Pavel Sanaev: The Last Weekend (Poslednii uik-end, 2005)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2006

 

Russia is mastering genre cinema. The recent success of Timur Bekmambetov’s vampire fantasies Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006), Fedor Bondarchuk’s war film Company 9 (9-aia rota, 2005), as well as Petr Buslov’s Bimmer (Bumer, 2003) and Aleksei Balabanov’s Dead Men’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005)—both variations on the gangster film—proves that Russian cinema is back from the dead and can compete with American imports on the domestic market. The filmmakers’ ability to apply genre conventions to distinctly Russian material plays a role here, together with Russian audiences’ rediscovered patriotism. Yet these films (and a score of others), while undeniably impressive achievements, have as their points of reference either the Soviet tradition of patriotic epic films or, in case of the gangster saga and its spoofs, an already long line of post-Soviet cinematic and television specimens of the genre. The Last Weekend, by contrast, is a rare sally into the uncharted waters of the teen flick [1] and an unchallenged pioneer of the Russian teen thriller. Indeed, both parts of this latter genre have proven to be quite thorny for Russian filmmakers: how to create and keep the interest of cynical and sophisticated teens who are gradually becoming the major film audience and who, when it comes to American teen flicks, “have seen it all”?

Advertised as a teen thriller (molodezhnyi triller), The Last Weekend gives a Russian twist to the genre conventions established by its American models: the normal flow of life of suburban kids explodes into violence and horror. Growing up in a Moscow residential neighborhood, Kirill (Ivan Stebunov) and Mishka (Artem Semakin) are typical teenagers, dabbling in rap music and trying to fit in with their peers. The gang wars of the 1990s are things of the past, but have left behind mutilated bodies and psychotic personalities in the form of Mishka’s older brother nicknamed Rabid (Beshenyi),[2] played by Gosha Kutsenko. A former gang leader who now owns a security firm, Rabid is Mishka’s mentor, protector, and—after their parents’ murder—also his surrogate father. Rabid’s presence on screen is very short, but he delivers two powerful messages: first, he demonstrates the price of disobedience to the entire neighborhood by torturing Gleb, a local hood who, of course, will resurface later in the film to play a sinister role. Second, he teaches the teens about life choices (strelki), using the term that simultaneously evokes train tracks—the major visual motif of the film—and the threat of gang violence. The film, thus, starts with two simple enough motifs that cover the psycho-moral landscape of the film: fear and choice. As the teens celebrate their last weekend in Moscow before going to study in America, Mishka dies in a tragic accident. His shocked friends—Kirill, the girl he loves, her boyfriend, and Gleb who has freshly returned from serving as a paratrooper—exhibit the “terminal behavior” characteristic of the genre: terrified of Rabid’s wrath, they decide to burn Mishka’s body. On their trip to a remote country house, conflicts arise and the body count grows. The climax comes when Kirill discovers that the former paratrooper has “scripted” Kirill’s own death as necessary for complete verisimilitude.

As is typical of the post-Soviet film scene, The Last Weekend’s director and scriptwriter Pavel Sanaev, belongs to a cinematic dynasty: he is the grandson of Vsevolod Sanaev, a maître of Soviet cinema; the son of the actress Elena Sanaeva; and the stepson of Rolan Bykov, in whose milestone film Scarecrow (Chuchelo, 1983) 13-year-old Pavel Sanaev made his debut. Despite this heritage, and in contrast to the advertising mega-campaigns for many recent Russian releases, The Last Weekend—Sanaev’s first feature film [3] —got very little conventional promotion. Its creator, however, found an ingenious way to advertise his film: the internet. Sanaev is the creator of the film portal ruskino.ru, which organized an “interactive expedition” for the film. The site not only updated readers on the shooting, but also published parts of the script and invited the audience to suggest alternative plot turns (the film uses some of those versions). By the time of the film’s release, it already had a fan club, which largely overlapped with the target audience of the film: thirteen-to-twenty-year-olds.

The best aspect of the film is that it conquers the Mount Everest of Russian filmmaking—a solid, logically built plot, with motivations that are easy to follow, dynamic scenes, and surprising twists and turns. More importantly, the film has a sense of rhythm: slow and leisurely in the beginning, driven by Kirill’s voice-over; the fast-edited shock of the accident; the fateful drive through the countryside punctuated by sparse electronic “suspense” music. In its narrative, The Last Weekend follows the trend of most American teen films of the 1990s: “contemporary, narrative driven audiences want continuity and predictability in their entertainment above all other considerations.” [4] In terms of casting, “the new wave of thirteen- to nineteen-year-old viewers wants something that appeals directly to them, featuring stars that they know (from television) who are roughly their own age, rather than adults pretending to be teenagers.” [5] All of the lead actors in Sanaev’s film have successful television careers, while Kutsenko’s signature performance provides the film with a believable threat carried over from his established film personality (see, for example, Egor Konchalovskii’s Antikiller, 2002).

