Sometimes, I really do wish there was such a thing as a Universal Translator. Note I say “sometimes,” not always, because there are definitely some benefits to being able to speak a language people around you can’t understand, like when you’re a spy, or you just want to seem really cool. But mostly, I wish everyone could just push a little button and – boom! – that obscure un-subtitled foreign film in a language you don’t speak is suddenly completely understandable.
In this case, the movie that isn’t entirely difficult to find but doesn’t seem to come with subtitles is Oleg Teptsov’s 1989 film Господин оформитель (The Designer, or Mister Designer). Very loosely based on the novella “Grey Automobile” by Alexander Grin, it’s an eerie, tragic tale of an artist whose desire to capture something divine and immortal through his art ends up being his undoing. Having watched the film several times now, I’m still quite haunted by the saturated colors and imagery, gorgeous pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg sets, and a fantastic score by Sergey Kuryokhin.
I grew up with Alexander Grin a household name, his best known novels and stories set in a romantic world where dreamers, artists and adventurers pure of heart are confronted with greed and corruption. Grin (born Grinevsky) received most of his recognition posthumously, mostly due to censorship and being blacklisted politically. One of my favorite stories growing up was his novel The Scarlet Sails, probably his most well-known book, full of adventure and romantic miracles. Quite a few of his works, however, have a darker edge. Serving as the basis for Mister Designer, “The Grey Automobile” is the first person narrative of a man driven mad by his increasing fear and distrust of the mechanical objects surrounding him more and more in the early 20th century. He also becomes convinced that a woman he’s enamored with is in fact a walking, talking mannequin. While Grin’s story is a bit more ambiguous – is the hero losing his grip on reality, or is there truly something more sinister going on? – the movie takes a more directly creepy approach and maintains only a few common elements with the story.
In Mister Designer, we are introduced to talented artist Platon Andreevich Gastman (the striking Viktor Avilov). It is 1908 and he has quite a bit of success and respect as an artist. His paintings and illustrations have been published in books, audiences fawn over his work as stage designer, and upscale boutique owners defer to his talents to create their window displays. Still, through it all, he seeks something greater. Platon Andreevich is fixated on the notion of transcending mortality and breathing life into his art, and in this pursuit he is overcome by mystical visions, often after he’s injected himself with opiates.
When Platon Adreevich is asked to come up with a stylish display for an upscale jeweler, he decides to create a beautiful mannequin and finds his model in a young woman named Anna Beletskaya (Anna Demyanenko, in a debut role). Anna is terminally ill, her family in need of support, and posing for Platon ends up being a way of helping them while also immortalizing her through his sketches and the finished mannequin.
We are only treated to a brief vignette of Platon’s work with Anna, their conversations minimal as he goes about his craft. But with the light filtering warmly into his studio, doll-like Anna draped in gauzy fabrics while he makes a mold of her face and shapes her likeness in clay, there is an implied sense of comfortable intimacy between the artist and the model. While we’re only given a short glimpse of their time together, it’s clear that Anna has left an indelible impression in his heart. But it’s more of an obsession with an ideal than with the person, because if anything is obvious about Platon Andreevich is that he doesn’t quite dwell in any sort of tethered reality. I almost feel like for someone like him, falling for a woman who’s not long for this world is what he’d prefer, so that in his mind and in his art, he can continue to render her image into a perfection that she may not have embodied while living.
In fact, throughout the film Platon Andreevich doesn’t always behave in a way that’s practical or logical. Whether it’s caused by his artistic temperament or his drug use, his actions are often erratic and at times menacing. Early on in the film, he silently chases a young nun through weaving, empty alleyways of St. Petersburg, the young woman increasingly panicked until she escapes him, his pursuit leaving him in Anna’s courtyard. After his sessions with Anna, Platon Andreevich holds the finished mannequin in his arms, as he washes what seems to be a blood stain off the doll’s head. Is it the doll suddenly bleeding? Is it paint that he put there in some feverish moment of eccentricity? (Well, it’s certainly an omen.)
