Issue 25 (2009)
Vartan Akopian: Platon (2008)
reviewed by Daniel H. Wild © 2009
Despite its surefooted stylistic confidence and exuberant visual flourish, there is a disconcerting sense of unease at work in Platon, Vartan Akopian’s skillful debut film set in a contemporary world of beautiful fashion models and powerful business men. This dilemma expresses itself both in the generic shifts that veer the film’s narrative direction from comedy to melodrama, and in its moral perspective, which the film belatedly imposes on its viewers as it traces the character development of its protagonist, a charming young pimp and entrepreneurial social operator named Platon. These shifting grounds attest to a continuing state of fragility for young adults at the end of the Putin era. As a young emerging Russian middle class grows comfortable with stability, the cautionary tale of Platon suggests that the hopes and aspirations of this new generation are not yet safely ensconced in conceptual certainty. Rather, the film confirms that the lingering worries about the tenacity of the social position this first truly post-Soviet generation has achieved leave the emerging narratives of its success still a contested imaginary terrain.
We meet Platon as he conducts his business in the stripped-down ruins of an old Lada automobile somewhere in a desolate provincial landscape. On his Apple laptop, Platon scans through a portfolio of women he has at his disposal for the benefit of a local big shot. The seemingly absurd situation of two men in an arrested state of immobility and empty space flipping through a visual catalogue of women is quickly belied by the arrival of their entourage and their vehicles, a Mercedes van and a Maserati: this is not some far-fetched and bizarre scenario, but rather a completely ordinary business moment in a time of absolute mobility, where everything can be moved and traded, and women have become just another part of the commodity exchange. With this, the film announces itself as a contemporary depiction of a market place in which glamour and beauty serve as currency and desire and companionship can be bought at a price. The truly successful business men in this environment are the ones such as Platon who understand the symbolic value of the illusions they are peddling, both to the endless parade of aspiring women who long to exchange their beauty for material success and to the men who purchase them.
At first the film revels in the effortlessness and nonchalance with which the wheeler-dealer Platon navigates the constant world of parties where sushi buffets are spread out on female bodies and human mermaids swim in aquariums. As it oscillates between an enthusiastic embrace of glamour and a slightly amused distance toward such displays of decadence, the film nonetheless aligns itself clearly with Platon, whose disarming cynicism marks a clear-eyed understanding of the market place that he is involved in. In this respect, the selection of his name would seem to be rather facetious, which would explain why the film leaves it up to an effete British intellectual to register the obvious connotation (“ah, like the philosopher,” he observes helpfully and proceeds to extemporize on beauty and “dualism”). It might be possible to consider this choice of nomenclature a more sinister reference to Platon Lebedev and its concomitant anti-Semitic insinuation of the lingering remnants of power of the “oligarchy,” but the film is too invested in a fetishizing portrayal of Platon’s daily activities to make this more than a fleeting allusion. There is no contempt for Platon and his crew of charmers who conduct casting calls for fictitious films in the countryside to collect the countless gaggles of girls who dream of the glamour of the big city. As he sees it, he is not a pimp but rather someone who organizes social connections—someone who sells happiness to those who want it through a sober evaluation of the products and then allocating his resources according to demand. The film sides with his point of view by making it obvious that all women who are drawn to this life are complicit through their desire for status and wealth and Platon merely facilitates this exchange. It is the eager willingness of young women to prostitute themselves for materialist gain that keeps his business flourishing.
His professional skills are put to the test when Platon meets Liuba, a strong-willed and beautiful young woman who regards his business transactions with amused skepticism. Liuba’s independence and free spirit earns Platon’s respect and admiration, and, as she is drawn to him, they agree to a fateful pact that hinges on the question of whether she can resist the temptations of the world he has to offer. Platon arranges for her to meet Abdul, a Caucasian captain of industry who has moved far from his village in Dagestan and who is now at home in the international world of finance in London and Moscow. When her independent spirit is broken and she realizes that Platon was right, she asks Abdul in anger to have Platon killed but rescinds at the last moment. Regrettably, Abdul cannot honor her change of heart because her request to spare Platon would mean that Abdul would have to go back on his word. Liuba offers up her life to Abdul in exchange for Platon’s life and she moves with him to London, while Platon is rewarded by Abdul with lavish fortune for Liuba. He pines for Liuba but even a visit to Abdul and her in London cannot change his circumstances and he vanishes from his chosen profession.
Akopian shows an impeccable skill for a cinematic pace and rhythm and an even more remarkable talent for understanding how filmic images can be framed: early on, a fast-paced car chase comes to an abrupt halt as viewed through a rain-soaked car window, with the rain drops pulled tightly into focus in a close-up just as another car stops in front of it. In another well-constructed scene, Platon negotiates through an open window with two skinheads on the street below because his cell phone has been thrown outside. The superb soundtrack by Arto Tunçboyaciyan, in which melancholy Turkish-Armenian folk jazz music is blended with strands of hip-hop, is indicative of a well-crafted film. But it is in the sense of how larger narrative questions should be framed that this film falters. The profundity of the tragic love story of Liuba and Platon ostensibly stands in counterpoint to the shallow illusions of crass desire that can be purchased and attained with money or beauty, but this exchange of values only has currency in the abstruse symbolic construction of the film, where a woman’s desire for wealth and security is equated with a strangely prude notion of prostitution.
