Locarno 2021 review: Gerda (Natalya Kudryashova)

“It seemed to me that on the other side of that forest, I would find a completely different life, the kind I could only dream of.”

Gerda is an enigmatic sex worker who spends long hours dancing at a sleazy Russian strip club. Lera is a dedicated young university student working hard to achieve her degree in sociology, which entails visiting a variety of ordinary people (many of them total strangers) and gleaning their perspectives on Russian society through a series of questionnaires. These two different personalities are both found in the protagonist of Gerda (played by the exceptionally gifted Anastasiya Krasovskaya), the wildly ambitious social drama written and directed by Natalya Kudryashova. The film is a powerful and insightful journey into the heart of contemporary Russian society, told by a filmmaker who has used her experiences on both sides of the camera to carefully curate a series of moments in the life of a complex protagonist, who represents an entire generation of individuals trying to make their way through the working-class malaise of a country they see as being built on traditions and values, rather than on the promotion of individuality. Challenging but never inaccessible, Gerda is a fascinating combination of gritty social realism and haunting psychological thriller, with the director finding the balance between the two polar extremes in her pursuit of some deeper truths hiding just out of sight in this nightmarish but enticing version of a post-Soviet world.

There are two stories at the heart of Gerda, the first, logically, that of the main character herself. The contrast between Gerda and Lera is ripe for deep and insightful character-based analysis, with the director establishing the concept of this young woman leading a double life very early on in the story. On the surface, Lera seems like an unassuming student working hard to make a good future for herself and her single mother, even going so far as to adopt a secret persona, which proves how misery and desperation can lead even the most admirable of individuals to seek out new solutions to their problems, even at the expense of their innocence or moral grounding. She uses the alter ego of Gerda as a way of earning an income, only to discover that she tends to shift her less-admirable qualities and deep insecurities onto this new figure, in the hopes of allowing her real self to make it through a hostile world. This evokes the frequent motif of renewal and rebirth, with a few of the characters questioning if the concept of starting over is ever actually feasible, or if it is only a way of delaying the inevitable through promising change that never happens. The more Lera begins to depend on Gerda, the more she finds herself drifting away from reality, discovering that she is far more comfortable in a dreamlike state, where reality and fantasy merge and place her in an uncertain metaphysical limbo. The challenges Lera encounters as she allows Gerda to envelop her existence are reflected in the film’s broader discussions, whereby Kudryashova designs the film as a voyeuristic glimpse into the mundane and lonely life of an ordinary young woman who sees herself as separate from her surroundings, detached and alienated from a reality she has been tasked with recording for the sake of national posterity.

The film interweaves brief encounters with regular citizens, who are interviewed by the protagonist as part of her university coursework. As a result, the film becomes something of a sociological survey of modern Russian mentalities, each new character sharing their perception of how far the country has come, and the progress they still feel needs to be made. As much as Gerda is about the titular character, it is also the story of a country, a haunting portrait of contemporary Russia and the people who populate it. These everyday citizens may acknowledge that they are in the 21st century, but they clearly are still struggling to adapt to modern ways of living and thinking. This is not reflected in the younger Lera, who represents a generation of people for whom the spectre of the Soviet Union is confined to the history books, a distant memory contained in the stories they hear from their older compatriots. Yet, for every one of these characters, caution is imperative – they all pay attention to everything they say, in fear of being punished for deviant views. Everything is a test for these people, their lives a series of seemingly insurmountable challenges that exist to prove their resilience – and taking place amongst the modern working class, the film is filled with people who are not poor enough to admit that they are suffering, nor fortunate enough to have comfortable lives. Happiness is a distant prospect for many of these individuals, their focus less on finding joy and more on achieving a basic level of satisfaction, which is sharply intercut with the main character’s own attempts to navigate various challenges between such encounters, each one adding nuance to her journey of self-realization.

Gerda is a deeply captivating film that never tells us too much, while rarely obscuring its intentions. Every moment of the film is a new addition to the mysteries at the heart of the story, with each new scene either moving us closer to some kind of resolution or complicating an already quite labyrinthine story of individuality. While we may not always get the answers we seek, the film is less about establishing clear solutions, and more about creating a particular atmosphere, in which Kudryashova is able to extract some deeply emotional conversations around the role of identity in one’s development. Lera is a tortured soul yearning to be set free from an inescapable, metropolitan purgatory, with her salvation coming in the form of a dreamlike landscape deep in nature that both she and her mother envision as their sanctuary – and in her frequent attempts to escape the dire banality of working-class life, Gerda is born. A disorienting psychological drama that takes the form of a dark and deceptive coming-of-age tale, the film effectively positions us alongside a young woman who is working tirelessly to make it through a patriarchal society. The director’s feminist leanings shine through the slightly impenetrable exterior, giving insights into what many girls experience growing into maturity while surrounded by a culture intent on establishing clear standards for a supposedly decent woman. Ferocious, heartfelt, and always willing to push boundaries, Gerda is a very special film that uses feelings of isolation and alienation to draw the viewer into this peculiar but meaningful version of a world previously inaccessible to most outsiders.