Boris Khlebnikov: Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006)

reviewed by Julian Graffy© 2007

Free Floating is a film about place and a film about work, a film about teenaged Lenia, who lives with his mother in a small town on the Volga, and his doomed and sometimes comic attempts to find a fulfilling job. In the film’s opening scene a lone man is sitting outside the Volga Motor Works, under the clock at the far left of the frame. It is 6:55 and he is waiting for the morning shift to arrive. The camera watches unflinchingly as the minutes tick by. Eventually we hear the sound of an approaching work bus. As the workmen, Lenia among them, file through the gates, the waiting man stirs and touches them for cigarettes, crowing that with this his working day is over and he is off fishing.

Unlike the old man turning away from the factory gates in a similar scene at the start of Dmitrii Astrakhan’s Everything Will Be OK (Vse budet khorosho, 1995), this man is not retiring but unemployed. Nor do any of the men on Lenia’s shift seem actually to do very much. One of them cleans the parts of a mincer, another fashions a torch, or maybe an ash-tray, out of a soft drinks can, while Lenia fixes a radio, before they all break for an unappetising three course lunch in the factory canteen. Nevertheless, the ritual is repeated next morning, though this time Lenia is late because he has been out dancing at a village disco. His foreman, Volodia, tells him to sleep off his tiredness and so he misses the arrival of two sinister black cars, which carry the bearers of ominous news. When he awakes, his feckless work mates inform him that the factory has been bought by Americans so that they can close it down, since (against the evidence of the viewers’ eyes) they are worried that the Russian workforce is too competitive. Thus, Lenia loses his first job even before he gets a paycheck. In a very different film about a similar occurrence, Vadim Abdrashitov’s Magnetic Storms (Magnitnye buri, 2003), the dispossessed factory workers take to the streets, but here expectations are lower. His fellows all make professions of worker solidarity, and vow to meet at 8:00 next morning outside the local unemployment office, but in the end only Lenia turns up.

Before he can enter the building, he is accosted by Kerim, who trades in shoes at the local market, and so Lenia gets his second job and his second surrogate father. First Kerim gives him a lesson in how to mesmerize passersby into purchasing shoes that they did not know they wanted, without needing to utter a single word. Then he tells him that he has a great talent for the work and makes plans for them to expand their business into the nearby town of Myshkin. But Kerim also wants him to turn up next morning at 6:00, and Lenia again oversleeps, so instead he goes to the unemployment office to see what else is on offer. Given the choice between being a plasterer or a decorator he unwisely chooses the former. Next morning he joins other men and women on the bus that will drive him off to this new career. When the bus stops and all the men get off, he attempts to join them, only to be told that they are the decorators, and that he, a plasterer, must travel on. It begins to dawn upon Lenia that in his ignorance he has chosen women’s work. He sits in the bus watching his fellows workers go about their women’s business. In a wonderfully understated comic scene, the bus stops in the middle of nowhere for a toilet break. While the women rush off into the bushes on one side of the road, Lenia goes forlornly into the brambles on the other. On their return, the women stop by the roadside for a cigarette and a gossip, echoing the animated companionship of their predecessors in Vitalii Mel'nikov’s film Mom Got Married (Mama vyshla zamuzh, 1979). When the bus sets off again, Lenia lets it leave without him, and sets off to walk the long way back home.

Back at the unemployment office, he enquires about a different job, to the obvious exasperation of the woman behind the counter, who can scarcely tear herself away from her novel. As she explains to him, all the interesting and well paid jobs―computer programmer, manager, German translator, jobs for which Lenia is not obviously suited―are in Yaroslavl, which, not for the last time in Free Floating, figures as a tantalizingly unattainable city of dreams. Locally, in a sly allusion to the survival of the Soviet past, the only jobs available are cleaning lady (uborshchitsa) and milkmaid (doiarka), though she assures him that in the former case “they will take a man.” Just when Lenia seems doomed to be unemployed, she remembers that there is also a situation vacant in the Communal Building Works team led by Works Brigadier Roslov. Faced with no choice, Lenia chooses to become a building worker, and so begins the longest sequence in the film. Lenia’s work consists of cleaning and smoothing the town’s innumerable potholes so that the other members of Roslov’s brigade―a tall hunchbacked fellow known as “pestle man” and his middle aged companion called “bucket man”―can laboriously crush bricks and just as laboriously flatten them into the holes. Roslov has an elaborate philosophy of this pointless trade, referring to himself and his team as the “woodpeckers of the road” (diatly dorogi), whose task it is to cause the road no pain, wielding a crowbar “not like a weapon, but like a doctor’s syringe.” He, too, takes Lenia under his wing, referring to him as a young craftsman (molodoi master) and as his successor (naslednik), and for a time Lenia seems fulfilled. Days go by, marked only by the move from Ulitsa melioratorov to Ulitsa N. Barsukovoi, from Ulitsa Turgeneva, 7 to Ulitsa Turgeneva, 10, and by the comings and goings of his former schoolmate, Ksiusha. Lenia and Ksiusha begin a shy, almost wordless romance, articulated more through insult than through endearment, to the increasing erotic frustration of his workmates, for whom this village Lolita is “sam seks,” sex itself.

