Igor' Voloshin: Nirvana (2008)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2008

Igor' Voloshin's debut feature film Nirvana opened in July 2008 to less than half full screening halls, a fact at least partially explained by its doomed competition with Hollywood summer blockbusters, which included Timur Bekmambetov's American debut, Wanted (2008). Nirvana's pre-release performance in festival circuits, however, marks it as a film worthy of notice. The film received a prize at the Kinotavr film festival in the category “Best Debut” and was screened both at the Berlin and Moscow International Film Festivals.

Artsy (or at least “culty”) in style and targeting primarily young audiences, Nirvana follows the nurse Alisa (Ol'ga Sutulova), who leaves Moscow for St. Petersburg in search of a different life. She rents a room in a dilapidated but once grand apartment, next to a couple of “quiet” teenage junkies. Her affair with her neighbor, nicknamed “Dead Man” (Artur Smol'ianinov), leads to violent confrontations with his miniature lover Vel (Mariia Shalaeva), a heavy-duty heroin addict. The girls' mutual hostility, however, transforms into a strong bond, especially when the two have to raise money to rescue Dead Man from his creditor. Having lost Vel, who dies of an overdose after Dead Man betrays her, Alisa “re-unites” with her friend in a heroin-induced Nirvana, and then leaves St. Petersburg.

A drama of love and drug addiction, a gangster thriller, and a buddy film are all rolled into one. As both critics and fans note, each of these narrative threads in the film borrows freely from a plethora of Western models (“Nirvana,” Tsybul'skii). Even Nirvana 's cyber-punk stylistic execution—from the musical soundtrack to the outrageous costumes, make-up and hairdos—“lives on borrowed time,” to use a quote from the film (courtesy, e.g. of Liquid Sky [Slava Tsukerman, 1982]). The argument for the lack of originality, however, is both shallow and misdirected. In fact, it is Nirvana 's link to Russian models that is of interest here: Rashid Nugmanov's The Needle (Igla, 1988), Valerii Todorovskii's Land of the Deaf (Strana glukhikh, 1998), and Aleksei Balabanov's Brother (Brat, 1997) and Brother-2 (Brat 2, 2000). Released in the decade that saw the collapse of both the Soviet Union and a coherent national identity, these film ushered in both a new storyline and a new style, of young people wandering amidst the debris of cultural landscapes: objects, words, emotions, motivations. It is to this conceptualist tradition that Nirvana 's characters trace their ancestry. The dialogue reads like an alphabet of civilization: Moscow is all “bustle, money, and aggressive people”; Petersburg is a “tough, beastly city, where people have dismal dreams”; 1990s is the time of “bananas, snickers bars, Mickey D's.” But in Nirvana, these words stop being simple metaphorical motifs, just like the characters' cyberpunk appearance points not at the dystopian future but to the site of psychic trauma. The fragments of civilizations pummel the young characters' bodies, write on them in the manner of Kafka's needle in Penal Colony: their bodies and faces are deformed, scarred, fragmented, dying.

Voloshin's and his cameraman Dmitrii Iashonkov's choices for shot composition are flawless. Moscow consists of splotches of neon lights, accompanied by dehumanizing, pulsating techno music. St. Petersburg is the bluish tint of a rainy day, monochromatic shots of the Neva embankments, dreary apartments whose enormous space underscores the dystopian mise-en-scène: post-apocalyptic kitchens; a mattress with heroin accoutrements; a stately living room with a burnt-out car as the centerpiece. The editing rhythm underscores the disjointed lives: close-ups of objects and fragmented bodies; music video style editing of club scenes and violent confrontations; long tracking shots of characters on empty streets, nature crying over them in pointless pathetic fallacy, smudging the paint on their faces.

The key scene of Nirvana is Alisa's and Vel's bonding over vodka and their shared recollections of Soviet childhood as paradise lost. Little artifacts stand for the total picture: grandma's wooden stick that prevented hopper windows (fortochka) from shutting; the book about Mummy Troll; Soviet-era soda machines (3 kopecks with syrup, 1 kopeck without, one glass for everybody). The nostalgic overtones of the conversation seem grotesque coming from two punk-clan girls, barely 18 years old. Shot in tight close-ups of wildly painted faces, the scene rises to a crescendo with “And then it all ended,” before enunciating clearly the motif that has been fluttering around: love. All they need is love. Everything begins and ends with it. Love hurts. You are wearing your love/pain on your sleeve, your face, your body. Women are as tough as nails, except for their broken hearts; men are weak except for their monopoly on money, guns, and women's pity.

Narrative and stylistic clichés are indeed plentiful in this “conventional story about drug addiction and the redemptive power of female friendship” which, moreover, “takes itself a little too seriously” (Felperin). What redeems the picture, in this reviewer's opinion, is that it is character-centered, with solid performances by the young actors who, like their heroes, are learning to listen and to love. So, is this, perhaps, new romanticism that is emerging in Russian cinema? After all, that is what the film is about: the dismal “here” and the unattainable “there”— the imaginary cozy Soviet childhood; the countryside where “Dead Man” promises to take Vel but never does; the nirvana of understanding.

There is only one old character in this film: Tat'iana Samoilova, unrecognizable under layers of make-up. Samoilova's melodramatic heroines epitomized psychic laceration of an individual whose pain spoke to the viewer through the wall of Soviet ideology. Her acting career came to a halt after the popularity of Cranes Are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957) and Anna Karenina (dir. Aleksandr Zarkhi, 1967). In Nirvana, as she gives Alisa the money for Dead Man's ransom, she calls the girl her granddaughter. Time will show whether this is just a wishful thinking on Voloshin's part, or Russian cinema will finally emerge from a long crisis.

Elena Prokhorova
College of William and Mary

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Works Cited

Felperin, Leslie. “Nirvana,” Variety 23 February 2008

“Nirvana”, Kultura-Portal

Tsybul'skii, Vladimir. “Pliaski s maskami”, Drugaya.ru 27 June 2008

Nirvana, Russia, 2008
Color, 90 min
Director: Igor’ Voloshin
Script: Olga Larionova
Camera: Dmitrii Iashonkov
Design: Pavel Parkhomenko
Costume design: Nadezhda Vasil’eva
Make-Up and Hair Design: Anna Esmont
Original Music: Aleksandr Kopeikin
Cast: Ol’ga Sutulova, Mariia Shalaeva, Artur Smol’ianinov, Mikhail Evlanov, Tat’iana Samoilova
Producer: Sergei Sel’ianov
Production: CTB Film Company

Igor' Voloshin: Nirvana (2008)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2008

Updated: 15 Oct 08