Aleksei Balabanov: It Doesn’t Hurt (Mne ne bol′no, 2006)

reviewed by Olga Klimova© 2006



Aleksei Balabanov is one of the post-Soviet filmmakers who like to experiment with different genres and themes in his films. He has become widely popular among Russian audiences since his blockbuster Brother (Brat) was released in 1997. His first films were documentaries: Egor and Nastia (1989) and From the History of Aerostatics in Russia (O vozdushnom letanii v Rossii, 1990). Subsequently he adapted for the screen Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days (Schastlivye dni, 1991) and Franz Kafka’s novel The Castle (Zamok, 1994). Balabanov’s films belong to a wide spectrum of different genres: from art-house films such as Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei, 1998) to action films like Brother and Brother 2 (Brat 2, 2000), from his war film War (Voina, 2002) to the black comedy Blind Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005). The range of themes in his films is also wide: from the origin of pornography in pre-revolutionary Russia to the war in Chechnia, from Russian “patriotism” and fraternity to Tarantino-like stories about the everyday life of Russian gangsters.

In one of his interviews, he explained that Russian audiences are not interested anymore in art-house or “marginal” cinema, which is why he decided to make films for the masses—films that people want to see in the theater (Savel'ev). Beginning with Brother, he has proven that he can successfully achieve this goal. In an interview published in Nevskoe vremia in 1998, Balabanov assured readers that he would never make a melodrama because it would be difficult for him to write a script that would make everyone cry (Pozniak). Seven years later, however, he has changed his mind and, relying on the intuition that helped him direct such hits as the Brother films, he has created his new masterpiece—a melodrama that appeals to the emotions of many Russian viewers. [1]

Balabanov did not write the screenplay for this film; instead he used a script written by Valerii Mnatsakanov in the 1990s. [2] In It Doesn’t Hurt, he intertwines two story lines: a representation of the consequences of market economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the story of a relationship with a terminally ill person. Igor' Mantsov claims that Balabanov plays with popular clichés peculiar to the contemporary mass consciousness that has been affected by Western culture (Mantsov).[3] Whether this is true or not, It Doesn’t Hurt manages to grab the majority of audiences through its use of occasional jokes and comic situations, as well as the lachrymose music by Vadim Samoilov and performances by popular Russian actors.

In addition to professional actors and actresses, Balabanov invited a few people from the Russian cultural beau monde for cameo roles in the film. This is not a new production strategy for him: he filmed Viacheslav Butusov, leader of a popular rock band, Nautilus Pompilius, in an episode in Brother, and famous pop-singer Irina Saltykova in Brother 2. In It Doesn't Hurt, filmmaker Dmitrii Meskhiev and TV stars Kirill Nabutov and Sergei Sholokhov appear on screen for a few minutes in the reception scene. The former producer of the Kinotavr Film Festival, Mark Rudenshtein, has a cameo role as Zibel'man―one of the clients of the central group of characters. Thus, It Doesn’t Hurt is full of famous actors and showmen, even if not to the same extent as Blind Man’s Bluff.

In the first storyline of It Doesn’t Hurt, three young opportunists—Misha, Oleg, and Alia—decide to start their own business: to open an interior design bureau in St. Petersburg. The idea of making money is not new for post-Soviet cinema; the “rags-to-riches” transformation has been represented in Pavel Lungin’s Tycoon (Oligarkh, 2002), Aleksei Sidorov’s TV mini-series The Brigade (Brigada, 2002), and Balabanov’s own Blind Man’s Bluff. The second storyline is about Natella Antonovna, or Tata (Renata Litvinova), a 27 year-old young woman who is dying from blood cancer and who is financially supported by Sergei Sergeevich (Nikita Mikhalkov). She is well taken care of by him and he does not require any sexual favors from her in return; he just needs to have a place where he can relax and where he can be loved and appreciated. Tata becomes Misha, Oleg, and Alia’s first client and their “lucky coin” because she begins to advertise their interior design bureau amongst her numerous acquaintances. Misha and Tata fall in love, and Tata leaves Sergei Sergeevich with his big apartment in the center of St. Petersburg, good food, and the medicine that can prolong her life. She chooses freedom, alcohol, and fun over life in a gilded cage and, as in its American counterparts, dies at the end of the film.