But then Roslov takes the team back to the school at which Lenia was only recently a pupil, in search of a contract to build a swimming pool. Instead of welcoming the loquacious brigadier, the School Director takes them to see his previous handiwork, a shooting gallery that is already falling down because it was built without sufficient supports. Next morning Lenia, who has spent the night sleeping on the bricks to guard them against possible plunder, overhears Roslov and the other men talking of the petty thieving they are engaged in, and he loses another idol. He makes another secret trip to the unemployment center, but is given short shrift by the novel-reader and abjured to “have pity on your poor mother.” Forced to return to Roslov, he takes his revenge by exposing the brigadier’s shoddy workmanship to a local man about to part with a large sum of money for the dubious foundations for a house. This earns him a punch in the face and ends his building career.

A chance meeting with his old mates from the factory offers the distant prospect of work, starting in winter, driving vans in Yaroslavl, but to their consternation, Lenia is not sure that he is interested. The final minutes of the film are marked by a move away from the quiet naturalism of what has gone before. Lenia goes for a cathartic nocturnal swim in the Volga, during which he calls out to his mother and dreams of breaking the river apart. He awakes lying on a sandy beach in an abstract landscape. Summer gives way to autumn and Lenia goes back to the river, where he sees an extraordinary craft, the Vorona, chugging into view, powered by the engine of an old tractor. The captain and his mate earn a living taking logs or scrap up and down the Volga. Wordlessly, Lenia helps the mate with his work. Silently he walks on to the barge. As the barge moves off his face is suffused with a broad grin. At last, and without the advice of others, Lenia has found his way. And with this entry into the world of the burlaki, the Volga barge haulers, of Nekrasov and Gor'kii, Repin and Glazunov, Free Floating comes to an end.

The story of Lenia’s journey through Childhood (Detstvo) to life In the World (V liudiakh) and to his own My Universities (Moi universitety) is told with considerable charm, but as will be apparent from the earlier part of this review, it is certainly not the plot that holds the viewer’s attention. By comparison, Khlebnikov’s wonderful earlier film Koktebel, made with Aleksei Popogrebskii in 2003, is a work of supreme narrative tension, evoked through the boy hero’s desperate desire to reach the fabled settlement of the film’s title and by the disappointed love that binds him to his father. The attraction of Free Floating lies elsewhere, in part in the wry, respectful affection with which Khlebnikov tells his tale. In the evening of the first day of the film, in a beautiful wordless sequence, Lenia and two friends cycle off from the sunlit late afternoon of the town into the darkness of a village evening. Here, in the middle of a wood, is a dance at the village club, a dance that the village lads will let them into only if they promise not to flirt with the local girls. Dismayed neither by this warning, nor by the fight he has to go through before gaining admittance, Lenia dances intently with half a dozen of the local beauties, never saying a word to any of them. This comic sequence, reminiscent of the early work of Milos Forman, is followed by many others, from Kerim’s assault upon the town’s shoppers, to the scene near the end of the film in which Lenia’s mother, finally seen on screen rather than sensed off stage, takes him to the market to buy him warm winter clothes. The hideous hooded jacket patterned with ghouls that she chooses fits him about as well as the ghastly oversized tee-shirt with a picture of a kitten bought by his grandmother for Lesha in Sergei Loban’s Dust (Pyl', 2005), but alas both women combine aesthetic insensitivity with untroubled confidence in their own discernment.

Set in an unnamed town, but shot mainly in the small Volga towns of Kashin and Myshkin, Free Floating is sensitive both to the recent history and to the enduring values of this part of Russia. Khlebnikov’s evocation of the different tempo of provincial life recalls Barnet’s Outskirts (Okraina, 1933). On the one hand, the town is shown as mired in the Soviet past, untouched by the giddy possibilities introduced by contemporary Russian capitalism. The old sources of employment are passing and not being replaced. The grandly named birzha truda has damp, peeling walls, a singular absence of furniture, an indifferent employee, and no jobs to offer. The town’s young men and women are free to wander the streets, dressed in sad parodies of the fashion of late Soviet years—baggy trousers for the boys, laced jeans for the girls, fashions which they discuss with the little enthusiasm they can muster. Bereft of skills, they are unlikely to find jobs, and thus Roslov can represent the prospect of Lenia being called up to the army (something that contemporary big town Russian youth do everything they can to avoid) as a fate to be envied. The potholed streets of the town are almost entirely empty of human or vehicular traffic. So it is understandable that this town is also a place that Lenia is eager to leave, from his unsuccessful early job as plasterer, which he warns his mother will take him "daleko,” far away, to his final, fantastical journey down the Volga.