Years pass after Platon Andreevich has unveiled his finished eerie mannequin to his clients – they, in turn, staring at it with a mixture of awe and slight revulsion. Anna is no longer in the picture, and we now find the artist passed out in a drugged haze, his once beautiful studio crumbling around him in layers of dust, grime and neglect. It’s as if he’s put everything he had in his heart into the last creation of the mannequin and left nothing for himself.
A miracle in the form of a wealthy man named Grilyo arrives at Platon’s apartment, looking to hire the artist to help Grilyo decorate his newly acquired mansion on Kamenny (“Stone”) Island of St. Petersburg. Reluctant and not quite clear on the fact that this sort of project would go against every ounce of his lofty artistic principles, Platon Andreevich arrives at Grilyo’s manse. Platon is all but ready to turn down the offer when he meets Grilyo’s beautiful young wife Mariya, who is the spitting image of Anna Beletskaya.
And thus, struck by her enigmatic beauty and energized to solve the mystery of her identity – since Mariya denies having ever met Platon Andreevich or gone by the name of Anna – the artist is renewed. He takes Grilyo’s offer of work, mostly so that he can spend as much time as possible creeping around Mariya.
Platon Andreevich continues to try and convince Mariya that he knows her, the true her, and that she was his muse. He follows her from room to room, pleading with her either desperately or angrily. He shoves his book in front of her face, showing her the sketch of Anna’s (and her) likeness. He mopes and moons over her, and Mariya gives him a blunt answer – he’s too poor for her, whereas Grilyo is exactly the kind of man she prefers, a man who can give her all the toys and trinkets.
The natural course of things is for Platon Andreevich to wager everything he has against Grilyo in a game of cards. Naturally. And, naturally, he ends up winning and taking Grilyo for everything he’s got, including Mariya.
Mariya is, to a certain extent, fascinated by the melodramatic artist, and since he now holds the purse strings, she’s not above a change in her life’s situation. Together they travel back to his bohemian digs, her face a barely suppressed mixture of resigned annoyance and amusement. Platon can barely contain his excitement but he ruins the romantic-ish mood by further questioning and pressing her about her identity.
Mariya, angered, flees the apartment, leaving Platon a clue to her identity in the form of the snake bracelet that he should recognize. From there, things get more bleak and creepy. Without revealing the denouement further, all I’ll say is that Platon Andreevich spends the remainder of the film skulking about his apartment and Grilyo’s silent mansion, when he’s not also digging (figuratively) through a graveyard for clues, before confronting Mariya with his accusations. The ending is tragic, but we should have seen it coming.
Avilov and Demyanenko are great in this movie. He gives us the moody, violent temper of the artist perfectly, while her subtle expressions are unnerving in just the right way. Mikhail Kozakov, who portrays Grilyo, is a seasoned actor but doesn’t have a lot of screen time. Still, in his few scenes he actually manages to convey a man who really isn’t an antagonist, but just another piece on a creepy chessboard. But credit also has to go to the supporting cast who aren’t even actors at all: the art featured in the movie, the gorgeous locations in St. Petersburg, and the film’s soundtrack.
A score of amazing artists have been used in the film to represent both Platon Andreevich’s work and his dreams and visions. Among the sketches and paintings that pop up throughout the film are works by Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, Odilon Redon, Jean Delville and Max Klinger.
