Здравствуйте, everybody! Why in the ever-loving Блядь have I reverted to Google-translate Russian, you ask? Well, it’s because today I have decided to watch a Russian film from 1915 called The Portrait (or Портрет, if you prefer). The only remaining fragment of this film is a bit over eight minutes long, but in its original form, it supposedly ran about 45 minutes, though only the first few minutes have survived. Nevertheless, it’s still a cool little artifact, even though we will likely never know what happened in the lost ~37 minutes of runtime. Well, unless we read The Mysterious Portrait, the Nikolai Gogol novella it was based on, I suppose.
We open on what looks like a hinky little antique shop, its walls festooned with crookedly-hung portraits and gobs of fake-ass cobwebs. The proprietor of said shop is doing his proprietor thang, waiting idly around for customers and sipping coffee that is likely spiked with vodka, because Russia. Soon enough, an artist named Chartkov glides into the shop and greets the proprietor. GOOD DAY, SIR, the proprietor seems to say. DO YOU HAVE A MOMENT TO BROWSE MY COLLECTION OF GARAGE SALE KNOCKOFFS AND VARIOUS SUNDRIES? Chartkov begins to poke around a bit, but the proprietor evidently hasn’t read Zig Ziglar’s Selling 101, because every time Chartkov seems interested in something, the shopkeeper is all EH, YOU DON’T WANT THAT, waving dismissively and shaking his head at the dude and sipping his coffee, getting drunker and more belligerent with each adulterated mouthful (okay, not really).
After much back and forth, with Chartkov evidently knowing what he wants and the shopkeeper trying to dissuade him with contemptuous eyerolls, the artist hands over a handful of coins and pulls up a portrait of a spooky, staring old man that is apparently just the thing to liven up that blank expanse of wall in his joyless Russian hovel. OMG, THIS WILL LOOK JUST DARLING OVER THAT SOFA I SCROUNGED FROM THE BOMB SITE! AND IT EVEN MATCHES THE CURTAINS! OR AT LEAST IT WOULD IF I HAD ANY CURTAINS BESIDES TORN BURLAP RAGS!
I would like to note here that the shop contains what appears to be a teeny Rembrandt peeking out from beside a much larger painting on the back wall. Did Chartkov consider that he probably could have snagged that for a couple rubles if he played his cards right, and then perhaps offloaded the thing on eBay for a couple mil? He does not, and hence we have a horror film and not a heartwarming rags to riches story. But hell, the dude’s an artist, maybe he recognized it was actually one of those worthless print-to-canvas jobbies for sale at every Bed Bath & Beyond, and had the good sense to steer clear.
Chartkov leaves the shop with his prize, and it is at this point that we, the viewers, get the first clear look at the thing. It’s a pretty slapdash affair, honestly, but it gets points for being uncomfortably creepy in a Disney Haunted Mansion sorta way. Chartkov carries it through snow-choked streets, glancing down at it every now and again, as if to say, YEAH, THIS WAS DEFINITELY A MUCH BETTER INVESTMENT OF MY MEAGER FUNDS THAN A BAG OF POTATOES AND A SIX-PACK WOULD HAVE BEEN. I’M LIVING THE ART COLLECTING DREAM, AND SCREW YOU, MOM AND DAD, FOR THINKING I’D NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING. I’LL SHOW YOU. I’LL SHOW YOU ALL. I’LL HAVE THE MOST BADASS COLLECTION OF SKETCHY OLD MAN PAINTINGS THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN, AND THEN YOU’LL ALL BE SORRY.
In the next scene, Chartkov is sleeping in his apartment, and the portrait is hanging above his bed and staring into our very souls. Watching. Waiting. Chartkov awakes with a start as if from a nightmare, glancing over at the painting and then laughing at himself, because he’s such a silly ass for having nightmares about some Manos-lookin’ portrait that’s clearly plotting his death.
Then, thinking that maybe the picture won’t look quite so murderous after a spot of TLC, he gets up and begins scrubbing it with a rag. This has pretty much the opposite effect of what he probably intended, for he ends up rubbing off the entire image, revealing a more realistic and EVEN CREEPIER painting of an old man that was hiding under there all along, just biding its time. Chartkov is understandably put out by this development, pacing around his room with fetching plaid trousers and furrowed brow, peeking anxiously at the painting from behind his little wooden dressing screen. I mean, sure, the portrait was ominous before, and that was just fine, but THIS?!? It’s just that one shade of sinister too far, and Chartkov isn’t sure he’s gonna stand for it, man.
