Days of Eclipse

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Aleksandr Sokurov’s 1988 movie Days of Eclipse is often bracketed as sci-fi but there are no aliens, spaceships or weird tech in it. It’s not set in the future either. But there is something distinctly unworldly about it and it’s also based on a book by the Strugatsky brothers, who wrote the story Tarkovsky repurposed for Stalker, another movie often described as sci-fi but which also doesn’t slot right into that groove.

Sokurov knew Tarkovsky, who is clearly the strongest influence on this strangely meditative movie you might call a homage to his mentor. Both feature single guys in what you might call a colonial setting. In Stalker the dude is hacking his way through a post-industrial jungle of civilisation’s dead structures to get to some sort of… enlightenment? Here, the vibe is more Albert Schweitzer among the natives, though we’re in Soviet Turkmenistan in Days of Eclipse, where Dr Dmitri Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov) tends to the locals, does some research into the effect of religious belief on what today we’d call health outcomes and generally wonders about the point of existence.

Ananishnov is an almost preposterously handsome man and Sokurov uses his looks and physique. Malyanov is shown either in his underwear, or shirtless, and when the plot demands that he really has to wear clothes they are artfully boho – he looks like he’s warming up for a TV advert for fragrance and will shortly be freediving for rock oysters. There is a lot of pouting and gazing moodily past the camera and when Malyanov’s sister, and later a young kid, describe him as very attractive he gives it the “aw, shucks” and then lets the compliment hang there. Malyanov’s height, his blondness and his chiselled features and physique make him stand out among the shorter, darker Turkmens he lives amongst – though they seem to show almost no interest in what he’s about, which to be fair to them isn’t entirely clear most of the time.

Vecherovsky and Malyanov in close proximity
Vecherovsky and Malyanov

It does not sound like a sci-fi, does it? It’s Sokurov’s treatment of his location and subject that give it that flavour. Starting in a contrast-drained sepia, shooting without sound and dubbing it on later, repeatedly shifting into colour and then back into monochrome, Sokurov collages together an impressionistic portrait of this place, these people, and this strange tall blond guy who moves among them self-consciously, a white saviour whose path and inner purpose aren’t entirely clear.

What happens? Not very much. The aforementioned sister (Irina Sokolova) turns up and attempts to get Malyanov to go home. A neighbour dies. A small blond boy appears out of nowhere and Malyanov takes care of him for a while. He embarks on an overland journey through the desert to the sea with Vecherovosky (Eskender Umarov), a moustachioed friend, the pair of them in each other’s personal space the entire time and looking like they might kiss each other. It never happens, though the entire movie hums with a spooky homoeroticism.

It all looks very much like Sokurov went to Turkmenistan, shot whatever location footage he could find, out in the squares and on the streets where musicians play and crowds gather to watch the strange Russian gentleman with his camera (he makes no attempt to hide the fact that people are gawping), then shot interiors with Ananishnov and the other players (most of them non-professional) before assembling everything back at base, adding sound on top as the element linking together sequences that otherwise might not hang together.

If you’re down on it it’s a series of images in search of a throughline, but if you can leave behind bourgeois notions like the desire for an overt plot then you enter Sokurov’s dreamy attempt to make a Tarkovsky movie along the lines of Stalker or, possibly, Mirror. And in the background a portrait of this far-flung part of the Soviet empire as it’s about to collapse. There is no hint of the coming geopolitical apocalypse, though there is the strong sense that what Sokurov is trying to capture is the last days of… something. Last days of the tall blond dude, maybe.

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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