Common among all the artists are elements of mysticism and beauty that stand somewhere between otherworldly and angelic, and menacing and feral. In including the works of such noted artists to represent Platon’s mind, the director may have been a little too obvious, but I think he was paying homage to the influence Western culture had in pre-revolutionary Russia. The film takes place over the course of several year’s before the revolution of 1917, and while it doesn’t strike me as entirely pro- or anti-any political view, it does serve as a reminder of what St. Petersburg must have been like before the overthrow of the monarchy. To be an extravagant aesthete, or a wealthy businessman with ties to European bourgeoisie, was not the sort of thing that would get you in trouble, unless you pissed off the royal family. The nun running through the alleyways was perhaps being chased by Platon, but viewed another way, they were both running away from the impending shift in Russian society, one decidedly anti-religion and extravagance. Platon Andreevich probably would have been arrested and banished to some freezing gulag or village at the edge of the earth for his art and his habits. Grilyo probably would have fled the country quick enough, abandoning his stone mansion to be turned into communal housing or a revolutionary command center. This is actually what happened to the building used as the exterior of Grilyo’s stately home. The fairytale mansion, designed in 1904 by architect Roman Meltzer, was home to Swiss tailor Edward Follenweider who served at the imperial court. After the revolution, all the private residences on Kammenny Island (which was renamed Workers Island), including Follenweider’s home, were turned over to serve the common good as shelters and sanatoriums for workers.
Although some of the work may have been done on sound stages and sets built specifically for the film – possibly, many of the shots inside Platon Andreevich’s apartment – majority of the interior locations in the movie can still be found in St. Petersburg. Many of the sweeping, ornate staircases in Grilyo’s mansion, as well as Mariya’s green and gilded Art Nouveau dressing room, were filmed at the extravagant villa of Dutch businessman and diplomat Henrich Gilze van der Pals (since 1939 housing the military draft board.) The card game and Platon’s final confrontation with Mariya take place in the “Mauritian” living room in the estate of Baron S. P. von Derviz, the building now housing the St. Petersburg Opera. Even the alleyways and courtyards through which our tragic hero rambles can, for the most part, be found intact in St. Petersburg. (Thus bumping the city even further up the list of places I definitely would like to visit in my lifetime.) To find out more about the different locations used in the film – although at the risk of further plot spoilers – this detailed post compiled by LJ user aquilaaquilonis is fantastic, although you may need the use of Google translator.
Almost every decision Oleg Teptsov made in his film – the extravagant production, the mysticism and creepiness, or the fact that neither of his two leads had much film acting experience – could have backfired, but instead worked very well in his favor. Probably the best decision Teptsov made, however, was in picking Sergey Kuryokhin to score the music for the film. Born in 1954, Kuryokhin made his name as a jazz and pop musician in the 80s, collaborating with various Soviet rock groups, including the band Aquarium. In 1984, Kuryokhin assembled a performance group “Pop-Mechanics” (“Поп-механика”) which wasn’t so much a band as a live theatrical showcase with a rotating cast of musicians and performance artists. (The linked clip, from Pop-Mechanics’ appearance on TV show Musical Ring, includes my favorite band from that era, Kino. Musical Ring, by the way, was a really bizarre but kind of awesome live show where various underground and well established rock groups and experimental performers would stage a show, while an audience would then ask them questions – at times bluntly skeptical, at times very well thought out – about their music and their artistic intent.) Kuryokhin had also an eccentric sense of humor, rising to a certain degree of notoriety when he punk’d Soviet TV audiences by quite convincingly presenting his theory that Lenin had been in fact a giant mushroom.
In 1986, the composer Oleg Teptsov enlisted to work on Mister Designer had backed out and the director found himself having to look for a plan B. After a chance introduction to Kuryokhin, the two artists bonded and within a few minutes decided that they should collaborate on the movie. Kuryokhin reviewed the footage Teptsov had already filmed, and over the course of 8 hours – enlisting several musicians, including members of the band Kino – recorded the entire score, and then some. The score perfectly casts the mood with pieces that are ominous and modern, and some that are more wistful and calm. My favorite track from the score, “Donna Anna,” features a mix of angry synths, wailing guitars and softly anxious flutes, with lilting vocals by classically trained soprano Olga Dmitrieva.
Mister Designer is the kind of movie that gets under your skin. Every moment in the film is screen-shot worthy and the soundtrack is repeatedly enjoyable, but it’s all those elements combined that create the tense, tragic and beautiful atmosphere that make me want to share the movie with everyone.
(All images, unless noted, screenshots from the movie.)