Award-winning Russian animator Aleksanrd Petrov has become famous for his paint-on-glass animation, a painstaking process that allows the artist to manipulate the image directly under the camera by using extremely slow-drying oil paints, so that the image can be altered over a number of days. Petrov’s 1996 film Rusalka is a beautiful example of this technique. The film concerns a young monk who encounters a rusalka, a Siren-like spirit of a drowned woman, who delights in luring men to their deaths. The old monk with whom the hero lives hears her laughter from the river and recognizes the voice of a woman he once abandoned, marrying another. The film is said to be based on an unfinished Pushkin poem by the same name, but the plot of the movie matters very little compared to the stunning artwork. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were many artists who were fascinated by the Russian landscape and used elements of folklore or fairy tales in their work. Rusalka is highly reminiscent of the work of these artists – such as Roerich, Vasnetsov, or Bilibin. The use of oil paints in the animation augments the similarity and seems to carry these artistic efforts into a new medium without breaking with the old. The film feels like a canvas come to life while remaining utterly true to the original.
The unique technique of painting on glass gives the film a fascinating fluidity because the colors blur through each manipulation, giving objects a soft, almost undefined edge, while allowing them to remain perfectly recognizable. Petrov often uses this to allow the images to transform into one another, to move from reality to memory, and to create a sense of confusion or disorientation. In one particularly striking sequence, the old monk remembers his love affair with the woman who has turned into the rusalka: on a day long ago when they were sledding together, her laughter sweeps the white of his hair into the white of snow; the snow then obscures everything and moves away to reveal them in bed together; he moves to kiss her and they become fish in a river. This sort of transformation is so effortless that it seems the most natural thing in the world. Despite their stunning beauty and precision, the images can also lose all form utterly in the blink of an eye. This strange impermanence, combined with the blurring softness of the paints, moves the film into a world of dream-like,mutable beauty. Petrov portrays the rusalka as an ambiguous figure; traditionally the rusalka is an evil water-demon who seduces men to their deaths, however, the character in the film seems to be simply longing for enjoyment and love. She frolics with the young monk, catching fish for him and braiding flowers into his hair. When she overturns his boat, it seems to be more from careless abandon than evil motives. Her laughter, her movements (masterfully conveyed through the manipulation of paint) make her truly a creature of another world.