After a festival screening of his new film Father and Son, director Aleksandr Sokurov reportedly brushed off, as so much delusional ranting, several Western pundits’ interpretations of the material as homoerotic. It’s understandable, insofar as such a singular reading sorely undermines the complexities of Father and Son‘s central relationship, but it’s likewise an involuntary defense by the artist against those literal-minded attackers who would entrap him within his own Russian Ark. Certainly the novices who patronized Sokurov’s single-take extravaganza purely for its technical feats will be baffled by Father and Son‘s seemingly haphazard, though finally rewarding, opacity.
The director introduces his film’s unnamed title characters (Andrey Schetinin and Aleksey Neymyshev, respectively) in a sequence of abstract sensuality: parent comforts child after a particularly violent nightmare and Sokurov lingers, Francis Bacon-like, over their limbs and orifices, which are intentionally distorted and softened by an anamorphic lens. The director then frames Father and Son as a chiaroscuro pietà, conflating the prior sexual intimations with a sense of spiritual bondage. In addition to its obvious God-the-father/Christ-the-son parallels, the sequence reads as a visualization of Jacob wrestling the angel, a suggestive, painterly counterpart (vis-à-vis Rembrandt, Doré, and Gauguin) to Father and Son‘s multifaceted moving images.
Sokurov firmly establishes his film as a spiritual parable; the characters’ every glance and touch seems a cosmic gesture that, coupled with the film’s near-subliminal soundtrack (a steady drone of Tchaikovsky, electronica, voice-over, and radio static), promises transcendence even as it threatens banishment into the abyss. The film’s chiseled, impossibly beautiful male leads are captured at respective moments of middle-age and adolescent life crisis, brought on partially, it would seem, by the lack of a feminine presence. This forms a subtle connection to Sokurov’s earlier Mother and Son (of which Father and Son is the middle section of a projected trilogy); the dying matriarch of the former seems cinematic kin to the deceased mother of the latter. Her absence breeds a kind of masculine competition, evident in Father and Son’s sculpted physiques and military professions, both offshoots of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. Sokurov is wise to portray such Alpha-male symbolism with its Omega opposite—the tender looks between Father and Son are the epitome of nurturing femininity, and their intimate caresses go beyond base notions of sexuality, transposing into images what Edward Albee’s play The Goat achieved through words.
Key to understanding Father and Son is that it begins and ends in its characters’ dreams. Indeed, the film never clearly delineates between waking and dreaming states of mind until its sublime, declarative climax where a character tragically, but necessarily, enforces the boundaries of his own identity. Sokurov’s stylistic choices force one to look upon Father and Son as a moving musical canvas, complete with crescendos and cadenzas—characters and motivations, in tandem with the director’s precise camera placements, careen about as if in symphonic liquid space. The result is challenging and liberating cinema of the highest order, but if the constant squirming of one establishment critic at our screening is any indication, Sokurov’s invigorating familial fairy tale may very well fall prey to a vicious and vituperative Big Brother.