions as an embodiment of an other, something lost long ago and maybe something not virtual, but real. On the narrative level, on the other hand, Alisa becomes increasingly virtual and unreal as her character is developed through different unreliable story-models, none of which turn out to be reliably real. The more Alisa is absorbed into the glamour world, the more she turns out to be subjected to different fictional roles. In this way, fiction and reality are mixed until the end of the film, when every one of the aformentioned fictional possibilities seems for a moment to become real.

Personally I think that it is somehow upsetting for the viewer to see the story’s protagonist being deconstructed until she is an empty fiction. Alisa is no different from her completely unrealistic namesake in the 1980’s Soviet series Guests From the Future. The protagonist in in Rusalka is turned into a mere image, an embodiment of a person that does not exist.

I think the film is not as much of a straightforward social critique as Gloss, where the heroine ends up as a picture on a fashion journal’s cover. Gloss shows the naive provincial girl as an individual being swallowed by the big city. Rusalka goes further than this dichotomy between the “real” provinces and “virtual” Moscow. In my opinion, this strength of the film is at the same time is its weak point. It lays bare the mechanisms of glamour society in paralleling them with the narrational structure of the film, but it does not go beyond this mirroring.

Bettina Lange is a research associate at Berlin’s Free University. Her dissertation project deals with concepts of individuality in contemporary Russian cinema.

Roundtable participants:

Natascha Drubek-Meyer, A Little Mermaid in the World of Russian Advertising

Matthias Meindl and Svetlana Sirotinina, Theodor Adorno, Fairy Tales, and “Rusalka”

Christine Goelz, A Modern Fairy Tale

Henrike Schmidt, Happy End

Bettina Lange, Glamor Discourse