A good night’s sleep and a little distance softens my initially harsh reaction to Kira Muratova’s Two in One (Dva v odnom). That, in addition to two laudatory articles by Jonathan Rosenbaum (one on Muratova overall, the other on her apparent masterpiece, The Asthenic Syndrome), convinces me to suspend overall judgment of the director at this early point of consideration.
Perhaps like my first encounter with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s These Encounters of Theirs, I’ve just stumbled into Muratova’s auteurist continuum at the wrong point. In several particulars—not least in its superior navigation of film space—Two in One reminds of another late work by a proclaimed fringe master (Alain Resnais’ Private Fears in Public Places), though Muratova’s film is decidedly more torturous to get through (a personal reaction not meant to dissuade the curious—which should be all of us).
From the start, Two in One evinces a playful and personal obsession with the dialectics of cinema and theater. In the film’s first section, entitled “Stage Hands,” an eclectic theater group prepares for a matinee performance of their latest production, working around and occasionally paying homage to the dead body of an actor (dressed as Pagliaccio) who hanged himself the night before. Muratova reveals the body—dangling from the rafters, lost within the scenery—in the film’s lyrical opening shot. Beginning on the bedsheet-draped auditorium seats, the camera follows a lone, grizzled stagehand onto the rostrum where he recites Prince Hamlet’s “To Be or Not Be” speech before walking off and unwittingly unveiling the deceased, who sways liltingly in the background. The resonant words of the sequence would appear to be “To die, to sleep—to sleep, perchance to dream,” though what follows this opener, for characters and audience alike, is more a collective nightmare: cinematic territory that, research suggests, is par for the course with the Romania-born, Ukraine-raised Muratova.
At the heart of this first section (with its freakish imagery, elegant gliding camera, and weirdly detached vocal post-dubbing) is the increasingly frenzied verbal back-and-forth between the stagehand and a broom-sweep, which escalates—with more hysteria than hilarity—to the point of murder. The show must go on, and it is here that Two in One switches to an entirely other story, “Woman of a Lifetime,” something of an inexplicable, masochistic, and agonizing bedroom farce wherein a cruel, lascivious father (with a passion for paintings of big-breasted nudes) lords over the adult daughter whom he keeps more or less imprisoned in a next-door apartment. The incestuous subtext of their relationship constantly threatens to boil over into text and is only intensified by the appearance of the daughter’s girlfriend Alisa (Renata Litvinova, also the second segment’s screenwriter), who—between drunken giggles and ear-splitting guffaws—gives this horned-up patriarch a decided run for his money.
The father’s attempts to seduce Alisa are memorably boorish and pathetic. I won’t soon forget the extended sequence where the duo repeatedly stumble their way through amateurish renditions of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s famed Pagliacci aria “Vesti la giubba” (one of the few apparent, yet still perplexing connections between Two in One’s first and second parts), which culminates in a wall-projected slide-show of early 20th-century pornographic stills. Between this, the doorway pissing contest between the father and his pet German Shepherd, and the daughter’s minutes-long, out-of-nowhere rendition of the robot dance, there’s a continual sense in Two in One that anything is possible, however nonsensical. Yet there is also a clear method behind Muratova’s madness, one that, at this point in time, I am unable to articulate with any summative clarity. Maybe ’tis better to revel in the confusion, to fully immerse oneself in Two in One’s gestalt as opposed to flailing about wildly in a futile attempt to explain away its incongruous particulars. This is a case, I think, where bewilderment is a necessary signpost on the path to a perhaps unattainable revelation and enlightenment. So the narrator of our ongoing serial teases: To be continued…
Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications.