Tim Beasley-Murray considers Emmanuel Carrère’s Retour à Kotelnitch and what it tells us about death in contemporary Russia.
Retour à Kotelnitch (Back to Kotelnich) is a documentary film, made in 2003, by Emmanuel Carrère, a French writer of Russian descent, that tells of life in a small and unexceptional town eight hundred kilometers east of Moscow. The ending of the film is almost unbearably sad. Beneath the soundtrack of Carrère’s tender and unaccompanied singing of a Russian lullaby, Lermontov’s Bayushki Bayu, the images show us the desolate forecourt of Kotelnich’s railway station, under darkened skies, covered in frost and snow, an empty bench, leafless trees. We have already seen this place earlier in the film. In the earlier scene, Anna, a young woman whom Carrère has befriended, is with Lev, her baby boy of about four months, in a sling on her chest. She is talking animatedly and distractedly to the camera, proud, bubbling with the love of a mother for her child. Carrère, behind the camera, at this point in making the film, has begun to lose interest in Anna in terms of her value for his project. Nevertheless, in a cutaway from middle distance, Carrère sits on the bench and plays happily with the baby. In the book that accompanies the film, Un roman russe, the reader finds out that it is at this moment that Carrère sings the Lermontov lullaby to Lev in his arms. It is summer and the sun gently shines through the leaves of the trees on the station forecourt.
Between these two scenes and these two views of the same place, one wintrily desolate, the other sunlit and full of a love that is low-key but self-evident, something terrible has happened: Anna and her baby have been brutally murdered. Anna, strangled in her flat with the cord of her telephone; Lev, hacked to pieced with an axe. Summer has turned to Winter. The viewer cannot but superimpose her or his experience of the two similar, but cruelly opposed scenes. (A clunkier film-maker would intercut a flashback here.) What we see through the falling snow on the empty Winter bench is the absence of this mother and child and the crushing presence of their death. The lullaby that Carrère had sung to a living, sun-dappled Lev, a lullaby that tells of a mother’s hopes for her child as he grows up, has now, sung again at the end of the film, become a grave-song for a life brought to an end, so soon, so unimaginably violently.