Oksana Bychkova: Plus One (Plius odin, 2008)

reviewed by David MacFadyen© 2008

Plus One is Oksana Bychkova's follow-up to Piter FM (2007), a very successful exercise in the strict formal properties of romantic comedy. To a large degree, Plus One repeats that gesture in another town and with another age-group. As the standard promo-blurb has it:

One spring day, a world-famous puppeteer comes to Moscow: Tom Greenwood. He's going to offer young Russian artists some master-classes and then hire the best of them for his new show. Whilst in Moscow, Tom meets a translator, Masha. They're both different people, yet equally alone. A chance meeting changes both their lives: it's a rendezvous with real love, the kind that every soul is looking for…

This brief and somewhat vague sketch could—from a structural point of view—also be an outline to Bychkova's first film. The director appears to be playing things very safe, as if anticipating critical gunfire. Indeed, the troubles of following a popular, profitable debut lead to what is sometimes known as the Sophomore Slump or, in the realm of television, the Second Season Syndrome. Musicians will likewise speak in hushed, ominous tones of the “difficult second album” and other illogical troubles caused by initial brilliance. A work honed mentally for many years—without the pressures of a back-catalog—suddenly becomes a second project to be handled in a mere twelve months amid a host of audience and accounting expectations.

Worse still, these dilemmas or syndromes have been objectively quantified by sports geeks, who refer to a “regression towards the mean.” Based on the fact that seasonal performances, by their very nature, will eventually conform to average expectations over time, any dazzling display on one's debut is “bound” to fall off in the second year. Many of Bychkova's promo texts addressed this issue:

Sure, it's fair to call this a kind of lyrical comedy [like Piter FM ]. You're also correct that Plus One involves two people in a big city. Similarly, they find themselves placed face-to-face and, whether they like it or not, things between them start to get serious. But the characters here are a bit older. There are lots of comic moments in the movie! After all, this is genre cinema. (Nagornyi)

Bychkova's jumbled conclusions are also a little odd. She is aware of the sophomore slump, and immediately concedes some ground to her opponent. Rather than attribute any sameness between the movies to a dearth of creativity, she instead maintains that the given genre of both projects—romantic comedy—requires a certain sameness or predictability. Any differences are attributable to age and comedy. When talking of a narrative form that brings knowable order to disorder—as happy inevitability —any definition of age as change will be colored in less than sunny tones.

In Piter FM the problem of inevitability marked the entire film in ways that Bychkova drew or insisted upon the probability of her three-act, seven-beat structure. The poster for that first feature was a split representation of the heroes (Ekaterina Fedulova and Evgenii Tsyganov), each of them looking inwards. Maybe these were two images of the same moment? It appeared so, since the final outdoor scene of Piter FM showed the potential lovers passing each other on a canal embankment. Six of the romcom's seven traditional beats had already been played out... Fedulova and Tsyganov cast a protracted, uncertain, and therefore possibly significant glance at one another. This was the structural peak of the film, the balance between unpredictable chance and form—in other words the choice of Bychkova to fashion matters actively. Destiny and design sat side by side; choice and chance were balanced, as in all great romantic comedies. Nonetheless, the very last seconds of the film included a bizarre contrivance that hammered home an inevitable (not possible ) message. Open-ended potential became a final, if not fatal beat—right across the forehead.

This brings us to Plus One and a chance to reconsider cookie-cutter destinies. The substantial press-releases for the film are a valuable insight into Bychkova's attitudes towards defeatist lovers, feebly battling decrepitude at the advanced age of 30.

The main idea of my film is: Look Up! Everything depends upon the individual: you can stand still, staring at the puddles beneath your feet, or you can look up, towards the sky. That's beautiful in any weather! Look upwards and life will seem better! (Vse dlia pressy)

That's not the most consoling worldview: life is not better, but you can make it seem so. “Everything depends upon the individual” in that s/he is blessed with the dubious ability to choose between the puddles' depressing actuality or a vague, if not self-deluding chance to look away from the earth—a place where everything patently does not depend upon the individual!

Bychkova's co-writer Nana Grinshtein, also returning from Piter FM , stated things rather more clearly. “This is the story of a young woman… though anything ‘womanly' inside her has long since fallen asleep. Our movie is all about how she wakes up. About the way people learn to be aware of themselves—and come to terms with reality.”

This reality does not seem designed to assist our heroes. The film opens and closes with an extended shot “looking up,” albeit at an airliner, taking other people away to other places. We're stuck here with the puddles, in a place where we're not terribly keen on socializing. Tom, the English puppeteer (Jethro Skinner) , gives his cockier alter-ego a strong American accent; social poise, it seems, belongs to an entirely separate nation. The first contact he has with Masha (Madlen Dzhabrailova) is when he helps to zip her jacket up . Their shared harmony is initially not of emotional revelation, but the opposite; they enable each other's hermitic tendencies, orchestrated to the time-tested soundtrack of Alla Pugacheva's 1980 hit, “This World (Was Not Made by Us).”

