Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Baba Yaga (1973)

In Slavic folklore, the Baba Yaga is a nasty-looking witch who flies around in a giant pestle. She absconds with and eats children. She lives in a shack built on top of giant chicken legs that can move it around as it needs. Despite the ridiculousness of some of her trappings, the Baba Yaga is quite a creepy mythological figure. Think about it. A cackling (I assume she's a cackler) hag flying at you from out of the darkness in a giant ceramics project. And you can just see her moving all jittery, like a possessed character in a Sam Raimi movie, can't you? Historically, she often must be sought out for some piece of information or item which a story's hero or heroine needs to accomplish his/her quest. That Baba Yaga does not make an appearance in Corrado Farina's Baba Yaga.

Valentina (Isabelle De Funès) is a perky, flirty fashion photographer living in Venice (Italy, not California). Her quasi-beau, Arno (George Eastman), keeps trying to get into Valentina's bed, lamenting that he doesn't know if he'll "ever be ready for that chick." After a Eurotrash-populated party, Valentina rescues a dog from an oncoming car. The car's driver, Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker), gives Valentina a ride home (we never find out what happened to the dog) and snatches a clip from Valentina's garter belt, saying she will return it after checking if Valentina fits her needs. Quickly thereafter, Valentina finds that she may be unwittingly harming the people around her, as she herself is being pulled into a role which will bind her forever to the enigmatic blond witch.

Baba Yaga's intent is plain from her first meeting with Valentina. She means to have the photographer whether Valentina likes it or not. While Baba says that their initial meeting was preordained, it doesn't necessarily guarantee their eventual ending. What I found interesting in Baker's performance here was the aggressiveness on display. Whenever she appears she can be seen biting on something (the garter belt clip, a necklace, her own knuckle). This constant baring of teeth is a display of fierceness as well as being a statement of intent (though not in an anthropophagic sense). Baba makes no bones about it. She wants Valentina, and she will let nothing stand in the way of her goal. The idea of a stranger, especially one as odd as Baba showing up out of the blue and announcing that she's going to have you is at once scary and seductive. It is doubly so when you introduce the overt Sapphic connotations. The allure of the unknown in this respect is both horrifying and enticing, especially considering that giving into this particular temptation also forfeits one's freedom.

Baba's seduction of Valentina, then, can be seen as a possible release from repression. From the start, Valentina goes out of her way to display her independence, refusing a ride home from Arno, declining to invite Arno up to her apartment, and so on. Is this because she secretly has these urges she would rather not acknowledge? Or is it because she feels that by being so fiercely self-reliant outwardly, she can maintain control of her life and her body? This freedom from repression can be either a boon or a bane. Sometimes it creates the link needed to make a character whole (or at least a springboard from which the rest of their life can now progress). Sometimes it only speeds up a character's ultimate destruction. It is the tension created by this internal struggle that propels the film forward and gives the viewer so much to consider along the way. This also takes into account the equating of sex with power in a relationship. Baba Yaga's assaultive drive to have Valentina's body is juxtaposed with Valentina's more benevolent teasing out of Arno's expectations, but it is no less powerful. Just because the prey allows itself to be caught doesn't mean that the predator is the victor.

(The following paragraph will probably offend any psychologists reading – you have my apologies in advance) Baba Yaga is an adaptation of a comic book by artist Guido Crepax, whose work is informed and inspired by the concepts of psychoanalysis. In a Freudian sense, the very ideas of homosexuality and bondage/sadomasochism and their practitioners are considered perversions. Ergo, Baba Yaga can be seen as an aberrant character, and Valentina's quasi-attraction to her as equally off-key. But in a Jungian sense, neurosis is brought about because "rationalism…has put (modern man) at the mercy of the psychic 'underworld'." It is interesting, therefore, that Baba Yaga is depicted as being pallid, almost colorless, as if she sprang out of the seemingly-bottomless pit in her house (which is also seen in Valentina's dreams tellingly before finding it in Baba's place). She comes from the underworld (or an underworld, anyway), and she wants to drag Valentina back there with her (by the hair, I'm thinking).

There are multiple nods to the film's origins, as well as juxtapositions of film to comic books throughout the piece. When Valentina and Arno are looking at a graphic novel, the drawn images are replaced by monochromatic photos of the film's characters, as if they are captured in the comic's panels. However, the panels progress and intercut with live-action, making the statement that both forms are merely a collection of still images. It is film's flicker fusion that provides the illusion of action and movement. Yet, both forms draw the eye where they want to through shot choice, composition, lighting, and so on. They both control the pace of storytelling through the duration of their "shots" and scenes. Smaller panels in a comic propel action forward faster than large ones, and it's the same with a film's shot duration and editing. This device is used at multiple times in the film and provides a running motif. There is also the recurrence of Valentina's flashbacks occurring in quick shots (sometimes live-action, sometimes fumetti), furthering the idea of comic book panels on film, as well as illustrating Valentina's mind for the viewer.

Baba Yaga curses Valentina's favorite camera, calling it "the eye that freezes reality." This camera then becomes a force of destruction to things in motion. Valentina's career as a photographer is another signifier of the power of one moment in time, as well as the thin veil of perceived reality (she shoots magazine ads). Contrasted with Arno's work in the commercial film industry (also a creator of advertisements), Valentina's camera has the power to destroy the moving image, to force it back into a collection of stills.

This manipulation of reality extends into (and out of) Valentina's dreamworld. She dreams of being brought before a Nazi officer (by two female Nazi soldiers) and dropped into a bottomless pit. The pit will later be found in Baba's house. Later, she dreams that she is a Prussian soldier firing at a friend and colleague of hers who was hurt by the cursed camera. Baba's servant appears and makes off with Valentina's camera in a dream. Upon waking, the camera is gone. What the viewer is ultimately left with is a world in which Valentina is not only occupant but creator (either consciously or unconsciously), and simultaneously neither, because the work is orchestrated by Crepax, but in this version it is also orchestrated by Farina. Consequently, it exists, as do the characters, on multiple planes of existence, all of them fascinating to consider in their neverending dance.

MVT: Crepax's original work (which, incidentally, I have not had the pleasure of reading) is strong enough to translate into a film that, while not perfect, leaves a lot to ponder.

Make Or Break: The style and themes of the piece are both jelled and encapsulated by the scene of Valentina and Arno in Valentina's apartment.

Score: 7.25/10


  1. Wow Todd, did you just reference Carl Jung in a movie review?! Apparently I need to check this out again. I just liked it because Ely Galleani was smokin' hot. It's coming out on blu at the end of February, so I'll be re-watching with your review in mind - thanks!

  2. Thanks for reading, Shiftless.

    Galleani (and Angela Covello, incidentally) are both very attention-worthy.

    As for the Jung angle, it seemed to me that the film was in this camp more than the Freudian camp. And since they say that Crepax drew from psychoanalytic ideas, I figured it was fair game. Granted, I don't know how well my argument would hold up under close scrutiny, but I feel it fits pretty well.

    And I'm with you. I'll definitely be picking up the bluray of this and revisiting it.

  3. Good stuff, Todd. Saw this movie for the first time last year because it had George Eastman in it, and man was I pleasantly surprised. It's a very underrated and overlooked supernatural/psychological thriller, and super sexy to boot. I may have been looking too deeply into it at the time, but I interpreted a symbolic commentary on censorship, oppression, and the government (Valentina not being in control of her own free will once she meets Baba Yaga; her photos, in a way, being censored when she realizes that they're turning out to be what she hadn't intended on photographing; the recurring theme of sadomasochism being representative of discipline in an era where free love was still prominent). Too bad the director didn't really do a whole lot... he showed tons of promise with this film.

  4. Thanks for reading, Aaron. That's an interesting take on the film, and I think this is one of those movies that's both strong and nebulous enough to support multiple readings.

    I personally didn't think of this much on a political level, because the whole film seemed more intimate, and political issues, to me, usually are not confined to individuals(I have a head cold, so I may not make much sense right now). Plus, all the characters seem to be politically-minded only in the sense that this is what the "in crowd" discuss at parties. Otherwise, it's basically art for commerce's sake. But I see what you're saying, and the next time I watch this film, I'll keep your comments in mind. Thanks, again.