Getting to Know the Big Wide World
For a film that takes love – perhaps the most mysterious and shimmery-winged of all things – as its central topic, Kira Muratova’s Getting to Know the Big Wide World (1979) remains firmly rooted in the material and earthy. The mud, cement, dirt and dust of the construction site where most of the narrative unravels, and the lived realities of 1970s Soviet society (shortage of apartments, unending grocery lines, workers’ unions, mass wedding ceremonies, etc.), etch out a textured world as the backdrop to the love triangle between Kolya (Aleksei Zharkov), Liuba (Nina Ruslanova) and Misha (Sergei Popov).
All three have come to an unnamed town to work at a construction site. Kolya and Liuba are lovers, seemingly having been in this place longer than the newly arrived Misha. Kolya is rough, rude, but not without a clownish charm. And Misha is soft-spoken and kind. While, by all accounts, Liuba is Kolya’s girl, from the very first moment (a few minutes into the film) that Liuba and Misha appear in the same frame as each other, Muratova embarks upon her dreamily (though never naively) romantic thesis: that soul mates exist and that two people can recognise themselves in one another, to a point of transcendence.
When we first see Liuba, she is wearing a metallic blue dress and holding a yellow balloon. She has a small braid running through her blonde hair. There is something ineffably touching and winsome about a grown woman with a yellow balloon and a braid in her hair. (Notably, she pops the balloon out of frustration with Kolya, and her hair is revealed to be a wig – which she also takes off after he is unloving toward her.)
Misha, having never met Liuba, first addresses her as vas (the formal and polite way of saying you in Russian, equivalent to the French vous). But, moments later, before he has even learned her name, Misha refers to Liuba as tiey (the familiar/personal you). It would be impolite to address someone whom you have never met before in this form, but Misha drops all formality immediately. This is not impudence or rudeness on his part (those characteristics are indeed Kolya’s domain), but indication of an instant bond with Liuba.
Misha ends up giving her and Kolya a ride after helping get their friends’ car unstuck from the mud; they make a detour in the journey so that Liuba can give a speech at what turns out to be a mass wedding, with tens of couples streaming out into a field outside the courthouse. If I had to spend eternity inside a single scene from a movie, it would probably be this one – because, during these few minutes, we get a flood of hope and love, a montage of smiles and embraces exchanged by the newlyweds, enveloped by the blue dusk of the setting summer sun. The light in Eastern Europe is thinner and not as heavy as in the United States– the colours less saturated, but no less lovely.
Kolya’s negativity penetrates the halcyon surface of the sequence, only to be swallowed up by the overwhelming poeticism of the moment. His words (‘Love is a temporary thing – you know that’) in response to Liuba’s asking him if he loves her are, indeed, what give poignancy to the images of brides and grooms kissing – precisely because what he postulates could be and is true. But this montage is so exquisite, something to be immediately nostalgic for once it passes from the screen, because the rapture and ecstasy on display cannot last: people will go home and fight, cry and divorce. But in these minutes, there is all the hope and love in the world; everything is still possible for everyone. A beautifully melancholic piano theme adds all the more sweetness and ache to the images.
Most of what follows takes place in and around the construction area where all three characters work (although it never seems like Kolya is working, just dropping in to keep an eye on Liuba and goof around and flirt with the girls who labour there). Greys, reds, pinks and off-blacks define the colour palette of the site – the colour scheme never feeling overdetermined in its painterly naturalism.
The editing strategy reflects the state of their souls. The spiritual fluidity between Misha and Liuba is made manifest in numerous sequences where their bodies become interchangeable. Scenes are cut in such a way as to reveal one to be standing in the place where the other just stood. For instance, in one shot Liuba is on the right side of the frame, Misha on the left. A train passes before them and, all of a sudden, they have switched sides. This shuffling of bodies in space speaks to a metaphysical unity between them.
Furthermore, the cutting is not deployed just to contract space and time in moving the story along, but because Muratova is concerned with giving life to the transcendent state of people so uniquely attuned to one another. In a lingering close-up of Misha sitting in the shadows of his truck, we see him watching Liuba standing among cement cylinders, getting ready to head home for the day, when something gets in her eye. The very next shot shows the two of them standing together, Misha assisting Liuba with her eye. Between those two images, Misha has travelled from his truck to Luba, traversing ten, twenty, even thirty feet of space, to materialise before her in a fraction of a second. We cannot ascertain how much time has actually passed between these two shots: there is a kind of magic to them, seeming to reflect the impossible – the dissolution of spatial and temporal relations.
However, this is not to suggest that Muratova is blithely romantic. The very last minute of the film deeply complicates and darkens all that has come before, leaving a lingering sense of ambiguity as to Muratova’s final stance on the possibility of people (however metaphysically linked as these two are) existing in harmony forever. At the end of the film, Liuba and the girls that she has been living with in a shack are given their own apartment. They have packed up all of their belongings and are waiting outside the building (sitting on a bed) to move in. Misha approaches Liuba and asks her to come get in line with him at the place with the longest queues: the marriage bureau. A jealous Kolya mocks them and stalks off. A repeated shot of the two of them sitting side by side, reflected in the mirror of the headboard, is intercut with Kolya walking off, gradually becoming a silhouette framed against the growing twilight, until he stops and throws a rock at them. And the mirror in which Liuba and Misha are reflected shatters. But the very next frame reveals Liuba and Misha not sitting side by side at all, but facing each other on the bed, as the sun’s light forms rainbow halos around their heads.
It is not clear if the mirror breaking is Muratova giving physical exteriorisation to Misha’s interior state/desire. She has done this once before with Liuba and Misha, when they go for a drive after work, pausing in a residential neighborhood. A close-up of Misha and Liuba in the car, gazing out the front window in the same direction, is followed by a shot of a boy on a horse, and then a cut to what, a few shots later when the figures move closer, is revealed to be an image of Misha – leading a horse upon which sits Liuba in a wedding veil. Evidently, the appearance of Liuba wearing the veil is a shared daydream of theirs – a projection of a shared, interior space. Likewise, since the editing has taught us to expect sudden changes in spatial relations, it is not impossible to accept that Misha and Liuba can go from sitting side by side in the mirror to facing one another not a second later. Thus, the rock really could have hit the mirror, prophesying upcoming discord and misfortune.
To understand the meaning of these final moments, it is useful to compare Getting to Know the Big Wide World with Brief Encounters (1967), Muratova’s first solo directorial effort. It, too, explores a love triangle; except that it consists of two women and one man. Quite conversely to Getting to Know the Big Wide World’s Kolya and Misha, Muratova is far more ambiguous as to which woman’s side we are supposed to be on. This ambivalence aside, the ending suggests the reunion of the couple that has been together for many years, the other younger woman (also played by Ruslanova, in her first role) willingly leaving to allow them to be together. Although their relationship has been far from easy, this finale seems hopeful that these two people who are terribly different (the woman needs constancy, the man is a wanderer) may find a way of reconciling themselves to one another because of, well, love.
If Muratova ends her first film on a chord of optimism for these two opposites, then it would seem incongruous for her to imagine that the same cannot be possible for Liuba and Misha: to maintain a state of grace in love.
from Issue 4: Walks
© Veronika Ferdman and LOLA August 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.