With the plot as the focal point, characters are appropriately schematic, and the only breaks in the linear narrative are Kirill’s flashbacks. These probes into the past to make sense of the present link violence with sexuality: Mishka dies largely because of Kirill’s attempts to win Katia’s sexual favors. While The Last Weekend clearly uses the formula of I Know What You Did Last Summer (dir. Jim Gillespie, USA, 1997) and other Hollywood teen slashers, it is not a mindless clone. Both in its premise (socially motivated rather than irrational horror) and in the “philosophy of life” (a mixture of fatalism and cynicism), Sanaev’s film is refreshingly original and profoundly Russian. Gleb’s weapon of choice is the ax, yet the film avoids the gore and the massive bloodletting so prominent on the Russian screen in the 1990s. Another effective scripting decision was to set up the thriller on the road, in a natural setting, and in full daylight, which both highlights the “Russian-ness” of the mise-en-scène and adds a shock value to the film.

Up to the last five minutes, The Last Weekend is free from self-reflexivity―that is, of foregrounding the film’s and the audiences’ awareness of the genre conventions and of playing with the entrapment between the knowledge of what should happen next and the visceral response to shock and surprise. Hollywood teen slashers such as Scream (dir. Wes Craven, USA, 1996) have exploited this “postmodern” element of narration to spice up the savvy audience’s engagement with the movie. In the absence of the native tradition to reference, Russian cinema, however, cannot afford any such “deconstruction,” and Sanaev’s film is as straightforward as it can be.

The ending gives an interesting twist to Kirill’s role in the film. He provides the voice-over at the beginning, but from the moment of Mishka’s death we do not hear his voice. He, however, remains the plot’s focalizer as the assumed moral center of the film. After the horror plot turns out to be a script-within-a-script, conceived by Kirill on his way to meet his friends for the farewell party, the viewer is presented with the problem of the narrator à la Goodfellas (dir. Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990): the one telling the story seems the most “normal” (or, in this case, “moral”) of the bunch. As the protagonist speeds away from his friends in his old Cadillac, the viewer is left both with an unexpected happy end and an urge to look back at the film to see the events in a different light. Could it be that Kirill was planning to do with a skewer what Gleb attempted to do with an ax? How else to explain the fact that the protagonist, numb from grief and shock at the death of his best friend and of his beloved, suffocates Gleb with a plastic bag in cold blood and resourcefully burns down the house to cover up the crime?

Interestingly, the majority of positive responses to the film emphasized the theme of moral choice that reverberates in the protagonist’s voice-over and the rollback ending. Making right decisions at life’s strelki may be moral, whereas “murdering” one’s friends in an imaginative script is surely not. This ambiguity, however, fits well with the contemporary teen flick’s knowing wink to the audience: the boundary between the game and the complexities of teens’ existence is never too clear. After coming full circle in the “what if” mode of Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, Germany, 1998), Sanaev’s film seems to suggest a conservative censure of sexuality, embracing “true” male friendship. Yet, as Kirill remarks, his inspired stories promise him a career—if not in American advertising, then at least in Russian scriptwriting.
In this sense teen thrillers might have a future in Russia after all.

Elena Prokhorova
University of Richmond


Notes

1] The short list of contenders includes Let’s Make Love (Zaimemsia liubov'iu; dir.Denis Evstigneev, 2002) and The Book Stealers (Pokhititeli knig; dir. Leonid Rybakov, 2004).

2] The choice of name is a nod to Viktor Dotsenko’s series of novels about Beshenyi, a new Russian superman of the 1990s.

3] His only other film to date is a short, Kaunas Blues (2004) featuring Donatas Banionis.

4] Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Teen Films in the 1990s,” Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays (Albany: State U of NYP, 2000): 131.

5] Dixon 138.


The Last Weekend, Russia, 2005
Color, 90 minutes
Direction and screenplay: Pavel Sanaev
Cinematography: Gennadii Engstrem
Music: Aleksandr Dronov
Cast: Ivan Stebunov, Artem Semakin, Tat'iana Arntgol'ts, Il'ia Sokolovskii, Ritis Skripka, Gosha Kutsenko
Producers: Vladimir Zheleznikov, Mikhail Litvak, Leonid Litvak
Production: Globus Studio; with support from the Federal Agency on Culture and Cinema, and with the participation of the Detskii seans Studio.

Pavel Sanaev: The Last Weekend (Poslednii uik-end, 2005)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2006

Updated: 05 Jul 06