Oksana Bychkova: Piter FM (2006)
reviewed by David MacFadyen© 2006
Masha works as a DJ for a popular Petersburg radio show; Maksim is a young architect. Masha’s getting ready to marry her old classmate, Kostia; Maskim has won an international competition and has just been offered work in Germany. Neither he nor Masha, however, are sure about things. Masha still doesn’t know if she loves Kostia or has simply got used to him. Maksim is scared that working in Germany will spoil his lifelong dream to design an amazing building in Petersburg. And who knows what would’ve happened, if Masha hadn’t lost her cell phone — and Maksim hadn’t found it…? (Promotional text)
Romantic comedies fix things; they find lost cell phones and put them back in the proper pockets. The classic three-act, seven-beat structure of a romantic comedy is invariably designed to illustrate a loss and then correct it, even if it didn’t happen in the first place. This essential scaffolding must not, however, overshadow the unexpected artfulness of something other than structure, be it fickle human nature or the equally erratic workings of fate itself. If a screenwriter “hits” his or her structural beats too hard in the closing moments of a third act, the audience is left wondering: What degree of arbitrary, unnerving existence outside the plot caused this insistent imposition of form? Oksana Bychkova’s debut film speaks to this classic conflict between destiny and design, between choice and chance.
Before Piter FM was even released, providence and planning were evident in the project’s early conception. Bankrolled by television company CTC, this feature was explicitly designed to inspire feelings of “hope” in its audience. Faith in providence (come what may) is, after all, part and parcel of a typical evening’s lineup on CTC. Many of the station’s browbeaten, love-starved, or provincial heroines strive admirably—and adorably!—against the constant blows of destiny.  CTC Media president Aleksandr Rodnianskii said Bychkova’s film would respect this format, whilst playing upon the structural clichés of situation comedy. It would be an innovative “dramedy”—even though this term had already been applied by Moscow’s press to another CTC show, If You Weren’t Born Pretty… (Ne rodis' krasivoi…). 
Dramatic elements in the comedy of Piter FM come from the outside world, from the busy, unpredictable intentions of the Big City. The little social connection of Masha and Maksim’s love affair tries to define itself against something much bigger. It steps into the rubric of quixotic films such as A Girl Without an Address (Devushka bez adresa; dir. Èldar Riazanov, 1957) or I Stride Through Moscow (Ia shagaiu po Moskve; dir. Georgii Daneliia, 1963). In these movies happenstance is a vital, cheerful counterweight to the rigid structures of Stalinist planning: the little plans of the Thaw get lost in big crowds and do happily.
Bychkova’s film clearly wants to embrace that tradition, but promotional interviews sounded slightly more willful than wistful. In the words of supporting actress Inna Rakhmanova, the heroes of Piter FM simply must have faith: “Whatever happens, it’s for the best… All the interweaving stories in the film are about that one idea. I’m convinced that we need this kind of cinema now; films with hope.” Rakhmanova’s emphasis upon faith suggests that the outside world is not terribly forthcoming with reasons to be hopeful.
Indeed, Masha and Maksim cannot find one another; they exchange calls and keep hoping. Since they do not meet knowingly at any point in the film, the ongoing need to believe in accident reminds us of perhaps the most famous romcom in which hero and heroine are kept apart from start to finish: Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Bychkova likewise needs to stress that Masha and Maksim may meet, instead of Rakhmanova’s conviction that they must. Risk should not be overshadowed by necessity (in any form).
Once again, this storyline about uncertainty was mirrored in the production process. For a large number of Piter FM’s crew members, this was their first, similarly chancy venture into expensive filmmaking after graduation. Yet fortune smiled upon them, one and all; thanks to CTC, this gentle comedy was subjected to an unnaturally well-funded PR schedule. Three hundred and fifty copies of the film were printed in anticipation of nationwide promotion. By comparison, Fedor Bondarchuk’s record-breaking Company 9 (9-aia rota, 2005) was printed in 420 copies; Petr Buslov’s 2005 sequel to the blockbuster Bimmer (Bumer) was afforded 450. Bychkova could not believe her luck.
An estimated $3 million was then spent on advertising—three times her production budget. The film was marketed (long before its release) as “The Second Film of the Year.” This was a jovial nod in the direction of Timur Bekmambetov’s Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor), which had broken national box office records after 1 January 2006; Bekmambetov’s fantasy marketed itself late in 2005 on Russian bus stops, subway platforms, and TV screens as the “First Film of the Year.” Piter FM is about a young woman who loses a cell phone; Day Watch is about the end of the world. These cheeky parallels from CTC didn’t always pay off; many journalists were irritated by a pushy promotional campaign used to celebrate a comedy of doubtful, though “delightful” probability.
