Vera Storozheva's latest follows a Paris-based celebrity's visit to her home village in Russia and her experiences as she reconnects with newfound family and friends.
From Hope Floats to Sweet Home Alabama and beyond, Hicksville-set "chick flicks" have nearly become a saccharine subgenre of their own — complete with all the cliched clashes and conciliations between the small-town girl turned urbanite and the erratic provincial mindset she thought she had left behind. With Nine Days and One Morning, Russian director Vera Storozheva has shown her Hollywood counterparts that comedies about rural homecomings can be conducted with all the integrity and edge of its characters left more or less intact.
Never opting to draw guffaws through lazy caricatures of obnoxious city slickers and obtuse country bumpkins, Nine Days and One Morning — which opens in Russia on Oct. 2 after appearances at festivals in Shanghai and Vladivostok — offers pleasant drama centering on the interaction of a Paris-based supermodel and the inhabitants of the small Russian town from which she hails. If anything, the story is probably too confrontation-free, and the other side of its benign representations only trivialize the everyday struggle on Russia's forgotten margins; but at least Storozheva and writer Anna Kozlova never seek to browbeat their characters (nor their audience) about the need for career-oriented, cosmopolitan women to re-embrace traditional family values and the straitjacketed femininity they entail.
The title of Nine Days and One Morning is a reference to the time Anna (Anna Sherbinina) is set to stay in the Russian town where she grew up until she was adopted by a French couple and decamped for Paris. Unsurprisingly, Anna is at first reluctant to go beyond her duties as the goodwill ambassador of the cosmetics brand she's fronting; she visits the orphanage she was brought up in, delivers a vacuous speech about optimism, fails miserably to counter the children's skepticism, and flees quickly with her airhead French photographer-fiance Michel (Xavier Gallais) in tow.
With Michel drifting off to take snaps of the town, Anna is saddled with a local guide in the person of the mayor's feckless, Humvee-driving son (Gleb Puskepalis, Roads to Koktebel). As the pair spar, Anna slowly reconnects with those she abandoned all those years ago — first with Lena (Svetlana Toma), the woman who doted on her when she was a child, and finally Lyuba (Olga Popova), a plump and limping sauna attendant who reveals herself to be Anna's younger sibling. Rounding out this ensemble is Lyusia (Nika Anaskina), an orphan who takes very seriously Michel's promise of a new life in France.
Defying conventions, Nine Days does not fall into line with well-trodden formulas. While there's a scene chronicling her submission to the charms of fattening desserts, Anna at least doesn't get spellbound by a rural manly man or suddenly find her maternal instincts awakened; Lyuba, meanwhile, is stoic and refreshingly free of both stupidity (she's as much an equal with Anna about trends and issues out there in the world) and self-pity. And so are many of the townsfolk, who appears to treat Anna's more affluent existence with a shrug or earnest pity (a hawker's comment on the raison d'être of Parisian pavement cafes provides one of Nine Days' best jokes).
Just as the characterizations and the screenplay steer clear of cultural exotica, Mikhail Iskandarov's camerawork also renders the landscape bucolically beautiful without resorting to painting the settings as a primitive, pastoral paradise. The land appears glorious but the houses — and some of their inhabitants — are certainly creaking.
But at least everyone's pressing on regardless, with their heads held high; as Anna leaves, her newfound family and friends simply disperse to do whatever they should be doing, her presence but just one part of their memories of the day. Such deferral of schmaltz or histrionics is only made possible by nuanced turns from the cast, with the performance of Popova — an award-winner as a director in Berlin in 2008 with In the Theme, her short film about a gay couple in Moscow — a standout in its subtlety.