Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District

English Title: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District

Original Title: Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda

Country of Origin: Soviet Union, Switzerland

Studio: Mosfilm, Sovinfilm

Director: Roman Balaian

Screenplay: Roman Balaian, Pavel Finn

Cinematographer: Pavel Lebeshev

Art Director: Said Menial’shchikov, Aleksandr Samulekin

Runtime: 80 minutes

Genre: Literary adaptation

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Natal'ia Andreichenko, Nikolai Pastukhov, Aleksei Kravchenko

Year: 1988

Volume: Russian

Katerina Izmailova is a young woman married to the elderly merchant Zinovii. She is unhappy and bored in her childless household until the new farm worker, Sergei, arrives. Katerina and Sergei become lovers. When the husband unexpectedly discovers the lovers, a brawl ensues and Katerina kills her husband. She and Sergei start living together almost openly, but their plan to take over the estate is disrupted, since the husband had a distant male relative who is considered an heir. The boy and his elderly caretaker move in with Katerina, who is genuinely happy to have the child around. Sergei, however, expresses concerns that their rights and privileges will be taken away by the underage heir. Katerina’s initial reaction to the possibility of violence against the child is negative, but she is quickly overpowered by the displeasure and discontent on Sergei’s part. When the boy is left alone in the house, Katerina and Sergei suffocate him, with Katerina initiating the murder. Their crime is discovered and both are sentenced to prison. During their transfer to another prison, Sergei abuses Katerina, and starts having an affair with another female prisoner. During a river crossing Katerina throws herself and her rival into the frozen river, where both women drown.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District is based on the physiological sketch by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov. Lady Macbeth quickly became a culturally significant narrative, touching on many issues of nineteenth -century Russian culture and literary tradition. The story has been the subject of different artistic adaptations, notably Dmitrii Shostakovich’s opera. Another adaptation is Moscow Nights (1994) by Valerii Todorovskii, set in contemporary Moscow and stylized as a film noir rather than a naturalist sketch. The original literary text presents Katerina as a cold-blooded murderess, meticulously narrating all the gruesome details of the crimes she plans and commits. The story describes Katerina as a kind of monster from the unconscious, governed by a drive for pleasure, with no capacity for self-reflection or moral judgment. Shostakovich’s opera emphasizes the naturalist element in the story – Katerina becomes a victimized figure: unhappily married, a product and a prisoner of her social milieu, reflecting another position in the long-standing debate of whether evil is the product of individual will or society’s pressure.

Roman Balaian’s adaptation stands somewhere in-between, endowing Katerina with monstrous and redeeming characteristics. Visually the film is done in the tradition of the ‘picturesque style’ movement (zhivopisnyi stil’, a term coined by the critic Valentin Mikhailovich in 1978) – a trend in Soviet cinema of the 1970s that brought new poetic and lyric qualities to cinema via beautifully and carefully constructed mise-en-scène, reminiscent of painting; an aesthetically self-conscious and nuanced vision that focused on environment and technique rather than story and character motivation. This style was attributed to such directors as Sergei Solov’ev, Nikita Mikhalkov and cinematographer Pavel Lebeshev (who worked with Balaian on Lady Macbeth). Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District is beautifully done: with intricate play of light and shadows, soft colours and idyllic landscapes, where Katerina and Sergei spend their romantic dates, feeding horses and playing games. There is an intentional discrepancy between the love scenes in the bright open air, bathed in sunlight, and the dimly lit interiors where lust and murder emerge as the driving force of the film.

Katerina is presented as a paradoxical character – a caring tender lover and a brutal murderess, a bored idle wife who yawns and stretches with remarkable regularity and a strong-willed woman who turns her life around for herself. The film has an obsession with mirrors: Katerina is reflected in multiple wall and hand mirrors that she intently looks into, examining her face. The film starts and ends with the image of Katerina as a little girl looking in the mirror in the sunlit background, examining her teeth; then, the child’s image turns into an image of Katerina as an adult in shackles in the winter, looking in the mirror with the same intensity and curiosity. Katerina is like Caliban who does not see ‘his face in the glass’ – her identity is obscured primarily from herself. She cannot see that she is a monster – which in itself becomes a redeeming quality for the film’s heroine. Admittedly, Katerina is not indifferent to taking others’ lives – the film positions her more as confused about ethics, succumbing to her desires, rather than indifferent to morality altogether as in the original story or defiant of society’s norms as in Shostakovich’s opera. That is why Balaian’s Katerina hangs on to the only thing she knows for certain, her attachment to Sergei. In the end she sacrifices her life and that of another woman for this feeling of certainty. The film’s contrast between visual beautification of Katerina’s environment and the dark subject matter underscores this confusion, pointing out that Katerina’s love for Sergei is a happy joyful feeling and a dark murderous passion, and that she cannot discern where one ends and the other begins. The music in the film, composed by Evsei Evseev, comprises chiefly piano and music box melodies that play over and over again, reflecting the vicious circle that the film perpetuates – love and murder, morality and identity being blurred together not in a fatal fusion of passion and crime, but in a petrifying state of confusion.

Author of this review: Volha Isakava