Something of an irreverent collision between the offbeat, carnivalesque formalism of Lina Wertmüller or Ulrike Ottinger, and the somber, often sardonic view of despiritualized, post-communist societies from contemporary, ex-Soviet bloc filmmakers such as Darezhan Omirbaev (in particular, Killer), Béla Tarr, and Cristi Puiu, Kira Muratova’s The Tuner is a wry, infectiously offbeat, penetrating, and relevant portrait of the inescapable greed and exploitation that have come to define the cultural landscape of modern day Eastern Europe in the inherently dysfunctional mechanisms of its nascent, capitalism-based, free market economies. A series of parallel, early encounters establishes the prescient tone for the film’s recurring themes of subverted expectation and complicit deception. The film opens to the image of an apprehensive, privileged, lovelorn woman named Lyuba (Nina Ruslanova) curiously wearing an incongruously out of fashion, beaded headdress as she initiates a conversation with a dashing, middle-aged man reading a newspaper at a public park with whom she has arranged a rendezvous after exchanging correspondences through a personal advertisement in a local newspaper (and whom, she subsequently realizes, she had mistakenly approached in her eagerness to find a potential suitor, having arrived a half hour earlier than the proposed meeting time) – an introductory meeting that invariably turns into a subtly goading, hard luck story that culminates with an indirect overture to solicit a loan in order to move forward with a lucrative, short window of opportunity deal despite personal, short-term cash flow problems. The image of Lyuba’s fruitless rendezvous is immediately reinforced by a shot of petty thief and conman, Andrei (Georgi Deliyev) borrowing money from a local loan shark (a shot ingeniously – and symbolically – taken from below the sight line of the table), before heading off to the supermarket to buy groceries (as well as opening bottles of expensive liquor to sneak ample swigs while feigning outrage that the store has been selling opened merchandise). The two sequences, connected by the act of implicit, underhanded, financial solicitation, presage the interconnected fates of Lyuba and Andrei, a seeming predestiny that is concocted by Andrei after he overhears a wealthy widow, Anna Sergeyevna (Alla Demidova) ask for personal recommendations for a piano tuner at the supermarket. Under the spell (or at least, the thumb) of his beautiful, capricious, and extravagant lover, Lina (Renata Litvinova), Andrei sets out to ingratiate himself into the company of Anna Sergeyevna and her friend Lyuba by responding to the classified advertisement for a piano tuner in an attempt to win over their trust, and access to their dwindling fortunes.
It is interesting to note that Muratova operates within the framework of her idiosyncratically familiar absurdist stylizations and visual elements that are visible throughout her body of work in order to illustrate the film’s own themes of opportunism, amorality, and obsolescence. The recurring red herring encounters – Lyuba’s mistaken identity rendezvous, Andrei’s groping by a man in the supermarket who may or (more likely) may not have been a store employee frisking him for shoplifted items, Lina’s invitation of a scatterbrained, homeless person to her table after ordering everything on the menu, Lyuba’s impulsive marriage to an opportunistic projectionist – serve to reinforce the atmosphere of pervasive deception that has defined the young couple’s existence (an early shot of Andrei returning home by sneaking into the attic of a residential complex alludes to their existence as scam artists living in the margins of society). Similarly, Anna Sergeyevna and Lyuba’s repeated encounters with twins at the Central Bank – another recurring visual element within Muratova’s cinema – proves especially appropriate within the context of an interconnected (and ever escalating) pattern of double crosses that binds the characters together in their dysfunctional mutualism – Anna Sergeyevna and Lyuba in their archaic rituals and old-world insularity who are literally (through the malfunctioning piano) and metaphorically out of tune with the world around them (an image that is comically reinforced by Lyuba’s disco-era ornamental headdress as well as the gated entrance to Anna Sergeyevna’s house), and Andrei and Lina in their aimless and futureless hedonism and sense of self-entitlement (a rootlessness and disconnection that is also reflected in Andrei’s penchant for using cell phones and in Lina’s ambiguous declaration of commitment). It is the end, it is this representation of Andrei as a modern-day, morally ambiguous everyman that is captured in Anna Sergeyevna and Lyuba’s vague, often contradictory descriptions of the perpetrator at the denouement of the young couple’s elaborate scheme – the faceless anonymity and amorphous indefinability of impoverishment, desolation, and moral bankruptcy endemic within the corrupted ideals of self-motivated enterprise emerging from the ashes of a post-Soviet brave new world.
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