Dmitrii Meskhiev: 7 Stalls (7 kabinok, 2007)
reviewed by Masha Salazkina© 2008
Dmitrii Meskhiev's new film, 7 Stalls, has been advertised as an “anti-glamour comedy” (anti-glamurnaiia komediia)—a phrase that is certainly worth a preliminary comment. Presumably, “anti-glamour” refers to Viktor Pelevin's widespread discussions of “glamour discourse” (diskurs glamura) in contemporary Russian culture, with its obligatory celebration of the total commodification of human interactions, a postmodern version of the film noir moral universe of post-Soviet reality. Its genre (comedy) exposes the film's “blockbuster” ambitions. Given labeling this obvious, it is no surprise that almost every reviewer of the film feels obliged to mention Quentin Tarantino as the film's “hip” parameter, ranging from such description of the project as the “poor man's Tarantino” (Sirivlia) or “pretending to be Tarantino” (“rabotat' pod Tarantino”; Korneev) to “finishing Tarantino off” (“dobit' Tarantino”; Gladil'schikov). At the same time, as the film is publicized as a mimicry of Tarantino, most of the reviewers, as well as the journalists interviewing Meskhiev, make it a talking point to discuss the film in terms of the category of genre-cinema (zhanrovoe kino) or blockbuster (russkii blokbaster), which contrasts with Meskhiev's earlier films—in particular Our Own (Svoi, 2004), the winner of that year's Moscow International Film Festival  —all of which belong to the more traditional category of auteur films (avtorskoe kino) or, alternatively, the Soviet cinematic tradition (a connotation further reinforced by the fact that Meskhiev's father was a famous Thaw-period cameraman on films by Vladimir Motyl' and Gennadii Shpalikov, among others).
In other words, the question that haunts reviewers of 7 Stalls seems to be “what kind of a film is this?” Rather than anything specific to the film itself, it is the coded narrative that presents us with the familiar duality of (on the one hand) the heavy, artistic, and Soviet, and, (on the other hand) the light, the commercial, and the Americanized, with the two sides related by metanoia—the term employed by early Christians to designate the “change of heart” or conversion of the pagan. Given the film's very modest commercial success and even more modest critical reception (displaying an unusual uniformity among professional critics and bloggers alike), this may be a justified approach—even the most well-disposed viewers must be struck, upon watching the film, by an overwhelming sense of self-conscious imitation. But imitation of what?
The claustrophobic plot of the film revolves around a search by several competing parties—as well as their accidental hostages—for an “important disk” in the women's toilet (under reconstruction) in a Moscow nightclub. The events play out predictably, as though dictated by the movie-ness of the movie, and, as well, they are predictably lacking in logical motivation. Most of the film is restricted to this limited space of the seven stalls (the title of the film), one of which contains the disk, and the not very promising environs. Quite a few deaths occur, quite a few gags in-between (including the reanimation of a corpse, a drug-induced hallucination, an almost-blind bathroom attendant who interrupts the culminating stand-off without realizing what she has witnessed, and quite a few bathroom jokes stimulated, inevitably, by the location of the drama). The film is also punctuated with a series of flashbacks with the present moment being “rewound” back to the event, from which the present state of things originated. The constricted space is dealt with by an unnerving number of jump cuts, primarily of extreme close-ups from “unexpected” angles. But what is most striking about the film is its extreme theatricality: the almost-expressionist make up and costumes, intentionally stilted and literary-sounding dialogue, almost Dostoevskian in its pathos and inappropriateness to the reality of the situation or the cultural or psychological make-up of the characters, who deliver lines of such forced pretentiousness as almost to approximate the willful artificiality of Kira Muratova's films. Everything here strives towards the uncanny and distanced to the same degree that Our Own strove towards spectatorial immersion. In fact, it is the theatrical artifice, at times resembling the look of a Fassbinder film (with the gaudy, smudged make-up and the flabby carnality of the heroines ineptly “performing sexuality”) that almost makes the film succeed as a Grand Guignol comedy, and is far more interesting than its myriad jump-cuts of character's ears, mouths, shoes, the stall's doorknobs, and the details of the limited toilet furniture accessories, a jumble that is as formulaic as it is pointless. It is the unconsummated marriage of ironic late-capitalist auteur cinema to MTV aesthetics—and, frankly, this is not a consummation to be wished. But the best answer to the initial question of “what kind of a film it is” can probably be found in Garrett Stewart's most recent book, Framed Time: Toward a Postfilmic Cinema. In it Stewart examines the narrative patterns of many recent US and European films that have attempted to encode the technological shift from film to digital, solving the anxieties created by the new medium through the materialization of a new mode of visuality, which Stewart designates, alluding to Deleuze, as “either an extreme limit or as a sudden break with the whole regime of the post-war ‘time-image'.” He describes these films in terms of their “multilayered temporality that flashes before us as elastic, permeable, and ambivalent—a temporality whose mutable cast is itself conveyed by computer imaging as well as by digital editing” (59). What is often at stake in these films is memory itself: “a map of once-lived and now-virtual time whole pathways of recall … are imagined before us by retracing and erasure at once” (126). In 7 Stalls, each stall serves as a unit of memory, rewinding and forwarding in time in the face of the very annihilation of temporality (death, or a dead body which each stall contains), allowing characters to defy temporality, performing resurrections of sorts through this dual apparatus of retracing and erasing history. It comes as no surprise, then, that the core of the narrative and the elusive object of desire is itself a disk with digital data—the sign of a new way of constructing memory and reality—a situation that perhaps nowhere resonates as strongly as in contemporary Russia.
So, in the final analysis, just as Meskhiev's previous film attempted to simulate history with its brownish, grainy, digital palette (resulting not in an evocation of history, but its rewriting as a series of erasures), so, too, the deeper narrative of 7 Stalls is closed not so much in its presentation of the ironic triumph of the leading “innocent” couple (complete with a declaration of love in the prospect of the financial gains from the disk), but rather in the final, inexplicable resurrection of the very first body, warranted only by the malleable use of screen history.
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1]For a discussion of Our Own, see Prokhorova.
Gladil'shchikov, Iurii. “Dobit' Tarantino.” Russkii Newsweek (7 February 2007).
Korneev, Roman. “Ochen' strashnoe kino.” Kinokadr.Ru (7 February 2007).
Prokhorova, Elena. “Dmitrii Meskhiev's Our Own aka Us and Ours [ Svoi ] (2004).” KinoKultura 7 (January 2005).
Sirivlia, Natal'ia. “Chelovecheskoe, slishkom chelovecheskoe…” Iskusstvo kino 2 (2007).
Stewart, Garrett. Framed Cinema: Toward a Postfilmic Cinema. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.
7 Stalls, Russia, 2007
Color, 92 minutes
Director: Dmitrii Meskhiev
Scriptwriter: Nikita Piterskii
Cinematography: Aleksandr Dem'ianenko
Art Director: Nataliia Kochergina
Music: Sviatoslav Kurashov
Cast: Oleg Andreev, Pavel Badyrov, Ol'ga Lysenkova, Khel'ga Filippova, Kristina Kuz'mina, Sergei Kozik, Artur Vakha, Fedor Bondarchuk, Mikhail Evlanov, Aleksandr Iatsenko, Natal'ia Burmistrova, Natal'ia Surkova, Aleksei Barabash, Sergei Peregudov
Producer: Vadim Goriainov, Dmitrii Meskhiev, Valerii Todorovskii
Production: Krasnaia Strela Film Company and Cherepakha Film Company
Dmitrii Meskhiev: 7 Stalls (7 kabinok, 2007)
reviewed by Masha Salazkina© 2008