July Rain (1966) captures the ambiguous existential crisis of young Lena during the Soviet thaw: that strange, doomed period of liberalisation following Stalin’s death. After a brief rainy encounter with stranger Zhenya, Lena is left with his rainproof coat. Rather than return it as she planned, she finds herself escaping reality with Zhenya’s spontaneous phone calls, wondering if a predictable future with her beau Volodya is what she really wants. Many of those familiar with Marlen Khutsiev’s classic seem to seek in it a nostalgic recreation of their Soviet life in 60s Moscow – yet what can this screening in today’s London offer to those who have not lived in that time, who do not know the Soviet thaw?
The film focuses on the normalities of Soviet daily life: careless conversations and bustling intellectuals, idyllic gatherings and must-have guitars. Then, of course, there is the fabled Soviet kommunalka, the communal apartment in which disparate individuals, even disparate families, all lived together. At first, Lena appears perfectly comfortable in this world with her fiancée Volodya, burdened by nothing and surrounded by friends. Here everything seems to be so easy-going, everybody so transparent, that there are few hints of existential crises. The banal cardboard characters are as simple and insignificant as summer rain. Their career hiccups, Volodya’s financial irregularities and the unstable flat situation also seem quite unimportant during the lull of the Thaw. Two decades after the most unsettling world war in history there is an air of self-produced monotony, faintly nauseating, for which no one is to blame.
The middle class, to which Lena and Volodya belong, continuously exchange intellectual remarks: really just superficial verbal exercises. The people of July Rain, seemingly so worldly and undisturbed, are in the end just a bunch of superficial designers of surfaces, where it seems dangerous to wonder what’s behind the intellectual facade. Fed up with the indolence of her surroundings, Lena, at yet another picnic, asks specially not to have to sing this time, as a futile rebellion against her friends’ lack of purpose. When she increasingly finds herself running away from these normalities, we get a clear sense, even in this mild post-war climate, of her disillusionment and apathy.
The Renaissance prints which crop up throughout the film enhance the sense of endless recurrence and create a strange feeling of pseudo-rebirth. Lena watches over the publishing process at her work as more and more copies of these portraits emerge passively from the publishing machine. The resurgence that the thaw promised seems, after all, just like these prints: a superficial imitation of the original masterpieces, but not the thing itself. Lena’s own lightweight relationship with Volodya dissolves with Zhenya’s intriguing phonecalls, giving her an excuse to escape into a less predictable and earthbound world. Yet this flight seems only to sum up the lack of understanding between the film’s characters, despite their apparent proximity to each other. Lena prefers the intangible voice of a stranger met during the July rain to a face-to-face confrontation with her partner.
Lena’s apathetic rebellion against the normality of 60s life turns the film from a celebration of the Soviet thaw into something far more ambiguous, and much more than a nostalgic recreation of Soviet life. The thaw, like any time of peace, is cherished, but what is there actually to live for? Lena is the only character who remains truly awake in this lull, underscored by a palpable atmosphere of despair and drift. The group-mindedness of her surroundings seems false, and happiness, surely, lies elsewhere. Thus it seems the central point of July Rain is more than just an aesthetic one. Whether we choose to wait for the July rain to end, or step out into it, like Lena, is up to us. Khutsiev does not impose his ideology on the viewer. The finale of the film comes across as unusually open-ended for a modern audience, eschewing the conventional closure of most narratives, instead leaving us with questions as to what has happened on the screen and why. The legendary Khutsiev’s visit to introduce the film in London’s Pushkin House this month was therefore worth the journey.
Marlen Khutsiev’s current project, filmed in Crimea and focusing on the little known relationship between Chekhov and Tolstoy is to be expected soon.