“Moscow is yours” declares a disillusioned Platon to yet another group of wide-eyed nubile women from the hinterlands who throw themselves at him while an exuberant bare-breasted girl climbs out through the moon roof of his limousine to shriek a toast to herself and lifts a bottle of champagne to embrace the city with open arms and naked bosom. This disdain for the continuing hordes of provincial girls (who would very well constitute its audience) is interesting for a film that seeks to punish the very desire that it celebrates and perpetuates, but such tropes of ambivalence should not be surprising on two levels. First, nuanced analyses of gender relationships remain a topic that Russian popular culture is ill-equipped to address. Even allegedly sympathetic celebrations of autonomous female desire such as Balzac Age, or All Men are Bast… (Bal’zakovskii vozrast, ili vse muzhiki svo…, D. Fiks, 2004), not unlike the TV series Sex and the City, are invariably rendered as cartoonish representations which turn gender issues into a “slapstick comedy” framed “through a male pornographic gaze,” as Dawn Seckler has pointed out.
This male gaze is decidedly more juvenile in Platon, in which the very fundamental exploitation of women that prostitution entails is equated here with merely going to elegant restaurants and providing companionship for rich men. Ultimately, what the girls from the periphery hope to achieve by prostituting themselves, is access to “pink helicopters,” as Platon dismissively puts it a some point. Of course, as a token nod toward inclusion the film suggests that Platon also peddles men for a pathetically inept older woman and can make trannies available for those more interested in “dualism.” But such a scornful dismissal of desire also extends to the figure of Nastia, a young woman who cannot help but be drawn to Platon’s clients, even as her fiancé Anton tries to prevent her from moving into this life. Anton is the manager of a supermarket, but despite his seemingly professional success, he only has a few hundred rubles in his savings account. In exchange for letting Nastia go, Anton receives the equivalent of her worth in the market place. By the time he is forced to give in, a brand-new Infiniti SUV has been parked in his parking lot in exchange for Nastia—a bitter temptation for a member of the social class whose bourgeois arrival is defined by the well-stocked aisles that Anton presides over in his supermarket and the Ford Fiestas and Chrysler PT Cruisers that now drive through the city.
This is the second level at which the film’s symbolic value system tries to address its ideological contradictions. In the scene in which Anton lays eyes upon the car, the camera lingers on the car as an object of desire that comes at a high price; the contempt here is directed at Anton’s parents and, by extension, at their entire generation, who take the vehicle as the ultimate sign of success. Yet they are all impotent lushes who no longer have any capacity for understanding the price that comes with this success. With this we have moved squarely into the realm of melodrama, where larger social contradictions are played out as private dramas and the inability to represent the true mechanisms of oppression and control are transposed into musical interludes. The visual representations of social structures of power now have to be rendered melodramatically. To be sure, in its depiction of Moscow as a city of billboards, advertising, television monitors, and construction sites, the film faintly echoes more sophisticated reflections on the social changes in modern city life such as the Swinging London of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (UK/Italy, 1966). Other films have also attempted to capture the seismic generational shifts but in comparison to films such as Moscow (Moskva, Aleksandr Zeldovich, 1999) or Black Ice (Gololed, Mikhail Brashinskii, 2003) that attempt to depict the difficulties in times of transition with a formal rigor that periods of cultural ruptures and emotional costs demand, this film has only the means of melodrama at its disposal. It is therefore inevitable that the actual locus of patriarchal power is not occupied by Platon but by the pasha Abdul. The understanding that the real face of Abdul, the financial mogul, is a timeless and atavistic Caucasian shepherd makes sense in the melodramatic scheme of the film. It is Abdul who finally gets to define the place that Liuba can occupy. The fact that a film which ostensibly trades in the transactional symbolic exchange of illusion that determines any social relationship shifts so easily yet awkwardly back to a question of whether love and happiness are a destiny that can be attained once again underscores the importance of melodrama as a crucial contemporary genre in Russian cinema.
Daniel H. Wild
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Platon, Russia 2008,
93 minutes, color
Directed by Vartan Akopian
Written by Ametkhan Magomedov, Vartan Akopian
Cinematography by Vakhagn Ter-Khakobian
Edited by Margarita Smirnova
Costume Design by Anastasia Nefiodova
Music by Arto Tunçboyaciyan
With Pavel Volia (Platon), Elizaveta Lotova (Liuba), Mukhtar Gusengadzhiev (Abdul), Kseniia Kniazeva (Nastia), Aleksandr Lymarev (Anton).
Vartan Akopian: Platon (2008)
reviewed by Daniel H. Wild © 2009