SAVE AND PROTECT (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1989)

Long, slow and quirky, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Spasi i sokhrani is a highly creative filming of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Written by Yuri Arabov, it is a thing of interiorities, images that express the deepest feelings of its characters, especially Emma Bovary, who feels strangled by her marriage and the provincial village into which it tightly fits. Her dreams reflect this straightjacketing rather than providing respite or release, leaving adultery, however risky, her only recourse to a breath or two of fresh air. Emma’s extramarital sex, which is widespread and voluminous, becomes a kind of incantatory refrain.

Throughout the course of her adulteries, Emma’s sensuous body subsumes her mind and spirit. Everything is taken down to the level of earth, and the film concludes with a remarkable passage portraying her death and burial, the latter a stunning outdoors set-piece that shows it takes a village, amidst Nature, to dispose of a life. Mostly in long-shot, villagers go about the business of burial, with an occasional farm animal entering the frame; the final shot, though, cuts us right into the earth-covered coffin, where a lingering consciousness, adjacent to her corpse, prays for Emma’s soul—or, possibly, Emma’s soul prays for the still living who have just buried her body. Surreal touches like this brush Sokurov’s descendental vision—as do unexpected cuts and images. With sharp irony, for instance, the burial dissolves into an image of the sky; instead of panning the sky and by this evoking Emma’s heavenward ascent, however, the camera makes its way down, like the blade of a guillotine. Children’s play inadvertently mocks the ordeal of Emma’s suspended fate.

We recall the evocations of transience and evanescence at the beginning of the film: Emma’s opening and shutting of a Japanese fan, its blackness prefiguring the black of the funeral garb at the end; the flurry of white feathers from the bed pillow that Emma pounds when, frustrated, she fails to sew it up; and the flies that annoyingly buzz about and land on her and her husband at the dining table: a miniature suggestion of the medieval “failed feast.” Both feathers and flies more sparsely attend to Emma’s corpse at the end. Her “eternal life,” at least at the outset, echoes her unsatisfying, stultifying marriage.

I cannot rate Sokurov’s version as highly as I do Jean Renoir’s brilliant 1933 version, nor can I rate Tsetsiliya Zervudaki’s excellent performance as highly as I do Bette Davis’s vivid rendering of an Emma Bovary-type in King Vidor’s Beyond the Forest (1949); but Sokurov’s film startles and enchants.

Winner of the best film prize of the international critics at Montréal.

 

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