Happy End (“Rusalka” Roundtable, #1)

The “little mermaid,” the naïve heroine of Anna Melikyan’s The Mermaid, dies minutes before the film ends. She is struck by a car in Moscow, the brutal Russian capital that is so indifferent to the fate of its inhabitants. This sudden, hyper-realistic and, cynically natural death is even more tragic as the mermaid, Alisa, is just about to realize her dream of winning the love of her prince (Aleksandr/Sasha). At least for a moment, Alisa and the audience are both led to believe in the possibility of such a fairy tale ending.

Aleksandr, a typical representative of the Russian PR and media elite, realizes that Alisa mysteriously saved him from death by preventing him from checking in on a flight that ended up crashing. We see him wandering around the streets of Moscow looking for Alisa, his “lucky charm.” We then watch her simultaneously perish under the wheels of a car.  Alexandr never learns about Alisa’s death.  Instead he serendipitously renews his acquaintance with Rita, his beautiful and glamorous ex-girlfriend. Rita in her turn is deeply in love with Sasha, an emotionally unavailable media macho, who, during the course of their relationship, uses Rita as one of the exhibits in his glamorous lifestyle collection. As Alisa dies, Rita and Sasha are reunited in their sparkling affair. At first glance, this can hardly be called a traditional Hollywood-style happy ending. The heroine dies, her female rival succeeds, and Aleksandr, for whom Alisa gave away her love and life, doesn’t even find out about her sacrifice.

My understanding of the film, however, is very different. Rusalka does have a happy ending that re-unites two representatives of the new media elite and Russian glamour society, Sasha and Rita, who – with the help of an outsider (Alisa) – discover their real emotions and are given a chance to abandon their shallow life style for a better future in wealth, prosperity, and love.

Alisa escapes her sad life in a poor provincial town at the coast of the Crimean peninsula to go to Moscow. There she meets her prince Sasha at the very moment when he, in a moment of despair, decides to end his life by jumping from a bridge into the Moscow River. Their relationship during the whole film is set as a sort of constant misunderstanding: she claims that she’s a ballerina, he holds her for a cleaning woman. This distorted communication symbolizes a deeper level of discontinuity and incoherence, namely the impossibility of love between these two characters that do not belong to the same social strata. Though there are moments when Alisa and the viewers imagine that her dream will come true, that dream is never validated by the story itself. Sasha sticks to his love affair with Rita, exploiting her love just as he exploits Alisa’s to promote his business. Alisa does not succeed in becoming his mistress, but she does succeed in obtaining the top model spot for the “Girl on the Moon” PR campaign initiated by Aleksandr. As a result he calls her vezuchaja, or lucky girl, and misses completely her desperate longing for him. Even in the moments of closeness – for example when the two are playing children’s games in the park at night,  there is no indication that to Sasha, Alisa is anything more than his durochka, a little silly girl.

Both female heroines, Alisa and Rita, suffer from Sasha’s emotional unavailability, his inability to love. There is a moment when they both unite in their despair and celebrate a contemporary magic ritual together; they both smoke a cigarette with the name of their beloved inscribed onto the paper, a ritual that is believed to bring the love of an unattainable man. Indeed, both are successful. Rita strengthens her on-and-off relationship with Sasha, while Alisa turns into his muse.

Although set up as rivals, Rita and Alisa are actually complementary. Rita is portrayed throughout the film in rather positive terms. She is beautiful, but not dumb; sheis superficial, but not deprived of the capacity to love. Aleksandr, on the other hand, is unable to accept what she has to offer. He is blind to her charms.  Alisa’s purpose in the film is to awaken him, to sacrifice herself and to return him to life. Rita is a typical glamour girl, and she exploits Alisa’s earthly and practical talents, as for example when she has her chop potatoes for dish because she, Rita, is unable to do this because of her long fingernails. But Rita is sincere in her feelings: she loves Sasha, and in a way she is authentic and unspoiled by her wealth and glamorous life style. Her despair when she destroys the aquarium with the golden fish – the only object Aleksandr has emotions for – arouses understanding and empathy. One might say, with slight generalization, that Rita’s perspective is much more familiar to the Russian female audience than Alisa’s, the outsider with green hair. Thus, Rusalka is from the outset not intended to be a contemporary Cinderella story, a story that – sociologically speaking – is only possible in a society with a vertical social dynamic and a permeability of social classes that does not exist in contemporary Russia.