Any attempts to compensate for a monastic existence and emotional poverty rapidly become overcompensation—hence the comedy: entire shopping bags are filled with obscene amounts of candy for a possible girlfriend; entire conveyer belts are covered with condoms at a supermarket check-out. What results is feeble, mildly palliative laughter for a community of suffering. The assured, witty banter of so many American romcoms is totally absent. At one point Masha travels to Tom's hotel during a bad patch: “I came here to talk,” she says. He considers that a very strange reason to drag oneself across town.

The world's dour logic does not lend itself to language: hence Tom and Masha do not connect verbally, even though she is a gifted translator. Life's rationale lies elsewhere. In describing the film's algebraic title, Bychkova noted:

Initially, Nana Grinshtein and I came up with the internet term “+1,” which means “One More Vote,” “Me, Too,” or “I Agree.” After all, that's what the film is about: one more person. You can add Tom ' s puppet , too , Diggie. But there ' s another place where “+1” is used—among lawyers. When they've put together an entire series of events as evidence, there's one irrational element (the “+1”) that can change the entire affair in some magical way.

The original cut of the film had been more than two hours in length. Eventually it was stripped down to 96 minutes, to the core elements that once again reveal the classic, naked structure of the romantic comedy. The universality of its application was highlighted by several of the film's reviewers: some Moscow publications complained that Bychkova had made Moscow look like St Petersburg, or some other town altogether. It could be anywhere. The press releases claimed proudly that “No one has filmed Moscow like this before.” Precisely: it doesn't look like Moscow .

These musings on some general, specious algebra that leads 30-year olds into chronic depression and social inadequacy bring us once again to consider the film's final scene. What degree of insistence is there in Bychkova's attempts to get Tom and Masha together? It transpires that he must leave—being a touring artist. In a taxi en route to the airport, Tom asks Masha: “Maybe I should stay?” thus passing any decision-making to his poor passenger. She says nothing. At the airport itself, Tom's puppet turns to Masha on his behalf: “You forgot to ask if he's coming back.” She concurs; she had indeed forgotten. And he doesn't answer. Consequently Tom leaves, as does Masha, albeit in a different direction: homeward.

Neither of the heroes is in a position to run their life. This begs comparison with another comment from Bychkova's press packet, all designed to placate a grumpy press corps ahead of time:

Puppets are Tom's career. Diggie, the puppet who almost never leaves his side, is a kind of stage curtain or veil for Tom and his closed nature. This is perfectly justifiable from a psychological viewpoint. There's an entire field of practice called “puppet therapy.” People discuss their problems with the puppet; what you get is a therapeutic conversation between two "voices." You go deep into your childhood; it's a game that helps you find a way out of any situation.

As Masha returns to her part of town, having lost a lover to both fate and a phobia of commitment, she encounters more puppets. Three men, dressed as huge fluffy cartoon characters, had earlier manhandled her long enough to take an “amusing” photo. She actually pays them some money and quietly peruses the snapshots of her physical frame bent out of shape by three gigantic animals. It strikes her as funny: she comes to terms with her own, puppet-like existence and smiles. In fact she laughs.

Then, in a redone scene from Piter FM, she is splashed with water. In the first movie, the heroine was swiftly soaked by an unexpected rain shower. With a quick intake of breath, she had looked to the sky with gratitude. Masha is hit in the face by a boy's water gun and she does the same. A plane flies overhead, probably with Tom on board. Thus ends a movie that was, according to the law of averages, going to be a sophomoric slump. Bychkova, aware of that danger, took out some insurance. She loaded up her vast press packet with lengthy rationales, and then refused to reinhabit the realm of self-assured, sunny youth that had brought success to the first film. Plus One is an entire story about “difficult” second chances, of sophomoric slumps into peaceful, but sadder philosophies.

As a result, Plus One has less market appeal: the characters are older, less attractive, and resigned to their fate. Nonetheless, it is a markedly more honest endeavor and Masha needn't have worried too much about Tom's inability to commit, no matter what his international schedule might decide. A medical study released this week attributes commitment-phobia to a gene found in two other places: autism patients and polygamous voles.

David MacFadyen

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Works Cited

Sergei Nagornyi, “Sluzhebno-kukol'nyi roman,” Interfaks (14 August 2008)

“Vse dlia pressy”, Telesto kinokompaniia (undated)

Plus One , Russia, 2008
Color, 96 minutes
Director: Oksana Bychkova
Scriptwriters: Oksana Bychkova, Nana Grinshtein
Cinematography: Ivan Gudkov
Art Director: Ol'ga Khlebnikova
Cast: Madlen Dzhabrailova, Jethro Skinner, Vladimir Il'in, Miroslava Karpovich, Evgenii Tsyganov, Iurii Kolokol'nikov, Pavel Derevianko, Miriam Sekhon
Producers: Elena Glikman, Iaroslav Zhivov
Production: Telesto

Oksana Bychkova: Plus One (Plius odin, 2008)

reviewed by David MacFadyen© 2008

Updated: 27 Sep 08