Andrei Konchalovskii: Gloss (Glianets, 2007)

reviewed by Sasha Razor © 2008

Bandits, Oligarchs, and Provincial Girls! Oh, My!

The tagline for Andrei Konchalovskii's Gloss identifies the film as a tragicomedy, or, more precisely, “a bitter comedy about sweet life.” Its loosely related subplots are stitched together by the protagonist, Galia (Iulia Vysotskaia), a seamstress from Rostov who moves to Moscow in the hope of becoming rich and famous. Galia's dreams, however, are shattered immediately upon arriving at the offices of Beauty magazine, where she is told that she does not have the physique of a model. Thus, the heroine resorts to her previous occupation, but this time she is making “the best buttonholes in the country” for Mark Shiffer, a fashion designer played by Efim Shifrin. Vitek, Galia's bandit ex-boyfriend, follows her to Moscow where he uses his underworld connections to deposit her on the catwalk. Fired after a disastrous debut, Galia is then offered a new job as housekeeper for Petia (Gennadii Smirnov), a notorious “supplier” of women for Russia's richest men. This sad situation endures until Galia scores a chance “to marry well” to an oligarch, Mikhail Klimenko (Aleksandr Domogarov).

The Russian title of the film—Glianets—refers to all things stunning on the glossy pages of popular magazines. Yet, viewers are presented with two contesting notions of what exactly should belong to this glam world. Take, for example, Marina (Irina Rozanova), Beauty' s chief editor, who maintains that in her magazine everything has to be “white and fluffy” or, in other words, unfashionably conformist. Her daughter Nastia (Ol'ga Arntgol'ts), on the contrary, plays l'enfant terrible by concocting subversive ad campaigns to increase the hipness of upcoming editions. In a similarly insubordinate manner, Mark Shiffer's consultant Stas (Aleksei Serebriakov) declares the new season's collection to be démodé and suggests recourse to a shock factor, both by using male models in female clothing and naming the collection 100% Shit.

In both of these rebellious cases, épater le bourgeois tactics are specifically associated with Western trends that allegedly increase a product's market value. Once transplanted onto Russian soil, though, the deliberately shocking excrement motif recodes its signification. By playing glossy white fluffiness against the raw textures in demand, the director brings us full circle: Cool + Shit = Sells , and so Cool + Sold = Shit. This “reincarnation” of organic matter exposes the ideology not only of the magazine, but of Konchalovskii's cinematic production as well.

As is often the case with films produced in Russia, the rhetoric of their creators does not match the ideological message on screen. In his interview with Rossiiskaia Gazeta, Konchalovskii frames his motivation for the film in terms of revealing the difference between real life and ostentation to those Russian viewers who may live in poverty yet escape into fantasy by reading glossy magazines (Alperina). Judging from this statement, the director's intent is to educate Russia's poor about the realities of their human condition. Their misery is continually contrasted with an array of Beigbederian characters who soar above the masses, exemplifying the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

To this poverty we can also add idiocy, because—as the editor of Beauty tell us—“Intelligent people don't read glossy magazines, they publish them.” Since Gloss also shows us that poor people read these periodicals en masse, let us suspend judgment on the intellectual prowess of Russia's populace and investigate instead what these reading practices might signify.

In the early 1990s, glossy magazines aimed to embody both liberal values and freedom of speech, all the while inviting readers to embrace the early capitalist dream. When, however, we consider the devastating economics of that decade, it seems possible to say that the first post-Soviet glossies led the general populace to derive jouissance from the consumption of representations rather than any tangible products (Bocharova). In time, though, with a relative increase in the standard of living, these same commodities became more accessible. Consequently, the symbolic domain embodied by the images of luxury goods began to shrink: symbols became things. It is precisely this shift that we see in Gloss: Galia's desire to consume propels her to move to Moscow, where she can hopefully access the life-style advertized on paper.

In the opening sequence of the film, we indeed see Galia and her friend Zhanna, a wannabe post-modernist writer, in their khrushchevka apartment [1]: both of them are mesmerized by a TV commercial for “Ia” fruit juice (“Me” in Russian). This commercial, repeated as a motif, stimulates Galia to move away and, later, to offer herself to a potential fiancé at the end of the film. By introducing an initially marginal protagonist who does not have the means to be a consumer, yet nonetheless strives physically to access a life-style beyond any glossy representation, Konchalovskii's project bridges these two stages of consumption. Thus, the director moves beyond the realm of the symbolic into a “better” reality, yet simultaneously evokes a bizarre nostalgia for the early, cruel 1990s.

Closer examination of the film's aesthetic modes reveals an equally odd association with the subtexts of an earlier period. Konchalovskii's caricatured representation of actuality, as opposed to any veneer, anachronistically evokes the even earlier cinematic style known as chernukha—the grim portrayals of perestroika and the late 1980s. Everything about Galia's life in Rostov reads as a parody of chernukha: the squalid urban landscape of khrushchevki, her abusive, degenerate mother and her emaciated, psychotic father. Underscoring these parallels, the director also shows us the paternal figure in a drunken bout. Zhanna, who stops by to visit Galia's parents before her departure to Moscow, even sees this sorry specimen set himself on fire while sipping from a traditional jar of moonshine; he drinks with one hand and uses the other to cover his genitals with an aluminum hand-wash basin. Galia's obtuse, criminal ex-boyfriend completes the picture. This is not to say that the characters of the film are without real-life prototypes. However, this ultra-modern grotesqueness or chronologically inverted representation of the provinces undermines any possible authenticity. In other words, Konchalovskii's claim to educate his audience about “real” life through humor is highly compromised by his crude reductionism.

