I Wanted a Girl so she Could Give me a Hand

By Rosy Rockets

little-vera-vasili-pichul.jpgLittle Vera, 1989

With his controversial and briefly celebrated Malenkaya Veruschka (known in England as Little Vera), Vasili Pichul leaves the coddled Western viewer numbed and suffocated by the smothering dependence of the nuclear family, aggravated and unnerved by their silent suffering and their deafening conflicts. From the safety of the 21st century middle classes, one can only speculate as to the effect this baring of difficult truth had on Russian audiences when it struck the box offices hard in 1988. Pichul exposes social unrest and police brutality with casual and uncompromising aptitude, colouring the conflict with 80s funk aggression, tear gas mingling with dry ice as the fake fur flies. Pichul’s sense of humour is evident throughout, tempering his bleak and browbeating depiction of perestroika and yet never defusing the tension. His subsequent works have almost exclusively been comedies, culminating in 2003 when he directed Rozygrysh, the Russian precursor to Ashton Kutcher’s celebrity baiting show Punk'd. (The film's star, Natalya Negoda, has chosen a more worthy path and can be seen this year portraying a miserable 45 year old librarian in Buben Baraban.)

Little Vera follows in the footsteps of that other nubile avatar of political commentary, John Kent's short-lived pen and ink creation Varoomshka. But who is Veruschka? She lurks in the background in the opening scene, barely visible as the first of many parental rows introduces her as the rebellious daughter. This film is typically “chernukha” – reactionary, dark and sullen, and led by her parents’ despair and frustration, we expect to meet a central character who exhibits similar traits – but Veruschka’s adolescent cynicism is a candy-striped jubilee, a refreshing glasnost. Veruschka gambols in the shadow of her brother Victor, a successful doctor who has clearly doted on and protected his baby sister all her life. Veruschka is still the blithe ray of sunshine that once delighted her parents, if only they could accept her in adult form. Her unconditional love is as abundant and as worthless as Soviet oil.

Veruschka’s first open display of sorrow occurs when her new fiancée Sergei clashes with her naturally suspicious parents. Veruschka might not share her family’s ideas of morality and social propriety, but she has a strong sense of familial loyalty and will protect and support them at any cost, despite her furious rebellion. It’s Veruschka’s crisis of identity that colours the story. And what of the film’s own identity? Veruschka can be approached as a simple and universal family drama, and PR dunderheads even promoted it as an erotic film, purely because it has a sex scene. It’s difficult to ignore the allegorical struggle that is the centre of this landmark film, and which lies in an almost impossible choice for Veruschka. At the story’s painful climax, the dutiful daughter’s lifetime bond with her helpless father clashes with the prospect of a bright uncertain future with Sergei. Here Veruschka’s seemingly indomitable strength and unshakeable loyalty are put to the test. Finally, Veruschka realises that she does have control over her own fate – but at what cost? Will her sense of duty and her real affection for her soul-sucking parents overcome her lust for Sergei and for the faltering freedom he represents?

little-vera-vasili-pichul-2.jpgLittle Vera, 1989

Veruschka embodies the concept of glasnost, which encouraged transparency and freedom of speech introduced by Gorbachev. Relaxation of censorship allowed films such as Veruschka to portray aspects of Russia which the Soviet government had done its best to conceal in the media. To the inexperienced viewer, it might seem that Veruschka is breaking through the Soviet façade to expose a shameful, quivering underbelly – in fact, we are seeing the whole ugly rawhide. The only bright side to this picture is in the spirit of the heroine and her post punk perestroika generation. Writer Maria Khemlik, the director’s wife, has created in Veruschka a complex, unsubtle and original icon of feminism. In industrial towns such as Veruschka's Zhdanov, unhappy housewives, banished and confined to their shabby kitchens by an alcoholic patriarchy, slip out into the smog to conduct extra-marital affairs, which are often betrayed by the bearing of baffled, brown babies.

The personification of the repressed Soviet woman, Veruschka’s bovine mother (Lyudmila Zajtseva) is the domestic apparatchik, turning a blind eye to the microcosm of societal malfunction that is her family, and seeing only the broken fixtures and fittings that lie in the wake of their domestic turmoil. She is as determined as her daughter – Veruschka’s father consistently remarks on their likeness – but her resolve presents with consistent negativity, driving her along but not ahead, and helping to perpetuate the sorry personality cult of the father figure. This latter character is the most fascinating and poignant, at one moment accusing Veruschka of biting the hand that feeds her, and at the next mewling to her like a baby. At home, Veruschka wears a torn frock, the uniform of the humble housewife – by the sea with her lover, she lights up the dismal beach in a bikini, quoting Pushkin and cackling into a copy of Good Housekeeping. The production values are rough and ready, in defiance of the glossy propaganda and forced optimism of traditional Soviet film. If Veruschka is not optimistic, she is at least determined to make the best of what she has. The realism of the film hangs on compelling human touches such as the character on a balcony who effectively conveys the town’s environmental pollution problem with the croaking "itchy palate" call of the allergic rhinitis sufferer.

little-vera-vasili-pichul-3.jpgLittle Vera, 1989

The literal meaning of the word Perestroika is "restructuring", and Veruschka’s personal perestroika finds her facing a cold war between her alcoholic father and her enabling mother – a cold war that can never be resolved peacefully. The word "malenkaya" will ring a bell for anyone with a passing knowledge of Nadsat – it means "little", and "Vera" translates as "faith". Veruschka is a story of faith in the family, and faith in the future – and even a little faith is better than none at all.

Little Vera screened at the Barbican's Behind The Wall season. Special thanks to Glaz Multimedia.

Rosy Rockets is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge.