THE UNFINISHED LETTER – Review of the film by Mikhail Kalatozov

The film is the adaptation of a short story by Valeri Ossipov, which was part of the so-called “documentary prose” register, a genre in vogue at the time, and which aimed to stage “adventurers of science”. dedicating itself to the extraction of the basements and the discovery of rare resources. LA LETTRE INACHEVÉE therefore sings of the glorious actions of a team of four geologists who have come to prospect the Siberian plateau in search of the diamonds claimed by Soviet industry. The small group relentlessly probes land and rivers. Autumn is coming and food is running out, they have to go home. But when they return, the elements are unleashed and they have to face the worst difficulties…

Film critic

Among the Soviet filmmakers who took it to heart to stage, in one way or another, heroism, Mikhail Kalatozov occupies a special place. In fact, at the end of the 1950s he took part in the international breakthrough of post-Stalin Soviet cinema: his film When the storks pass, which narrates the ordeals experienced by a young woman separated from her fiancé at the start of the Second World War, was crowned with the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1958 and was a great public success, both in the countries of the bloc of the east than in those of western Europe. The innovative aesthetic proposals of this torrential melodrama, praised when it was released in theaters, were however born from the collaboration with a second creative spirit with a strong identity, the cinematographer Sergei Urushevsky. The two artists, who agreed on a deeply formalist conception of cinema, will continue their work until the realization of the triumphant Soy Cuba in 1964.

Thus stuck between a great success of his time and an ambitious work rediscovered late, The unfinished letterproduced in 1959 from a short story by Valeri Osipov, appears less how a highlight of Kalatozov’s filmography than the two aforementioned feature films. The first sequencewhich shows a group of geologists making their way through the meanders of the taiga, hinting in a deaf way of the drama to come, enough to prove otherwise.

The kinship with When the storks pass is clearly felt in this film, although in a very different register. Leaving the paths of historical drama for those of frank survival in the wilderness, The unfinished letter stage again characters caught in a situation that goes far beyond them (here, a scientific expedition which, following a series of natural disasters, turns into a nightmare) and is distinguished by his mastery of time and the dramatic accents of the story, over the course of an hour and a half that seems extended by the magnitude of the events crossed. The visual pattern of the hindrance is also taken up, the characters no longer making their way through a war-torn crowd but between the tight branches of the forests of Siberia : their recurrence reminds us that Kalatozov’s fictions are animated by a form of struggle – against the external environment, against internal distress – which is a deeply political subject. Criticism Eugenie Zvonkine recalls in this respect that the story of the film is written against a backdrop of heroism and technical progress, the hypothetical diamond deposit that the geologists are looking for could become a great economic resource for the USSR. The story thus develops with finesse a patriotic readingwhere scientists embark on a dangerous expedition to literally make their country rich by working the land, and where the question of sacrifice, lurking in the shadows, bides its time.

The unfinished letter remains overwhelming for its characters as well as for its spectator. It is difficult not to remain suspended in the relentless dramatic chain of damage, unfortunate circumstances and violent weather changes. Of all the films “in immersion”, that of Mikhail Kalatozov and Sergei Ouroussevski is certainly one of the most successful, because it ignores any complacent relentlessness by his constant rapprochement with the four protagonistsuntil following the thread of their thoughts, in silence, by simply showing the moments of capsizing in their eyes and their expressions. Resilience in the face of despair is therefore approached as directly as the way in which geologists envisage their own death., and intervenes during a general enterprise that we know is doomed to failure: the darkest outcome, which we glimpse at the end of the story, is however spared us, by a dream then a look that restores the inner unity of one of the characters. Finesse, again, on the part of the director, who, rejecting the asphyxiating conclusions, rather devotes its energy and its choices of direction to the search for a certain lyricism.

This is not quite of the same tenor as what was at work in When the storks pass. Less dense and less baroque than its elder, The unfinished letter focuses on a well-defined narrative line – the search for diamonds and then the river – remaining at the height of the group of scientists. The action is however redoubled by the perpetual suggestion of the immensity and dangerousness of Siberia, by the work of framing the sky, shooting in dense woods or even the sudden presence of snow and wind in the frame. Kalatozov relies on the expressive power of his landscapes, manipulated at leisure during filming (the testimony of a technician revealing that the team dug up and replanted several hundred trees to satisfy the requests of the director and the chief operator) but nevertheless relaying an overwhelming effect of reality.

The unfinished letter

The reality of the terrain and the shooting conditions, which is reflected in the image, remains in touch with the truly hallucinatory nature of certain sequences and forces the viewer to come back to this question of “how did they do that?” ”, which is here not solvable by the unique response of the digital effects. The ordeals faced by geologists are impressive because they really took place in front of the camera, but also because the staging does not feel the need to overplay this feeling of excess at all times. The extent of the forest fire in the first part of the film thus seems less appalling than the fact that the catastrophe is part of time and that the characters learn to deal with it, to coexist with this blazing background in the scenes that follow. VSThis vision of madness lasts and lasts, until – almost – normality.

A few valves come to interrupt these intense sequences, like the saving rain which ends up putting out the fire: playing with contrasts, the film never loses sight of its lyrical dimension and maintains it by regularly crossing with the tragic events which wring out little by little. small the group of geologists. The feats of the staging, which reappear here and there, greatly contribute to this poetic momentum: long tracking shots which bring together two, three or four different images, moving from long shots to close-ups, are both unusual and exemplary, and make the effective cuts all the more striking – in particular these fades to black which dilute the time and the pain of the characters.

The unfinished letter

If one scene had to sum up the prodigious way in which Mikhail Kalatozov captures the reality he is working on to give it another dimension, it would be the moment of deep joy when the characters run through the forest after finally finding what they came for. The luminosity in the photograph accompanies the feeling given by the montage of flying alongside geologists, chased by a shoulder-mounted camera launched at full speed and crossing, for the one and only time, the branches, leaves and roots of the taiga. with the fluidity of a dream. The music, for its part, is not afraid to go for great orchestral flights to underline the grace of the moment. The film project of The unfinished letter could be summed up as follows: a regular aim for the sublime, driven by the ambition to make it big – by the means of filming, by the formalism of the images and by the dramaturgy. Grabbing with both hands what others would handle only delicately, Mikhail Kalatozov is the director of the upheaval, who goes to the end of what he does, never chilly about anything, and who, to prove it, will film the heat of Cuba in the most beautiful way – in the midst of a missile crisis.

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The unfinished lettera black diamond (25′): Eugénie Zvonkine, lecturer and critic specializing in Russian cinema, offers a fairly complete contextualization of Kalatozov’s film, returning first to the adaptation and rewritings of the short story by Valeri Ossipov carried out by the director and the chief operator. Then, the specialist evokes the way in which the team designed the sets for the film: by imagining the scenes through sketches then by trying to find equivalents in the landscapes of Siberia. Finally, two analyzes of sequences on the theme of desire come to close this presentation, making it possible to make the link with the experimental dimension of the feature film mentioned shortly before.
One 60 page booklet also accompanies the BluRay. It brings together excerpts from two testimonies by members of the film crew: an anonymous technician who kept a logbook, and the report written by Gunārs Piesis, a Lithuanian director who was then a trainee student. The two texts evoke the dangerousness of the shooting but also the involvement and dedication of the actors and the technical team, as well as the demanding working methods of the director of photography Sergei Ouroussevski. A third text, taken from a book published in 1980 by David Vinitski, artistic director on the film, summarizes the specificities of this shoot and the main difficulties encountered.


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THE UNFINISHED LETTER – Review of the film by Mikhail Kalatozov