And yet one of the potholed streets is named after Turgenev, and the unkempt countryside and, especially, the majestic river, have a sad, desolate beauty that is poignantly evocative of a grand Russian past going back way beyond the Soviet and post-Soviet episodes that have brought the town to its knees. It is this sense of the Volga area’s self-sufficiency that provides an eloquent contrast to the treatment of the provinces in many other recent Russian films. Films of recent years have contained a recurrent trope of leaving the big city, whether Moscow or St. Petersburg, in search of a meaning the metropolis has been unable to provide. Sometimes, as in Petr Buslov’s Bimer (Bumer, 2003) the encounter with authentic Russia reveals the falsity and pointlessness of the urban values that the heroes bring with them. In Denis Neimand’s Junk (Zhest', 2006), too, the move out of the city is anything but healing, since in this case the countryside is a frightening zona full of degenerates whom you cannot escape. But in other new films, such as Sergei Potemkin’s Sunless City (Gorod bez solntsa, 2005), Anton Sivers’ Butterfly Kiss (Potselui babochki, 2006), or Aleksei Balabanov’s It Doesn’t Hurt (Mne ne bol'no, 2005), the danger and falsity of St. Petersburg is abandoned, either temporarily or permanently, for a restorative countryside full of broad snowy landscapes, churches, al fresco meals, and family members that you can trust. In all of these films the Russian countryside gains its significance by means of not being Moscow or St. Petersburg, and through its consequent ability to provide a moral lesson of some kind to the lost and misguided inhabitants of the capitals. Even Koktebel gained some of its resonance from the fact that its characters were dispossessed Muscovites, learning to value Russia by walking through it. In Free Floating neither Moscow nor St. Petersburg is either mentioned or even dreamed of―this is a different, distant Russia, where the places of aspiration are Yaroslavl, Kostroma and Nizhny.

The acting in Free Floating is uniformly impressive. Aleksandr Iatsenko first came to prominence as Shtyr', another young man with an absent father, in Chic, or The Suit (Shik), Bakhtier Khudoinazarov’s 2002 provincial comedy of maturation and dreams of leaving. He seemed less at ease as Misha, Renata Litvinova’s love interest in Balabanov’s It Doesn’t Hurt. But here, even though in the part of Lenia he is playing a man ten years his junior and is never given more than a few words to say, he is always persuasive, able to suggest his character’s inwardness and self-sufficiency through facial expression, gesture, and gait. He is effectively contrasted with Evgenii Sytyi, an actor from the Lozha Theater in Kemerovo, which was founded by Evgenii Grishkovets in 1990, in the role of the work brigade leader Roslov, a loquacious chancer who offers an object lesson in the chasm that can lie between word and deed. Sytyi, who also played the part of the train inspector who befriends the boy and his father early in Koktebel, himself improvised Roslov’s glorious Khlestakovian monologues. Khlebnikov’s other performers, including Petr Zaichenko and Boris Petrov as the members of the eccentric work brigade, Nina Semenova as Lenia’s mother, and Dar'ia Ermasova as his improbable love interest, all have the capacity to suggest a believable character without the aid of long speeches or the experience of dramatic events.

Khlebnikov’s most remarkable achievement however, something he takes even further than in Koktebel, is to tell his tale through a bold, confident renunciation of conventional artistic means. The film is structured as a succession of episodes punctuated by fades to black rather than through a developing plot, and chances to increase narrative tension are scrupulously avoided. Characters such as Lenia’s mother are suggested more often than seen or heard, and no attempt is made to produce any back story. This is also a film with minimal camera movement, containing a number of long static frontal shots in which the characters, not the camera eventually move. The cinematographer, Sandor Berkesi, who made his debut in Koktebel, repeats his signature shots of rows of motionless people, viewed in silent communion. Nor does the film rely on dialogue―whole sequences are silent, relying on the viewer to infer meaning from action or gesture. Indeed, the film’s eloquent go-getters, Kerim the shoe salesman and especially Roslov, are not to be trusted, another sign that Free Floating does not value linguistic facility. The qualities that the film both deploys in its telling and admires in its characters are rather those of reticence and laconicism. Lenia’s romantic dialogues with his beloved consist of monosyllables (“Ty cho?” ― “A ty cho?”) and tender swearwords, leavened by the occasional grunt.