Like many of Balabanov’s previous films, It Doesn’t Hurt is set in St. Petersburg. Cameraman Sergei Astakhov (who did not work with Balabanov on Blind Man’s Bluff) returns with his gloomy colors for the sets, long shots of the city, dark stairways of old apartment buildings, and crowded streets. Most of the events in It Doesn’t Hurt take place inside buildings. One of the working titles of the film was Reconstruction (Remont), and for the settings, Balabanov uses a number of apartments of wealthy people who have done some major home improvements. Unlike the young architects’ apartment, which is old and dark, has scuffed walls and homeless people living one floor up in the attic, the apartments of the rich elite of St. Petersburg are full of light and the walls are painted white—the color of aristocrats. The white stairs to the second floor of these apartments and the white columns both in Tata’s apartment and in the hall at the reception organize space vertically, alluding to the existence of social strata.

There are also some sets shot en plein air in the film. St. Petersburg recalls Venice in It Doesn’t Hurt, and the Neva-river is present in many shots of the city. There is a view of the river both from the windows of Tata’s luxurious apartment and from the balcony of the house where the young architects live. The camera follows Tata and Misha during their long boat trip on the Neva-river. There are no close-ups in Balabanov’s film, which usually helps to make cinematographic space more personal and dramatic. Instead, he uses medium shots for the scenes where Misha and Tata are together. It Doesn’t Hurt also lacks any lovemaking and kissing scenes. To bring some intimacy and romance into his film, Balabanov usually places the couple into a closed setting, whether in an elevator, in the handmade tent in the attic, or in the hut outside the city. During the romantic trip on the river, the boat goes under bridges, thus, spatially separating Tata and Misha from the rest of the framing. The person who operates the boat is invisible in this scene, the streets are empty, and the couple is left alone to enjoy their time together. All of the scenes that include Tata and Misha together are accompanied by an old American hit, “Mummy Blue,” which creates a romantic atmosphere, plays with audiences’ emotions, and separates the love story from the rest of the narrative.

Music plays an essential role in all of Balabanov’s films and is an important element in It Doesn’t Hurt. In Brother and Blind Man’s Bluff, the soundtrack was written by Butusov; in Brother 2, he invited two new rock bands, Bi-2 and Chicherina, whose songs after the film’s release were a hit with Russian audiences. In War, the songs were performed by Butusov, as well as the bands Bi-2, Splin, and Okean El'zy. Vadim Samoilov, the leader of the Russian rock band Agata Kristi, wrote the soundtrack for It Doesn’t Hurt. The opening shot of the film begins with his song “Don’t Say It” (“Ne govori”) and the film ends with a flashback to the beginning of the story, but now accompanied by Samoilov’s song “Sky” (“Nebo”). This song has an omnipresent and omnipotent existence in the film. In one of the scenes, Oleg plays the guitar and sings this song, then it gradually transforms into off screen sound, and later returns to the diegesis in the form of a song over the radio that Misha and Vasia, a new member of the architectural bureau, listen to in the car. In another scene, the young architects are talking to a new client and “Sky” functions as non-diegetic sound until the hostess of the house comes to the CD-player and turns off the music; unexpectedly for the audience, the music belonged to the space of the narrative. This song follows Misha while he looks for Tata and as he suffers from being apart from her. Unlike “Mummy Blue,” which symbolizes Tata and Misha’s mutual affection and brings a romantic element into Balabanov’s film, “Sky” represents absence and does not soothe the pain of tragic loss.