But instead of chucking the blighted thing out the window, setting it on fire, or even doing the obvious thing and taking it back to the store, getting his money back, and using his returned rubles to hie to a bar and get nice and plastered, he decides the best course of action is simply to cover the hellborn canvas with a dropcloth, utilizing the same logic as a kid who believes hiding under the blankets will keep the closet monster from getting him. If I can’t see the problem, he reasons, then it magically disappears. QED. That solved, he makes a WHEW gesture, shrugs out of his overcoat, puts on his special sleeping overcoat, and climbs back into bed, because wiping at a painting and then throwing a cloth over it just plumb tuckered him out.
Then there’s a fade to black, and when we fade back in, Chartkov is lying awake in bed, his eyes all bugging out. There’s a partial fade, and then we notice that the dropcloth has vanished from off of the painting. DUN DUN DUUUUUUUUN. Chartkov sits up, verrrrrry slowly, pointedly NOT looking at the painting, because he evidently already knows how shit like this is gonna go down. He stands up and staggers over to the painting, getting all up in its canvas weave, and then there’s a close-up in which we see the eyes of the old man in the painting shift to look at him. And then the old man’s whole head moves, and he’s giving Chartkov a devastatingly bitchy look, even though you’d think the old man would be happy that Chartkov liberated him from that cramped antique shop, but I suppose evil ghost dudes trapped in paintings aren’t especially known for their gratitude. And maybe Painting Geezer had a thing going with the Rembrandt in the antique shop and is pissed that he was spirited away to this ghetto-ass apartment with no other paintings to hang with.
At any rate, Chartkov, not exactly a model of proactiveness, fails to do the intelligent thing and run like hell when Painting Geezer moves, but simply sinks down next to the painting, all the while making a face like he just can’t deal. Painting Geezer puts his hands on the sides of the frame and leans outward toward the cowering Chartkov, who is visibly freaking the hell out, but strangely staying within grabbing distance of the old man’s talon-like fingers.
Finally, Chartkov puts his hands on the side of his head and begins to back away, but then there’s another fade and we see that, surprise, IT WAS ALL A DREAM, and Chartkov awakes thrashing in his bed, with the dropcloth still over the painting, just like he left it. FACE! After a few seconds of relief, he settles back into his nap.
Then there’s another sequence exactly like before: a fade where Chartkov is awake and the painting is covered, then a partial fade in which the dropcloth disappears. This time, though, Painting Geezer is moving before Chartkov even gets out of bed, and the artist is just going OHHHHH SHIT FUCK ME while the old guy straight up climbs out of the picture like Samara out of a TV, using a conveniently placed step stool beneath his painting.
Chartkov frets and rolls around against his pillows while Painting Geezer casually makes his way across the apartment and sits in a chair right next to Chartkov’s bed. He reaches into the pocket of his cloak, because he’s been dying for a ciggie after being trapped in that painting since the Renaissance, I’m assuming; but no, he actually pulls out a big canvas sack, while Chartkov looks on in disbelief and hams it up like he’s gonna faint dead away.
The old man pours the contents of the sack out into his lap. It looks like a bunch of small cylinders, and I’ll admit I thought they were hot rollers and Chartkov was about to get a supernatural spiral perm, but according to the recap I read, they’re actually rolls of gold coins. The old guy starts unwrapping one of the rolls, presumably to count his hoard, but unbeknownst to him, he has dropped one of the rolls on the floor and Chartkov has surreptitiously snatched it up. While Chartkov frets some more and makes Mr. Bean faces, Painting Geezer puts the rolls back into the sack, stands up and then peers back down into the bag for one last check. He seems to notice that one of the rolls is missing, because then he starts looking around on the floor behind the dressing screen that serves as Chartkov’s headboard. It should be noted that the entire time Painting Geezer was fussing about with his money bag, he paid no attention to Chartkov at all, acting as if the artist wasn’t even there. Chartkov quickly wraps the coin roll up in his sleeping overcoat, but then Painting Geezer, crouched down near the floor, peeks his creepy-ass face around the dressing screen, right near Chartkov’s head, BOO! And Chartkov predictably loses his shit.
But then POOF, Money-Hoarding Painting Geezer disappears, and Chartkov wakes up again. He makes the WTF IS GOING ON HERE face again, and then opens the hand that was holding the coin roll, only to find that it is empty. No ghost gold for you, buddy. *sad trombone*
Looking bummed out that dream-money evidently can’t cross the veil to become legal tender in real life, he goes back to sleep, and that’s where the movie fragment ends.
According to the recap, the novella this film was based on had Chartkov later finding a real roll of gold coins hidden in the painting’s frame, and then went on to detail his downfall after he abandoned his artistic integrity to sell out and pursue a life of wealthy excess. Whether the original film stuck to that story is anyone’s guess, but at any rate, this remaining fragment of The Portrait is a rare and interesting glimpse into a mostly lost era of Russian film.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.