“The Lover”, Dir. Valeri Todorovsky (Russia, 2002)

In his new picture The Lover (Liubovnik) Valery Todorovsky investigates the relationship between two men in search of happiness, of a happiness that lies in the past. The film bears a simple title, but it actually touches upon a very serious subject-matter: the loss of a loved person, wife and mistress. The woman herself is, in fact, absent from the film, since the film beginswith her death. Her husband, the linguistics professor Charyshev, tries to reconcile himself to her death and accidentally finds a letter to her lover Ivan. Charyshev searches for Ivan, whose affair with his wife had continued for almost 15 years. It turns out that his wife had lived two parallel lives. Now Charyshev can no longer be sure about anything: Did he know the woman whom he lived with? Did he understood her? Is he really the father of their son?

Todorovsky gradually deprives the hero from all stable, reliable points on which his life is constructed. In search of truth in human and family relationships Todorovsky leans first of all on the actors’ abilities, mostly on Oleg Yankovsky’s talent who plays the role of Charyshev. Yankovsky develops his role against the backdrop of the lover Ivan, played excellently by Sergey Garmash, who provides with his quiet demeanour the ideal basis for the gradual revelation of the emptiness in Charyshev’s life.

Todorovsky’s hero has returned onto the screen the image of the intellectual, who is no longer living in poverty and without a purpose in life, as portrayed in Russian cinema in recent years. Charyshev is a kind person, who lives in a supportive and functioning family context. Therefore for him the destruction of the shell of his family happiness is fatal.

Charyshev’s inability to understand his own private life sharply contradicts his professional abilities. The first scene of the film shows Charyshev trying to concentrate on his research, but the noise of a tram in the street distracts him. This tram is at the same time the transport his wife uses to visit Ivan. In the end of the film the tram no longer distracts, but becomes the only significant object in Charyshev’s life. The image of the tram unites the hero with his wife, with the lover, and after their death and departure with the emptiness and with the absence of a meaning in life. Even his son Petia cannot provide a meaning for Charyshev’s life, because there are doubts about his paternity.

The Lover is a traditional film in the visual sense; it is outstanding in the fine and completely logical development of characters. The action takes place in some apartments, at the university, on a cemetery, in a tram. From the point of view of production design there are no innovations here. Instead the film excels through the performance of Oleg Yankovsky, whose play puts everything else into the shadow. The Lover returns to the tradition of an actor’s cinema and proves Todorovsky’s talent as a director capable of working well with actors.

Todorovsky draws a portrait of an intellectual, a person symptomatic for our age: unaware of his environment, he cannot live in the present. As soon as the facade collapses he is no longer able to determine the sense of his existence. He boards the tram with the destination of Ivan’s flat (although Ivan has left the city): he travels to a void. Having removed all fixed points from Charyshev, Todorovsky leaves his hero in a suspended state. But without a point of reference he cannot live.

See also the article From Sochi to Moscow: DEBUTS, DEBUTS, DEBUTS….