Balabanov uses dramatic music, which is typical of melodramatic scores, but at the same time he neglects other conventional principles of the melodrama genre, such as the construction of the main character as a positive, strong hero(ine). Aleksandr Iatsenko, a young and not very famous actor, plays the leading male role of Misha, a graduate of the Institute of Architecture who is not a talented architect but is simply a business-minded person. Misha is different from the protagonists of Balabanov’s other films. He is a romantic hero, a good sales-person who can easily talk his clients into anything he wants. He is a new type of character who tries to achieve his goals not by using a gun, but by means of his brains and his business skills. Another of the film’s working titles was Confession of a Gentle Heart (Ispoved' nezhnogo serdtsa), which directly refers to Misha as an emotional being: he is a very sensitive, infantile, and whiny young man; he becomes depressed and apathetic when Tata leaves him; he confesses that Tata’s inevitable death hurts him; and he is barely able to deal with it. Misha is not a negative character, but he is not a strong-willed and powerful hero either. He cannot fight Tata’s disease and not he but Oleg protects Tata from a drunken soldier in a bar. This soldier is the only negative figure in this film. Since, however, he is a very secondary character, he is poorly developed. The absence of a hard-boiled villain in Balabanov’s film also deviates from the conventional structure of melodrama.

Balabanov goes even further in trying to deconstruct the traditional understanding of melodrama by not including any scenes of violence, whether fights or shootings, which are important for the melodramatic genre. Violence is largely absent on the screen, except in a few non-graphic, caricatured scenes. When Misha is caught in Tata’s house and beaten by Sergei Sergeevich’s bodyguards, the camera does not focus on physical violence, and the scene only serves to maintain narrative continuity. In another scene, Oleg enters a room with clenched fists and tells his friends that the problem with the homeless (bomzhi) has been resolved, implying that he has kicked them out of their apartment building by force. While his hand gestures suggest his recourse to violence, the audience does not actually witness any of the action. Oleg has been exposed to violence in Chechnia and dreams of taking revenge on his colonel for the death of his friends. However, later in the film, he refuses to fight with a drunken soldier and, instead of punishing the colonel, he writes special prayers. Dmitrii Diuzhev’s portrayal of Oleg as a multidimensional melodramatic character departs from his role as the simple-minded aggressive Russian gangster in Blind Man’s Bluff.

In addition to Diuzhev, the cast for It Doesn’t Hurt includes Nikita Mikhalkov and Sergei Makovetskii—all of whom appeared in Balabanov’s previous films.[4] In many recent films, Mikhalkov has played the role of an influential person, with money and power, and his role of Sergei Sergeevich in It Doesn’t Hurt fits well into his “usual” repertoire. [5] However, because this film is a melodrama, Balabanov makes Mikhalkov more sensitive, more humane, and more vulnerable: Sergei Sergeevich wears funny striped underpants and a warm woolen scarf at home, and he sincerely cries—like a child who has lost his favorite toy—when he finds out that his protégé has been bringing a guy into his apartment. Makovetskii has improved his performance since Blind Man’s Bluff and very realistically plays Tata’s doctor, who denies his age by interacting with much younger people, and is manipulated by all the women around him—his unattractive wife, young lovers, and even Tata. Unlike his roles in Balabanov’s previous films, he saves lives, not destroys them. [6]

For the lead female role, Balabanov invited Renata Litvinova―who previously had a cameo appearance as a waitress in Blind Man’s Bluff. In this film she plays Tata, a young woman with wild blond hair and a red curly wig that wears low-necked dresses, lacks eyebrows, and drinks cognac all the time. Named by Nina Tsyrkun as “the number one femme fatale of Russian cinema” (352), Litvinova plays just this part in Balabanov’s film. In the beginning of It Doesn’t Hurt, she still reminds audiences of the same old “Litvinova,” with her languishing voice and prim gestures. For most of the men around her, she represents a mystery, a creature from another world “where there is no scum.” In the second half of the film, however, she loses this familiar mask—she wears cargo pants and a black turtleneck sweater and looks like a ghost with a short haircut, pale face, and dark circles under her eyes. She gradually become less visible both on the screen and in the narrative, and finally disappears entirely by “dying in two months,” as Misha’s voice over informs us.

