In the Russian artist Uldus Bakhtiozina’s retro-futurist, feminist spoof on costume dramas, Tzarevna Scaling (Doch Rybaka), a young woman, Polina (Alina Korol), who works at a fried-fish food truck, is offered a mysterious herbal tea to assuage her insomnia. Upon drinking it, Polina wakes up the next day, only to be transported to a bizarro parallel universe. In it, an outlandishly dressed royal—a kind of pissy, mean-spirited fairy-godmother—leads Polina through a test, to prove if she has what it takes to become a tzarevna (literally, a tzar’s daughter). Since Polina learns about her unique chance through an old, clunky television set, it’s possible that the entire dreamworld is a trap inside the television set, and Polina’s ordeal is nothing more than a cynical beauty contest.
In Bakhtiozina’s Alice-in-Wonderland meets Cinderella quest, the final showdown gets solved quickly when Polina’s asked, rather predictably, what makes her think that she’s so special, and which Polina answers with a doleful complaint that she’s always been underestimated. But what really counts and delights are the film’s elaborate theatrics and fantastical costumes. Here sci-fi meets high fashion meets a grandma’s thrift shop. These imaginative details are matched by Bakhtiozina’s constant digs at Russia’s mix of bureaucratic quagmire (so many papers for the fairy godmother to sort!) and brutal technocratic culture, in which everyone’s instantly dispensable (including our heroine), yet the dream of achieving specialdom gets constantly peddled as a holy grail.
Watching the giant head-pieces worn by the pale, prune-like tzarevnas, I couldn’t help but think of Alexander Sokurov’s Faust and some of its striking costumes. But whereas Sokurov was still interested in canonical European metaphysics, and inflected his cinematography and set and costume designs with but a spare touch of whimsy, Bakhtiozina’s approach is much more strident and pastiche-like, though also open-ended. Rather than favor any particular aesthetic, Bakhtiozina appropriates and collages her sources freely, sometimes randomly. She recycles and revamps history, dressing it up in futuristic footwear, while downgrading some of the technology (e.g. Polina and her guide keep using walkie-talkies). Call it Sokurov meets Matthew Barney, though clearly, most of the particulars in this maligned dystopia are Bakhtiozina’s own. Tzarevna Scaling proves that fables are still a particularly rich material for women directors to mine: From Carlson Young’s The Blazing World, which recently premiered at Sundance, to Jessica Oreck’s The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014), and reaching back to Ericka Beckman’s brilliant Cinderella (1986), the archetypical figures continue to haunt us.