Cinema suffered another tragic loss this past weekend with the untimely death of Russian director Aleksey Balabanov, age 54, from a fatal seizure. His passing was just one day removed from the overdue UK release of his 2010 film, The Stoker (Kochegar). The picture graces our screens courtesy of Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, who’ve dipped their toes into distribution waters with this first, well-chosen acquisition. In a tragic sense, Balabanov’s death may compel many to seek out this wonderful feature during its limited run. Like much of the director’s output, it’s an adroit black comedy observing violence and corrupted ethics in post-Soviet Russia. Its world-weary protagonist disturbed over contemporary codes of conflict reminds one of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai with the stateside sheen scrubbed into a thick, grimy stain.
Fire as a symbol is often utilised cinematically to represent either a great warmth or evil; in The Stoker, the flames are an indication of complicity, an accommodating black hole for accomplices to dispose of anything bonding them to a sense of guilt or collusion. Each character has their own small fireplace at the edge of their apartment for a discreet absolving of their sins; and yet, it’s the eponymous stoker (Mikhail Skryabin), living in a rent-free boiler room with only a bed and a typewriter to distract him from the great fire he feeds, who must share his flames with crooks visiting to discard and cremate murdered corpses.
The premise is decidedly dark, and would undoubtedly be received as such if it wasn’t for Balabanov’s diverted aesthetic. Frivolously mellow guitar music consistently pervades every scene, even while a mute hitman assembles his sniper rifle to prepare for an assassination. The murderous act is itself almost normalised by the light rhythmic melody, its inclusion holding uncensored violent depictions back from a singularly grim context.
Balabanov also commands a curiously droll mise-en-scène; he sits the stoker in the middle of a modest, dirtied bed and sends various acquaintances to plant themselves either side. Children come to listen to his stories, old war comrades-turned-criminals attempt reminiscence, and even his daughter arrives – clad in an expensive fur coat – to ask for money, despite owning and stealing from her own embroidery.
Elsewhere, Balabanov constructs scenes with no more than a few shots in order for the surroundings to remain prominent around the centred individuals. His tracking shots follow characters trudging through the snow with an eye for documenting their encircling, crumbling world, the camera often allowing them to pass by so it can sneak a few lingering seconds at the snowy landscape.
The story itself is inherently ludicrous, a demonstration of Balabanov’s tonal range as synchronously amusing and tragic. It gradually transpires that most of the players in the web of violence are family members, colleagues, comrades or sexual partners. Despite these connections, violence can and will be inflicted on a whim. Masha (Anna Korotayeva) instructs her gangster father (Alexandr Mosin) to order the casual murder of friend Sasha (Aida Tumutova), and he obliges by passing the deed onto the unfeeling Bison (Yuriy Matveev), who’s incidentally been sleeping with both women – not that this small fact gives him any qualms about butchering either. One can’t help but wear a marvelled smile at the sheer atrocity of it all, half-suppressed by a consideration of guilt.
“I knew a nice man once. He burned people in a coal stove. I thought he was good… he was bad after all.” These words, spoken by a principal player, infer a naturally misplaced affinity with the lead character of the stoker. It’s undemanding to admire the protagonist upon our immediate introduction, endearing as his frail figure appears hunched over a typewriter with little awareness of the true carnage raging around him. The stoker is far from an impeccable soul, however, and it takes a moment of great personal tragedy to spur him into confronting his acquiescence to corrupted practices. His final scene, taking place in front of the fire that had hitherto defined his routine, is a revelatory masterstroke that settles the narrative from its black comedy premise and into a grounded, enduring pathos.
It’s taken so long for The Stoker to reach our country that Balabanov had even completed another film since. According to reliable sources, Me Too – a humorous response to Tarkovsky’s legendary Stalker – is one of the best films released last year and a fitting farewell for the deceased auteur. His clear talent and ability to stir the viewer by way of treading the fine line between tragic reality and dark humour will be greatly missed. Widespread critical reappraisal of Balabanov’s work may well be due in light of his passing, ensuring he no longer exists on the periphery of cinematic discourse. It’s a shame that, just as with the stoker himself, we have a tendency to realise these precious truths much too late.