Both the static camera and the absence of language recall the beginnings of cinema, and this is also evoked through the audacious decision to make a film in which there is absolutely no music. Only when the story is over and the credits are rising across the screen does Khlebnikov slily play the shliagerIl treno va,” sung by the veteran Italian crooner beloved of Slav audiences and the Slav press, Toto Cutugno. [1] The song’s lyric of the seduction and pain of leaving, “Il treno va…e va… E quasi sempre indietro non ritorni,” provides an unstated commentary on Lenia’s aspirations, just as the same singer’s “Solo Noi” had orchestrated the boy’s journey to Koktebel in the earlier film, blaring from the radio of the long-distance lorry driver who finally delivers him to the gliders’ monument. [2]

In this context, the Free Floating of the film’s title refers just as aptly to the course chosen by Boris Khlebnikov as to the wanderings of his hero, Lenia. The working title of the film was Road Works (Dorozhnye raboty), another term as suggestive of the innovative way the film works as of its plot. The film had its official Russian release in November 2006, but before that it had been shown at the Venice, Warsaw, and London film festivals, and at the Kinotavr festival, where Khlebnikov was named best director. These festival showings provoked a lively critical response, including a natural attempt to try to establish how much of the brilliance of Koktebel came from Khlebnikov and how much from Aleksei Popogrebskii, a subject not broached in the absorbing London Film Festival interview. [3] The large continuities with the earlier film have been noted above―Free Floating has the same cinematographer, Sandor Berkesi, the same producer, Roman Borisevich, the same executive producer, Andrei Murtalaziev, and the new production company behind the film is called Kinokompaniia Koktebel'―but more evidence will be available to those interested in this question after the imminent release of Popogrebskii’s Simple Things (Prostye veshchi), also made for Borisevich and Kinokompaniia Koktebel'.

Russian critics have invoked the films of Ioseliani, Daneliia, and Shukshin, Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch in their attempts to locate the essence of Free Floating,[4] and the new film shares the quirkiness, the subtlety, and the ironic good humor of those other directors. Khlebnikov himself says that it was suggested by reading Treasure Island to his son, with Lenia as Jim and Roslov as Long John Silver. [5] While it does not have the emotional power of Koktebel, this is clearly a matter of directorial choice (Khlebnikov is one of the film’s two scriptwriters), not a failure of imagination. Those looking for weaknesses in the film might suggest that the inchoate eccentricities of the Beckettian work brigade teeter on the edge of caricature, but even this is redeemed by the gentle humor it provokes. Free Floating, at the same time both a development of and a departure from the achievements of Koktebel, is a work of dazzling assurance, further fruit of a startling and original directorial talent.

Julian Graffy
University College, London


Notes

1] On Viktor Iushchenko’s recent attendance of a Cutugno concert, in preference to a Party Congress, see “Kutun'o posviatil pesniu Iushchenko” and “Iushchenko predpochel s"ezdu Toto Kuntun'o”. On Cutugno’s proposal at the age of 60 to a 20-year-old Russian singer, see “Toto Kutun'o nashel nevestu v Rossii” in Komsomol'skaia pravda.

2] Il treno va also refers to watching a black-and-white film on TV, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960), another story about moving to another place and making a new life. This is interesting in the context of the interview that Khlebnikov and Popogrebskii gave to Jason Wood during the 2004 London Film Festival, in which Khlebnikov refers to Visconti as an enduring model for him in his filmmaking. The interview is available on the DVD of the film released in Britain by Artificial Eye.

3] In this interview, as elsewhere, Khlebnikov and Popogrebskii refer to their collaboration on Koktebel as almost a chance consequence of their friendship.

4] For an interesting sample of the Russian press on the film, see arthouse.ru.

5] “‘Svobodnoe plavanie’ iz “Koktebelia” Rezhisser Boris Khlebnikov: “… I togda za chastokolom grubykh slov idet signal: ‘Ia tebia liubliu’”, Novaia gazeta 2006.


Free Floating, Russia, 2006
Color, 97 minutes
Director: Boris Khlebnikov
Scriptwriter: Aleksandr Rodionov, Boris Khlebnikov
Cinematography: Sandor Berkesi
Art Direction: Ol'ga Khlebnikova
Music: There is no music in the film. The song over the end credits is “Il treno va,” sung by Toto Cutugno
Cast: Aleksandr Iatsenko, Evgenii Sytyi, Petr Zaichenko, Boris Petrov, Dar'ia Ermasova, Nina Semenova
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Andrei Murtazaliev, Nataliia Borisevich
Production: Kinokompaniia Koktebel', with the support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema of the Russian Federation and the Hugo Bals Fund, Rotterdam

Boris Khlebnikov: Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006)

reviewed by Julian Graffy© 2007

Updated: 13 Dec 07