Marlen Khutsiev’s 1966 film July Rain is an engrossing, if fragmented, city portrait of Moscow in a time of great flux for the Soviet Union. The film is situated in what’s described as the Krushchev Thaw, a period following Stalin’s death in which the Soviet Union, in its process of de-Stalinization, became liberalized, both in a political and a wider sociocultural sense. One of the results of this change was an increasingly Westernized youth; indeed, this film’s reserved and charming protagonist, Lena, wears her hair in a bob, outfits herself in stylish Western clothes, and listens to Western music with her friends. One of those friends, a guitar-strumming man whose melancholy ballads punctuate the film several times, fittingly describes their home as a “country of youth.”
Opening with a tracking shot on Moscow streets that evokes the hustle and bustle of Dziga Vertov’s classic city symphony Man with a Movie Camera, Khutsiev’s camera (unlike Vertov’s) finally settles on a subject, Lena – though she seems not all too pleased with this decision. Glancing over her shoulder several times, looking directly at the camera, she initiates a sort of relationship between the two – the camera and the subject (whether ‘the camera’ is synonymous with Khutsiev isn’t something I can definitively argue) – that reappears at several other crucial moments throughout the film, and only for a brief moment each of those times. From this opening scene it becomes immediately clear that Lena is aware of her surroundings, and aware of her own position within them. She’s the kind of leading woman in whom many today might still find some kind of inspiration or intrigue.
Additionally, Khutsiev’s use of music and sound in this opening scene says something particularly profound about the nature of a changing society, as well as changing styles in cinematic portrayal. Whereas Man with a Movie Camera, considered a work of early documentary filmmaking, pairs the crowded and industrial sights of emerging cities (including Moscow) with a consistent score, Khutsiev’s Moscow is introduced with a kind of excitement and restlessness that is unconfined, and which cannot be contained, brought to our senses through the changing signal of a radio station. From the overture of Bizet’s Carmen to news broadcasts to pop music, Moscow is revealed as a spatial and temporal polyphony, in terms of both sound and image. This also establishes Moscow as not a quintessentially Russian place, but one in which the outside has been allowed to permeate, and which has grown increasingly international (compared to the proud, nationalistic tone of Man with a Movie Camera). Like the radio and its listener grappling to find a stable tune, Moscow is rapidly changing, trying new things.
Central to July Rain is the theme of modernity and change, set apart by its female perspective. But Khutsiev seems to question whether the modern means something fundamentally different from the pre-modern; perhaps it is merely different because of the inevitable passage of time, a force that is impervious to reversal. Khutsiev conveys this message through a juxtaposition of well-known Renaissance paintings, by artists such as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, with the sights of a highly mechanized, industrialized society and a culture of mass production. In one shot, while Lena and beau Volodya embrace in a street which is lined with numerous buses, Khutsiev lifts the camera up above them and crosses over to what, at first, appears to be a different street, but which turns out to be the same one which we have just left; it is a mirror of sorts, reflecting itself. The same row of buses, identical to one another – an endless reproduction – points to the growing un-uniniqueness of the changing city.
The film catches Lena at a pivotal time in her life – just as it reveals Moscow at a crucial juncture – in which she is beset with the weight of several important decisions. Among these are when, and if, she will continue her studies in graduate school, and whether or not she will marry her equally charming (though decidedly different) beau, Volodya. She works at a printing press – this is another location in which the camera’s presence is not necessarily appreciated, but merely tolerated, where Lena looks directly into its eye. This printing press is responsible for creating reproductions of Renaissance paintings, giving us the source of those images from the beginning of the film. Another metaphor on mechanization and mass production seems to be at play; the once-sacred images of a period of intense cultural rebirth – like this one, of 1960s Moscow, perhaps – are reduced to conventional, common things. This is a trait of the modern, Khutsiev might be saying.
Lena enjoys her independence, which her job and semi-casual relationship with Volodya come to embody. But the latter becomes the subject of increasing scrutiny, and Lena is indifferent to that pressure. Responding to Volodya’s proposal at the end of the film, Lena asks (rather rhetorically): “What if I want to stay independent? Is that possible?” She states quite plainly her desire to grow and change in the same manner as Moscow in this moment, as opposed to settling down for a conventional future; though, if the modern era tends to turn the unique into the conventional, she may be doomed for this fate anyway. But the decision, asserts the film’s narrative, is hers to make. For much of July Rain Lena has appeared indecisive on this matter – dodging or reluctantly answering the questions of nosy relatives and disputing with her mother – but in reality she is quite resolute on maintaining the kind of independence that the Thaw has made possible for her.
After their solemn discussion – without a doubt the most melancholy marriage proposal I’ve seen in a film, appropriately fitting its overall gloomy, downcast tone – Lena walks the streets, looking around with a freer, more relaxed look in her eyes, during the city’s preparations for Victory Day (a holiday celebrating the USSR’s triumph over Nazi Germany). She walks into the crowd, disappearing, then reappearing for a mid-frame shot before the film focuses on the serious, contemplative faces of Victory Day celebrators. Their place in a changing Moscow is uncertain, though, like Lena, their expressions suggest a resoluteness and an acceptance in the coming and going of time.
dir. Marlen Khutsiev
Screened Monday, 10/10 @ Harvard Film Archive
Part of the ongoing series: Marlen Khutsiev, Unsung Master of the Modern Cinema