With Chouga, Darezhan Omirbaev strips down and renders Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina into a whole construction of interlocking jigsaw spaces and interchanging relationships in which nearly every cut links one gaze with its beholder, one room with another, one death with a birth, or one person looking out to an ensuing action over and over again: something they’re looking at passively, something they’ve incited, or something they’ve perhaps imagined and now comes to pass. Perhaps no director since Hitchcock has been quite this obsessed with glimpses and gazes; probably a third of Chouga‘s perfectly-patterned shots, mostly flat, grid-like tableaux of rooms, turn out to have been POVs in the following (wider) shot (as if human vision composes precisely as a camera), and it’s quite possible that many more are as well, that we simply don’t get a subsequent perspective to prove so. Sometimes the shot moves or zooms, and in the next shot we realize we’ve been looking through a character’s camera. Some sequences turn out to be dreams (inner visions, taken as reality) and, mostly, we see most everything through doorframes and mirrors and on TV screens hanging on huge white walls. What the characters see most, maybe, is their lives and fantasies echoed around them, usually in technology, in an Anna Karenina movie on TV, or a film shoot starring their fictional doubles. A film devoid of frenzy, Chouga, inherits the same themes and devices of Dziga Vertov’s great frenzy-film, Man with a Movie Camera, in which every shot is mediated, and the human eye and camera-eye are, for the most part, exchangeable. For like Vertov’s characters, Omirbaev’s almost seem to operate as cogs in a systematized world.
But for Omirbaev, who lets the 19th-century epic make a cutting mockery of trivialized modern life, this constant conflating of humans with technology only emphasizes the ways humans have become alienated from everyday life (unlike in Vertov), as their gazes are immersed in visions elsewhere. In this Anna Karenina, old and young play Gameboy, Levin is not a farmer but a cameraman (if closer to Keaton than Kaufman), Vronsky’s bohemian dallies amount to watching TV at a nightclub bar, and Omirbaev cuts from lovers to their living room TV set, playing footage of mating slugs. At one point, a couple encounters a movie set, filming a scene of a man crooning to his lover through her apartment intercom. Itself a scene from Leos Carax’s Boy Meets Girl, it’s probably Chouga‘s one glimpse of true romance, at so many removes: through the speaker, through the Carax film, through the film-set-within-a-film, through that film’s characters who pass by the scene, through the cameraman’s camera, through Chouga‘s characters who pass by this scene. Chouga itself treats Tolstoy’s terms for romance with all the passion of a Punnett square, an almost schematic series of pairings—a la square dance—in which each lover is neatly exchanged with another. That the characters are always blank only underlines the suspicion that they’re trapped in some vast machinery: in a perfectly delineated space, and a Tolstoy plot that almost seems computer-generated, an impeccable set of couplings.
Like a Bresson tale, it’s about people wondering how to seize back control of their fates from larger institutions. In fact, because he’s so impossibly precise—because he uses so many ellipses, builds up spaces from alternate angles of a room, relies on single scenes as synecdoche for entire lifestyles, and body parts and TV shows as synecdoche for entire relationships (in Chouga, one man’s gift of a few flowers next to another’s gift of huge ones tells us, and them, everything there is to know), and most of all, because his faces are always expressionless—Omirbaev has been called Bressonian. Which isn’t quite right. Bresson’s characters have loves they can never express in a society that turns them into its anonymous criminals, whether or not they follow its rules. Chouga‘s characters also seek respite from the protocol of societal habits (not quite so dramatic), but don’t know where to look, toward love and lust or Playstation. Bresson’s characters can’t express their agony; Chouga‘s can only express their boredom. When the Kitty and Levin characters finally fall in love, find happiness and have a child, it’s a bit of a letdown of the movie’s worldview, whereas for Bresson, it might have been an epiphany—and wouldn’t have happened until the final seconds, if at all.
The other difference is that while Chouga is incessantly mediated, Bresson, for all his cutting up classics to single, representative scenes, is head-on: He shows us everything we need to know about how events are staged, down to small, minute details of process and mechanics at work. Omirbaev, who’ll never show a thing directly (always mediation), leaves everything to be assumed—but clues and cues the audience what to assume. When the Vronsky character is beaten by a gang of thugs, just after Chouga’s husband (a weathered old troll in a Santa cap) catches her with him, it takes one long look at him looking to know what has transpired—and transpired in his mind. Or when Chouga comes into a room and picks up her child, after having left her family for months: we know exactly what she’s decided. Compare the cut in Pickpocket from the mother’s hospital bed to her funeral with the one in Chouga from Chouga pausing in a train station, then going back in, to a shot from above of an ambulance passing below (which then cuts to the hospital—where Kitty is having her child). In Chouga, we realize a character’s entire process of thinking, just by watching them stop and stare. Chouga‘s full of these little revelations: in which a space or an entire way of thinking suddenly open up, are disclosed.
It’s the film’s brilliant way of counteracting the characters’ inability to communicate with a sense—or rather, the knowledge—of what they’re thinking and deciding and doing, privately and personally, in the face of so many dehumanizing interactions. Even if what they’re thinking about is all an illusion, and what they’re doing is jumping in front of a train. Omirbaev, for all his updating and gaps, is something of a classicist. That he moves back and forth between spaces to connect them, that he lets us assume characters’ simple thoughts—of longing, of jealousy, of suicide—without hearing them speak, that every cut is a revelation, that he finds the realism of small gestures and everyday life in a melodrama of lovers ostracized by society: These were all, after all, the great achievements of D.W. Griffith.