The plot takes the structure of Andersen’s Little Mermaid very seriously. There are lots of details sustaining the argument that the fairy tale is not used here as a mere folkloristic citation but instead as a functioning plot line that organizes characters and motifs throughout the film.  Thus he heroine does not fulfil her dream of attaining the love of her prince.  Similarly to Andersen’s mermaid, Alisa rescues her lover’s life, but he does not appreciate (or know) her sacrifice.  As is the case with Alexandr, Andersen’s prince marries the mermaid’s rival, the princess of the neighbouring country, whom he imagines to be his saviour. And just like Andersen’ Mermaid, Alisa loses her voice in order to be able to grant wishes; after their death, both heroines fly up into the sky and transubstantiate into “ghosts of the air.” Rusalka follows in the footsteps of the fairy tale in that it requires the mermaid to die in order to make her prince happy.  Alisa’s death brings love. While not the story’s main character, she is, in the classical terms of Vladimir Propp’s structural analysis of fairy tales, the “helper” who brings about a remedy in a difficult situation.

Rita and Sasha, still from Anna Melikyan's 'Rusalka'. Image available at http://www.rusalkafilm.ru/gallery/shots/element78/.The film is set in Moscow, Russia’s glamorous capital with its ubiquitous banner ads. Aleksandr, the film’s main character, is a typical piarsshik who (ab)uses his creativity for purely commercial goals, selling lots on the moon to the bored, extravagant elite. His luxurious apartment is furnished according to the latest styles in glossy design magazines. The same applies to the style of his girlfriend Rita who epitomizes Moscow glamour by showing a lot of skin and perfectly manicured hands.

Alisa, on the other hand, does not have the same this glamour, although she does not reject it either.  As Ulrich Schmid points out in his analysis of glamour in Russian television, there is a close relationship between glamour and magic:

Glamour is, therefore, essentially an illusion which admittedly arouses, but does not lead to an aesthetic experience. This definition is supported by the word’s etymology: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, glamour is a corruption of the word “grammar,” used in Scotland in the sense of spell or bewitchment (“to cast the glamour over someone”).(Schmid, Ulrich. “Glamour as Russian Television Magic,” Kultura, no. 6 (2008), 9-10.)

In that sense, one could say thatAlisa is unable to “cast the glamour over Aleksandr” as she does not know the code. This inability is not due to her provincial upbringing but can rather be explained, again, with reference to her plot function as the helper. For this reason I want to invert the conclusion reached by Meindl and Sirotinina who argue that there is clearly no victory of good over evil in the film. There is also no remedy for a deficient situation along the lines described by Vladimir Propp  in his Morphology of the Folk Tale.  To my mind, the deficient situation is the lack of love in the ruling classes, and the remedy is the love Alisa inspires in Sasha. Natascha Drubek-Meyer believes that “in Melikyan’s film, the heroine’s death has no meaning.” Again, I disagree with this statement because Alisa’s death brings about the salvation of Alexandr and of the Russian upper classes more generally.

According to the editors of the special issue of the magazine Kultura devoted to “Glamorous Russia,” glamour, is a substitute for the Russian national idea. The efficiency of the phenomenon lies in its paradoxical capacity to unite the underclass and the privileged elites through the offensive display of wealth and money. As Ljudmila Rudova puts it in her introduction, “Glamour is also very much about the new consumer culture and thus, in essence, democratic and open to everyone.”(Ludmila Rudova, “Introduction,” Kultura, no. 6 (2008), 2.)

Rusalka is far from being a “social critique,” it is not even “cynical.” On the contrary, its message stabilizes the social status quo by appealing to values such as love and confidence. Sasha and Rita are too likeable a couple to arouse dislike from the general public; they embody on the contrary the “good rich.” Nowhere is this more evident than when we compare them to the “bad rich” symbolized by the couple in the red street car that indirectly causes Alisa’s death.(Kseniya Gusarova, “The Deviant Norm: Glamour in Russian Fashion,” Kultura, no. 6 (2008), 14.)  Significantly, this couple inverts the typical age structure compulsory for the oligarch micro-society – the woman is older than her young lover; nevertheless she tries to comply with the fashion style of glamour restricted to young women under the age of 25. The effect is a comical one.)  Olga Mezropova has summed up the new Russian glamour doctrine by citing its opponents:

As the prominent Russian writer, poet and cultural critic Lev Rubinshtein has recently argued, glamour has become a convenient formula that allows today’s regime in Russia to foster its citizens’ “non-participation,” to promote individual inertia and – to use Guy Debord’s terms – to instil an apolitical submission to the ‘spectacle of consumption.(Mezrapova, Olga. “I Choose Russia – I Choose Glamour!” Kultura, no 6 (2008), 12-14.)

Viewed from this angle, Rusalka – regardless of its superficial criticism of the excesses of Russian postmodern capitalism – is ultra-conservative in its vision of contemporary Russian society. The latter’s integrity is endangered by the disintegration of its social classes, yet it is healed by love and glamour.

Henrike Schmidt is currently working on a monograph on Russian internet literature. She is co-editor of The Russian Cyberspace Journal (http://www.russian-cyberspace.com), a publication devoted to new media studies in Russia and East-Central Europe.

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