The film’s first appearance did little to stop the grumbling. It would seem that some equally mercantile decision-making led to the film’s most peculiar debut screening—at the grand opening of a multi-screen complex in Tiumen, Siberia. Wads of oil money had dragged this happy little film all the way from Moscow to the middle of nowhere. The Tiumen festivities began a few hours before the screening; once the local bigwigs had freeloaded at the expense of CTC, many of them did not stay for the feature. Free popcorn and Coke did little to persuade anyone. CTC had pretended that cash was not important and the people of Tiumen pretended they liked the film.
In trying to avoid this goal-driven profiteering, or at least feign an ongoing disinterest in it, the director and her cast (especially Evgenii Tsyganov) spoke less of a unidirectional plot than the film’s overall “atmosphere.” This suggestion was, in turn, also used by several critics to juxtapose Piter FM with other, more severe representations of Saint Petersburg, in particular Aleksei Uchitel'’s The Stroll (Progulka, 2003) in which an aimless, accidental walkabout is slowly channeled in a certain direction by a greedy, manipulative heroine. Likewise, Piter FM would hopefully circumvent the slick, picture-perfect elegance of Anton Sivers’ simultaneously released thriller, Butterfly Kiss (Potselui babochki, 2006).
Bychkova’s film does so, but is frequently interrupted by a series of jarring cameo appearances, most of which last no longer than 30 seconds: Vladimir Mashkov, Aleksandr Bashirov, Aleksandr Khvan, Andrei Krasko (now tragically deceased), Iurii Tsurilo, and the renowned mime Robert Gorodetskii. This irritating habit of briefly using pricey actors is common enough on television, where “headlining” thespians will appear only half way through a series. It is now increasingly common in the PR work for feature films, too, such as the use of Dmitrii Pevtsov in Pops (Popsa; dir. Elena Nikolaeva, 2005). Once the film begins, however, Pevtsov, a headlining actor in all the advertising, is only on screen for a few seconds. Affordable degrees of stardom keep nudging us away from a persuasive plot.
There is at least one parallel that our comedy does evoke happily without lining its pockets: Marlen Khutsiev’s July Rain (Iul'skii dozhd', 1966). The producer of Piter FM, Anna Gudkova, admitted that Khustiev’s “film kept popping up, of course, while we were working [on the set]; its feeling of airiness, its lightness, and indescribable atmosphere. All of that hovered over us.”  Gudkova said she would be “flattered” by any subsequent parallels with Khustiev’s motion picture.
Linkages with the recent past are safer and more respectful. Piter FM is even dedicated in the closing frame to “All of Our Parents.” This may be because it ponders the nature of chance meetings vis a vis one’s own birth, as in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985), or other, equally soppy comedies of fate, like The Sympathy Seeker (Sirota kazanskaia; dir. Vladimir Mashkov, 1997), itself dedicated to “All Mommies and Daddies.” But perhaps Bychkova’s parental dedication is simply a respectful bow in the direction of Khutsiev’s generation—and its stories of happenstance.
The use of music certainly underscored these parallels. July Rain had starred Iurii Vizbor in his first role; the songwriter also composed the soundtrack with Bulat Okudzhava, because the director had “standards.” In Piter FM, Masha works in a radio station and refuses to play average, commercial pop music—Filipp Kirkorov in particular. As in July Rain, “good” songs indicate the chance of a good relationship. Likewise, in both films a lost object begins the chance for a successful, albeit risky love story (for Khutsiev this object was a raincoat). In the meantime, nondiegetic, whistled or commonly remembered melodies bring people slowly together. Tsyganov, for example, starts his first conversation with Rakhmanova’s character simply because she cannot remember the title of a Boris Grebenshchikov song, 212.85.06, itself a phone number.
These parallels are not all rosy, however. It is interesting to look at criticism of July Rain upon its release, for one or two of the same irksome issues emerge in 2006. Bychkova and Khutsiev both aim to adopt a modest register: the former in the face of well-funded, fantasy blockbusters, and the latter as a counterweight to policy that had slightly deadened his more famous romance, Springtime on Riverside Street (Vesna na Zarechnoi ulitse, 1956), a decade earlier. Socialist critics complained about this diminution; it looked too deliberate and studied in its “charming,” if not twee compactness. In an open letter to the director in 1967, writer Rostislav Iuren'ev roundly criticized July Rain for being “atypical,” devoid of any conflict and aimlessly mawkish. The characters were too introverted and divorced from real-life conflict.
