Victims of Euphoria: The 17th Open Russian Film Festival (Kinotavr)

By Elena Plakhova (Moscow)

“I’m alive, I’m euphoric, I’m free floating, and it doesn’t hurt.” The onscreen hero of the latest Kinotavr Film Festival (2-14 June 2006) could easily have spoken this monologue. The most important conclusion that can be drawn from this year’s festival is that a cinema has arrived that demands a specific, sharply expressed relationship towards itself, and that inside this cinema a hero has appeared who is endowed with sacrificial, non-conformist, or provocative traits.

This has occurred against the background of the expansion of so-called blockbuster releases, which made it seem that standardization and the rise of production budgets would doom any originality. It turns out, however, that the growth of the industry and the increasing number of film productions (by some accounts there are more than 300 films at various stages of production) suits everybody’s needs and that this quantitative boom inevitably leads to the appearance of quality art-films, even if there are not many of them. The quality may be better or worse, but it is indisputably present nonetheless.

It turns out, however, that the plots of these films are open to debate, eliciting sharply polar and occasionally very emotional reactions even from the midst of professionals. This is a new development. Usually at festivals the terror of public opinion leaves virtually no room for a dissenting point of view or that very dissenting point of view becomes the dominant point of view. This year political correctness retreated: people argued until they became hoarse, until both parties took offense almost to the point of breaking off all relations.

Of course there were some things that united people. No matter what anyone thought of Dunia Smirnova’s Relations (Sviaz', 2006), everyone was touched by Anna Mikhalkova’s and Mikhail Porechenkov’s acting. The image of the characters they created, sympathetic average people who do not know what to do with their families or with their adulterous love, do not pretend to any radicalism, and, therefore, received almost unanimous acceptance. After all, normal events and banal plots have to exist in life and in cinema.

The prize for best actress, however, did not go to Mikhalkova as everyone had expected, but to Renata Litvinova, who played a much more eccentric and grotesque character in Aleksei Balabanov’s It Doesn’t Hurt (Mne ne bol'no, 2006). Litvinova and Balabanov did not allow this film to descend into a completely ordinary melodrama, but neither did they demonstrate anything radical in their approach. This time around that horrible and wonderful Balabanov, the most provocative Russian filmmaker, made a soft, lyrical, and sad film—without the juicy irony of Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005), without the bestiality of War (Voina, 2002), without the social revenge of Brother (Brat, 1997), without the decadence of Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei, 1998). It turns out that the beast is affectionate and gentle on the inside. But make no mistake about it; Balabanov will show his fangs once again.

Here are the films that were the main subjects of arguments. First of all, there was Ivan Vyrypaev’s Euphoria (2006), a provincial tragedy with a cruelly constructed lovers’ triangle. Elemental forces rarely have much to do with new Russian filmmaking, which as a rule is artificially hatched in a test-tube. What makes Vyrypaev’s film stand out is that it is ruled by real elemental forces—water, the steppe, the national, the linguistic, love. These forces gush out of the frame of the screen and the director guides them into a specially dug aesthetic channel; but even there the forces do not entirely cool down, like lava that has just erupted. So I was not surprised when someone called this film—in which the image of the river plays such a significant role—a contemporary And Quiet Flows the Don (Tikhii Don; dir. Sergei Gerasimov, 1957-8). The elemental forces of the Civil War, which shook apart the very foundations, continue to churn in the souls of these characters, who (to quote Bulat Okudzhava) “know not what they do.” Euphoria is a film about wild, primitive emotions that are outside of social and moral norms, beyond good and evil. This is already enough to put off certain viewers (a mother abandons her child! a father uses a pair of scissors to cut off his daughter’s finger!). Others, however, interpreted Vyrypaev’s film in a different way—as a calculated attempt to shock or even as a piece of hack-work made for export.

Second, Aleksandr Veledinskii’s Alive (Zhivoi, 2006) sharply divided the progressive community of filmmakers and critics. Some saw it as an attempt to represent what they believe to be the rise of patriotism, while others refer to it as military-religious hysteria. Veledinskii has clearly hit a sore spot, one that makes it impossible to say “it doesn’t hurt” or to hide behind some hypothetical “retro.” However, the source of the pain is never made clear in the film. Young men return from Chechnya to a bad world, but was that other, previous world a good one? Is this priest, who is so oriented towards youth culture, an ideal or a caricature? If it is possible to learn about friendship and brotherhood from the Chechens, why is it necessary to rub them out? And if this isn’t accurate, what relationship to this concrete war is expressed in the film? Having touched an open wound and isolated the source of the pain, Veledinskii fails to name the cause. Instead, he drowns it out with peals of pop music. As a result he leaves only confusion and irritation as possible reactions to the film; although, some smart people were able to discern in it the “metaphysics of death” (which, I must confess, I did not sense).

And the third film was Kirill Serebrennikov’s Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2006), which received the Best Film award at the festival. This filmmaker’s views could occasionally be seen in his earlier films—Ragin (2004) and Bad Bed Stories (Postel'nye stseny, 2005)—but in his latest film Serebrennikov achieves a virtuoso balance of filmic representation and theatrical conditionality. He works easily with various techniques and artistic technologies: elements of Dogma and cinema verité, animation and actors’ monologues (including the famous curse-laced one) come together, forming a diversity in the film that approaches eclectic reality but is separated from it by its high degree of aesthetization. It becomes a contemporary Hamlet that itself turns into a dark comedy. In some respects he resembles the early Aki Kaurismäki, who, in Hamlet Goes Business (Finland, 1987), transformed Denmark into Finland and the Finnish prince into a modern young man “with a heart as hot as a refrigerator.”

And finally there was Boris Khlebnikov’s Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006). I must admit that it seemed to me that Koktebel' (Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii, 2003) was overly praised, and now I understand why I felt this way. After all, a work made together with someone else is the fruit of a compromise; if the two have not merged into a single unity... but that is not the case here. It will be interesting to watch the film that Popogrebskii made on his own. But Khlebnikov, having separated himself from Popogrebskii, has demonstrated his directorial traits in greater relief. Free Floating is a very pointed—one could even say a very dotted—film that strikes right into its goal, skillfully balanced between subject and style. The film is very local, but not in the sense of “importance of place,” rather in its concreteness and earthiness. Yet the film would not suffer from a bit more air and deeper breaths. Once again the experience of Kaurismäki comes to mind, and of other youthful European classics, who are deeply concerned with social problems and destinies of ordinary people; that is, concerned with things that until very recently were demonstratively not on the list of major preferences in Russian cinema.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Elena Plakhova, Moscow

Elena Plakhova© 2006

Updated: 06 Oct 06