Shot across Europe, A Gentle Creature is a Russian-set drama from Ukranian writer and director Sergei Loznitsa – following the plight of an unnamed woman (Vaslina Makovtseva) as she journeys to a prison town outside of Siberia, hoping to take a care package to her falsely-imprisoned husband, and chronicling the trials and tribulations she faces along the way.
The aim of Loznitsa’s work here is transparent: A Gentle Creature isn’t so much a film as much as it is a statement, and that statement is that Russia is a horrible place, where even fleeting sparks of goodness will be stamped out by the cold, crushing indifference of a system rigged against anyone still daring to hope. The society is cruel, callous, and depraved: ugly, drug-addled men have multiple, ugly alcoholic wives that they piss on for fun, while pimps and con-women lurk around every corner and the police are more akin to a well-armed gang than any kind of peace-keeping force.
Whether or not this portrayal of Russia is any way a valid one is debatable, but the cartoonish lengths to which Loznitsa goes to construct his narrative undermine any semblence of realism his work hopes to capture. Loznitsa unfurls the kind of gritty, slice-of-life tale in which total strangers will share anecdotes of their most traumatic experiences, where few are kind and all are harsh. It isn’t simply that the picture is suffocating in its tragedy, it’s that it seems to take great pleasure in doing so.
His directorial style is similarly narcissistic and almost passive-aggressive in its navel-gazing. Loznitsa lingers on static wide shots of a single location for entire minutes after the protagonist, or indeed anything of interest, has left the frame.
Lurching back and forth between harrowing scenes of the film’s lead (named in the credits only as ‘the gentle creature’, because of course) repeatedly failing to take her goods to her husband and being taken advantage of or similarly abused, interspersed with only the aforementioned mind-numbing tedium, it’s difficult to avoid feeling that A Gentle Creature is a film that seems to resent being watched.
It’s clear from the outset that Makovtseva is a magnificent actress – poised and perfectly maintained no matter her circumstance, only breaking as the film draws to a close. It’s an understated performance completely dismantled of credibility by the paper-thin characterisation afforded her by Loznitsa’s script – we pity the gentle creature because of the hardships she endures, but there is nothing to her character beyond this. She has her goal, and she stone-facedly ploughs towards that goal no matter what. The gentle creature is frustrating, both in the increasingly ludicrous series of set-backs thrust upon her, and in her equally ludicrous passivity.
The rest of the cast is rounded out with character actors in their own rut – playing over-the-top characters with all the personality of action figures (this one’s a prison warden, this one’s a hooker), with no memorable performances save for Liya Akhedzhakova. As a human rights activist in a poor town, Akhedzhakova is the one notable ray of sunshine, the single shining beacon of light in an otherwise mercilessly black abyss. Her performance is heartfelt, stirring, and raw, and, though she steals every moment of her single scene, even that can’t quite save this dreck.
A Gentle Creature ends with a satirical dream sequence so out of left-field it beggars belief, and a gang rape more interested in showing you the lead’s breasts than it is in showing you her face. It’s a moment that sends you away from the film with the sensation of being infinitely less composed than when you went in – the result of enduring lurid, angry, and unflinching misery porn one should only ever seek to watch if they’re feeling particularly masochistic.
A Gentle Creature is in cinemas nationwide noq; rated 18. Check out the trailer below.