Although such a critique is obviously grounded in some very politicized notions of normality and conflict, the troubling collocation of aimless sentimentality and authorial contrivance remains. Bychkova’s design is frequently uppermost, in various senses. Parts of Saint Petersburg, such as New Holland and the Fontanka, are made unusually, outlandishly beautiful with powerful floodlights worthy a major sporting event. This air of increasing fantasy, amplified by heavy-handed product placements for both Samsung and Rambler throughout the feature, start to suggest Evgenii Lavrent'ev’s romantic and genuinely fantastic comedy It Doesn’t Hurt to Dream (Mechtat' ne vredno, 2005), which doesn’t take itself at all seriously. Kirill Pirogov’s poignant soundtrack for Bychkova’s film suggests no such irony: we’re supposed to care and be charmed.
And indeed we are, despite all of the above—despite the inexcusably bad synchronization of dubbed dialog (even in the trailer!). For most of the film, Tsyganov’s quiet, world-weary ennui is an ideal foil for the jollity of Masha (Ekaterina Fedulova) or for Rakhmanova’s trademark sassiness. In addition, the likelihood of a meeting between them does appear uncertain… until the final words of the final scene.
With our structural acts and beats neatly played out, Tsyganov and Fedulova pass each other on a canal embankment and cast a protracted, uncertain, and therefore possibly significant glance at one another. Here lies the structural peak of the film, the perfect balance between unpredictable chance (“real life,” in Iurenev’s terms) and the choice of screenwriters—Bychkova and Nina Grinshtein—to fashion matters actively, if not arrogantly. The film’s promoters knew very well the significance of this glance; it was used for both the theatrical poster and as CD cover for Pirogov’s soundtrack. After our heroes’ fleeting look, though, we still hear something else in the movie’s dying seconds: a phone call made by Maksim to Masha’s radio show, live on air. He asks for help in finding a girl just like Masha (and dressed like her) who has lost a phone. This strange, last-minute contrivance by Bychkova and Grinshtein (as something too clumsy to show, perhaps) makes the outside world a more ominous opponent than we’d care to think. If narrative structure has to push this hard in order to manifest itself, boyfriends and girlfriends should stop hoping and start praying.
The key to romantic comedies lies more in the anticipation of wish-fulfillment, rather than its forceful, structurally rigid imposition. Perhaps no romcom said so more aphoristically than Gregory’s Girl (dir. Bill Forsyth, 1982). Here the actual denouement is made explicitly less important than our anticipation of it. In one late scene, Gregory (Gordon John Sinclair) ponders an unlikely, if not unbelievable date with an unspeakable beauty (Dee Hepburn). His baby sister Madeline chips in with some words of wisdom: she tells him the best part of any romantic story is just before it comes true. She draws a parallel with waiting for an ice cream soda: “The best part is just before you taste it. Your mouth goes all tingly!” An ice-cream spoon, if kept in the mouth too long, will stop tasting sweet and start tasting metallic.
The director has posted an interesting on-set diary of her experiences with Piter-FM.
University of California, Los Angeles
1] Of particular relevance here are the A-Media sitcoms such as My Fair Nanny (Moia prekrasnaia niania) or Liuba, the Kids, and a Factory (Liuba, deti i zavod). Both are licensed remakes of syndicated American shows: The Nanny (CBS, 1993-1999) and Grace Under Fire (ABC, 1993-1998). These copycat comedies are rapidly multiplying as they Russify related US hits like the Tony Danza vehicle Who’s the Boss? (ABC, 1984-1992) or The Golden Girls (NBC, 1985-1992).
5] “Potrebnost' v Pitere,” Novosti Radio Kul'tury
6] A full copy of the text may be found at KinoCenter.
Piter FM, Russia, 2006
Color, 84 minutes
Director: Oksana Bychkova
Screenplay: Nana Grinshtein, Oksana Bychkova
Cinematography: Ivan Gudkov
Soundtrack: Kirill Pirogov
Cast: Ekaterina Fedulova, Evgenii Tsyganov, Irina Rakhmanova, Aleksei Barabash, Natal'ia Reva, Vladimir Mashkov, Aleksandr Bashirov, Tat'iana Kravchenko, Andrei Krasko, Kirill Pirogov, Robert Gorodetskii, and others.
Producers: Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Igor' Tolstunov, Elena Glinman
Production: Protel Film Company
Official site: http://www.piter-fm.ru/
Oksana Bychkova: Piter FM (2006)
reviewed by David MacFadyen© 2006