This same reductionism, a product of tensions between the film's aesthetic modes, has a second consequence. The underlying populist ideology of Gloss, its message for the impoverished, paradoxically reinvests the “low” social stratum with a sense of agency. On a symptomatic level, Konchalovskii's notions of actuality are firmly grounded in several popular mythologies born of escalating social differentiation, as well as the related, growing gap between the center and the periphery. These myths include the following: in Moscow, one can purportedly become rich and famous, albeit at great moral cost; the modeling business is akin to prostitution; everything can be bought or sold; and rich people are unhappy. These clichés are designed to hand over a sense of moral supremacy to Russia's poor—ironically, that is, to the social element that is so radically misrepresented. Simultaneously, therefore, they also validate the status quo of their economic oppression.

These oddities increase with the development of another theme peculiar to the cinema of chernukha : the portrayal of a deteriorating feminine condition that was pioneered by Vasilii Pichul's Little Vera (Malen'kaia Vera, 1988) and Piotr Todorovskii's Intergirl (Interdevushka, 1989). At first glance, provincial Galia may appear to be a strong character, imbued with a voice of her own. Exuberant and ambitious, she certainly does not hesitate to declare “You're not my passenger” to any undesirable partner who does not fit her “life plan.” This idiom indicates that she perceives herself as a driver, while men serve as vehicles to reach her goals. Nonetheless, this power relationship is reversed by the end of the film. Mikhail Klimenko, a prototypical oligarch, offers one million dollars for a Grace Kelly look-a-like. His requirements are met by converting a Rostov brunette into a Hollywood blonde. This symbolic change in hair color marks a new perception of the protagonist: she is no longer an independent entrepreneur, a practitioner of sexual liberalism, but a commodity to be sold. Although she struggles internally, Galia is willing to objectify herself in this way to secure her future social ascension.

The reasons that Galia makes these tragic choices are numerous. First of all, the director presents her with such limited options that she cannot develop a true sense of agency. Besides moving to Moscow and finding her first job, we do not see any sustained efforts on Galia's part to transcend her social conditioning. Things happen to her as they do to the heroines of Latin-American soap operas: she falls into the familiar rubric of an ordinary maid matched with a rich fiancé. This representational practice epitomizes Konchalovskii's clumsy attempt to fictionalize Galia. “They write books about women like me,” she says when offering herself to the oligarch. And then, sadly, she makes a briefer parenthetical remark: “What a beautiful house… what a whore… the only thing missing is a cigar in her mouth.” Things will not end well. Taking into consideration this divergence in the film's two aesthetic modes—between gloss and chernukha—its open-ended finale is not surprising. Viewed through the prism of a deteriorating feminine condition, Galia is shot dead by Vitek, who is, coincidently, the bodyguard of her potential fiancé.

Just in case viewers are dismayed by this scenario, Konchalovskii also offers a second, more conventional Hollywood happy ending, albeit tainted: the sublime fusion of the real and the desired finally takes place and Galia marries Klimenko. She draws media attention at the Moscow Millionaires' Fair and Beauty publishes her photo. Crowning this world of representations, as if a socialist realist heroine, her trajectory shoots from a ghastly low-resolution snapshot on the back cover of Komsomolka to the glossy cover of a leading magazine. A transitional figure between Intergirl and the heroines of Oksana Robski, Konchalovskii's Galia “successfully” overcomes all obstacles. As Beauty 's editor postulates, this moment of glory is achieved “at life's cost, through suffering and humiliation.”

This success, however, is quickly spoiled. The closing sequence also acts as a directorial conclusion: we see Galia's picture on a garbage dump. Shredded and recycled, this material might, perhaps, become the source for future stories that place marginal female protagonists at the forefront of social problems—devoid of any chernukha. There may be cause for hope if we hypothesize what might have happened if Galia had been younger and prettier: in that case, half the challenges she faces here would simply not exist. Would that also have made Konchalovskii's Gloss entirely different?

Sasha Razor
University of California, Los Angeles

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Notes

1] Khrushchevki is the term used to designate the ubiquitous five-storey apartment houses built across the Soviet Union during the reign of Nikita Khrushchev as a way of coping with the ongoing housing crisis. Built with a life expectancy of twenty years, these buildings—long rundown, dirty, cramped, and faceless—continue to dominate the urban landscape of most Russian cities and have acquired the more contemptuous slang designation of trushchobki (slums).

 


Works

Alperina, Susanna. “Polnyi Glianets.” Rossiiskaia gazeta (23 June 2006).

Bocharova, Alena. “Tolshche ne byvaet. Chto prodaet glianets segodnia.” Alternativnaia Kultura (15 August, 2006).

 


Gloss, Russia, 2007
Color, 117 minutes
Director: Andrei Konchalovskii
Scriptwriters: Andrei Konchalovskii, Dunia Smirnova
Cinematography: Maria Solov'eva
Production design: Ekaterina Zaletaeva
Music: Boris Frumkin
Cast: Iulia Vysotskaia, Irina Rozanova, Aleksei Serebriakov, Aleksandr Domogarov, Efim Shifrin, Il'ia Isaev, Gennadii Smirnov, Ol'ga Arntgol'ts, Andrei Noskov
Producers: Andrei Konchalovskii, Evgenii Stepanov, Aleksandr Brovarets, Ol'ga Vasil'eva
Production: Andrei Konchalovskii Producing Center, Studiocanal-Cadran Production-Motion Investment Group, Backup Films

Andrei Konchalovskii: Gloss (Glianets, 2007)

reviewed by Sasha Razor © 2008

Updated: 20 Mar 08