It Doesn’t Hurt begins as an urban melodrama, but the last scenes of the film take place in the countryside, far away from the pretentious world of St. Petersburg bohemians. The beautiful landscapes with cows, goats, and real haystacks create a pastoral atmosphere—an ideal space for the culmination of Tata and Misha’s love story. The existential statement—“Excessive decoration is dispiriting and it’s in everything: in flowers, advertising, and people,” spoken by Misha early in the film—is a preparation for these last scenes where everything is simple: green forests and fields instead of gloomy St. Petersburg’s streets; a hand-made hut instead of luxurious apartments with arches and bas-reliefs; shish kebab instead of red caviar; vodka instead of expensive cognac. With this idyllic scene, the story of love and friendship ends: Tata dies, Alia leaves for Finland, Oleg goes back to Chechnia, and Misha, the only leftover character in Balabanov’s melodrama, continues to exist.

Olga Klimova
University of Pittsburgh


Works Cited

Mantsov, Igor'. “Brat dva i brat mus'iu.” Russkii zhurnal (30 June 2006)
Pozniak, Tat'iana. Interv'iu s A. Balabovym. Nevskoe vremia 50 (1692), 20 March 1998
Savel'ev, Dmitrii. “Zmurki-zhmuriki: interview s Balabanovym.” Chaika 11 (46), 3 June 2005
Tsyrkun, Nina. “Obraz zhenstchiny i akterskoe amplua v noveishem rossiiskom kino.” Rossiiskoe kino: Vstuplenie v novyi vek. Ed. Mark Zak and Irina Shilova. Moscow: Materik, 2006: 345-359.


Notes

1] For Russian audiences’ perceptions of It Doesn’t Hurt, see the film’s official web-site .

2] Balabanov wrote the scripts for all of his films with the exception of Blind Man’s Bluff, for which Stas Mokhachev wrote the screenplay.

3] Similar plot clichés can be found in many American films, for instance, in Joan Chen’s Autumn in New York (2000) and Adam Chankan’s A Walk to Remember (2002).

4] Makovetskii played in Balabanov’s films Trofim, Of Freaks and Men, Brother 2, and Blind Man’s Bluff; both Diuzhev and Mikhalkov participated in Dead Man’s Bluff.

5] In his own film The Barber of Siberia (Sibirskii tsiriul′nik, 1998), Mikhalkov appears as tsar Aleksandr III. In Filipp Iankovskii’s Counselor of State (Statskii sovetnik, 2005), he plays the role of ambitious Prince Pozharskii. He was also invited to take part in Krzysztof Zanussi’s recent film Persona Non Grata (2005) where he played the part of Russian Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs. In Balabanov’s Blind Man’s Bluff, he played a powerful Russian mafioso.

6] In Trofim, Makovetskii played a man who kills his younger brother; in Of Freaks and Men, Makovetskii’s character produced and distributed pornographic pictures; in Brother 2, he played the part of a Russian businessman who orders the killing of the main character’s friend; and in Blind Man’s Bluff, he appeared in the role of a Russian gangster.


It Doesn’t Hurt, Russia, 2006
Color, 104 minutes
Direction: Aleksei Balabanov
Screenplay: Valerii Mnatsakanov
Cinematography: Sergei Astakhov
Art Director: Pavel Parkhomenko
Cast: Renata Litvinova, Aleksandr Iatsenko, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Inga Strelkova-Oboldina, Nikita Mikhalkov, Valentin Kuznetsov, Sergei Makovetskii
Music: Vadim Samoilov
Producer: Sergei Sel'ianov
Production: CTB Film Company

Aleksei Balabanov: It Doesn’t Hurt (Mne ne bol′no, 2006)

reviewed by Olga Klimova© 2006

Updated: 09 Oct 06