Issue 25 (2009)
Igor’ Vorskla: Closed Spaces (Zakrytye prostranstva, 2008)
reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2009
Closed Spaces is the first feature film made by screenwriter and director Igor’ Vorskla. It is also the first film to be released by the new production company DK, and the film’s publicity touts it as being the first emo film made in Russia. All these firsts perhaps unfairly saddle the film with great expectations, especially when considering that Vorskla (born in 1970) has already had considerable experience working in the film industry. He helped found the companies Drugoe Kino and Carmen Video, which have been involved in both the theatrical and home market distribution of a wide variety of prestige cinema, ranging from international arthouse favorites such as Run, Lola, Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998) and In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) to domestic contemporary fare such as Harvest Time (Marina Razbezhkina, 2004) and Soviet classics such as New Babylon (Grigorii Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1929). He has worked as a public relations director for Carmen and also works as a producer of the television program “Drugoe Kino” on TV3. Vorskla’s background explains much about Closed Spaces, as it is a slick, arty production with an impressive array of publicity geared toward a specific facet of the youth market. There are two extensive websites promoting the film, one in Russian and one in English, which suggest both the film’s demographic target and its international ambitions. Closed Spaces played at the 2008 Kinotavr film festival and served as the opening film of its Summer Euphoria program curated by Andrei Plakhov. Indeed, the film has all the distribution machinery for the making of a cult phenomenon. However, the film does not yet seem to have a large following, and the problem might be the film itself. Closed Spaces is, in the words of a Time Out reviewer, “good, bad, and very strange” (Koretskii). I myself find the film both intriguing and problematic.
The action of the film mostly takes place in a single closed space, a penthouse apartment in Moscow. Vika (Maria Mashkova), a sassy restaurant-delivery girl, drops off an order of pizza to Venia (Leonid Bichevin), a brooding but bright-eyed boy home all by himself. Venia traps Vika in his apartment, declares rather gleefully that he will rape and murder her, submits her to a series of grade-school tests of grammar and mathematics, and then attempts to kill himself. The tables are then turned, with Vika binding him crucifix-style and pondering a slew of sexual assaults and humiliations in retaliation. Soon our young couple is in love, as threats of rape, murder, and even cannibalism are clearly not to be taken all that seriously when they are muttered by a cute guy with great legs. Venia’s close friend Rostik (Oleg Makarov), a slightly older, fair-haired homosexual, drops by to check on Venia, and we then witness another suicide attempt and more mild bondage. Before long, however, everyone is bonding over avocado salad and wine while recounting stories from their frustrated youth.
Throughout the film, the warmly lit intimacy of the apartment is contrasted via crosscutting to life outside the apartment, shown in cold, steely blue flashbacks and flashforwards: Venia suffering a panic attack in a shopping mall, Venia meeting with his psychotherapist (Aleksandr F. Skliar), Vika wallowing in drunken suicidal misery with her broken-hearted friend Toma (Nelli Uvarova), Vika and Rostik arguing at a café. Notably, we continually return to an epic physical battle between two rotund middle-aged men, Arnol’d (Anatolii Uzdenskii) and Leonid (Aleksandr Il’in), who ferociously fight with both an intensity rooted in long-standing sibling rivalry and an absurdity rooted in their encumbering girth and poor health.
An emo sensibility definitely permeates Closed Spaces. Emo is a trend in American popular music that draws from punk rock, but gives greater attention to conveying one’s emotion, hence the name (“emo” is short for “emocore,” which is in turn short for ‘emotional hardcore’). Emo music revels in extended displays of one’s feelings and is often associated with the maudlin. Emo transcends to a way of life, and Vika sports all the requisite identifiers of emo chic: a pierced lip, chipped black fingernail polish, a satiny pink dress, clunky black high-tops, and a lock of brilliant blue and magenta hair. Venia, on the other hand, does not exactly dress the part, though to his credit he is without clothes for much of the film. He instead has more of the stereotypical emo mindset of moody hypersensitivity.
These characters are depressed and suicidal, a standard emo mode of being. As is typical of emo, the cause of this mental anguish is undefined and vaguely the result of an unsatisfying personal life. Their heightened concern and intensified feeling is decidedly apolitical, so there is no rallying against the usual injustices and outrages targeted by today’s more idealistic and informed youth, be they the sexism and homophobia of patriarchal society or the shallowness of consumerist capitalist culture (in fact, the film seems to reinforce all of these to some degree). Cynically speaking, emo portrays the ennui of the privileged, those who can afford to feel miserable. Venia manages to live in a fabulous loft, while Vika chooses to work only so that she need not live at home with her parents.
It is perhaps this absence of a ‘bigger picture’ that makes the film so curious. The sources of their malaise are they themselves, so it is difficult to see these kids as much more than self-indulgent. They all seem to blame their misery on the sins of their fathers, but these sins are never fully elaborated. The film, therefore, feels rather insular, a bit too closed. The narrative drives us toward an exploration of the coincidences and interrelations that bind these characters to each other instead of hinting at a broader ideological issue beyond the film that might explain why these characters act as they do. The motivation for Venia’s assault on Vika is revealed, but the intricacies of his dubious, though well-intentioned, logic—which the film asks us to be sympathetic to—are rather preposterous. Without a doubt, the film is beautifully shot, with a number of impressively controlled and sweeping camera movements and many striking compositions and compelling visual motifs. However, the film’s style, like its content, does not seem to reward thematic interpretation.
Closed Spaces received mixed reviews from critics, and the film has proven to be not much of a commercial success. It opened in Russia on 77 screens on 14 August 2008 and ranked 11th for that weekend with a gross of $39,912 (see boxofficemojo.com). The film fell out of the top 50 after only four weeks and ranked 239th for the year with just $137,800 in total grosses (see kinobusiness.com). Closed Spaces is unlikely to have much international play, as distributors tend to steer clear from anything described by Variety as “jejune” (Felperin). While negative reviews might imperil a full-fledged art film, the youth market is famously critic-proof. The poor commercial reception of Closed Spaces might have something to do with the film’s overt emphasis on its own emo-ness. Emo is a term both embraced and held at arm’s length by its practitioners; the emo kid wants to be recognized as emo, but does not want to be called it. Emo rock bands, which are universally acknowledged as emo, reject their own classification, so if you cannot sell emo to its own followers, then to whom can you sell it? Moreover, there is the question of authenticity, and there might be no greater or more eager a detector of a ‘poser’ than the disdaining adolescent. Upon learning that I would be reviewing Russia’s first emo film, the niece of a friend of mine—who lives in St. Petersburg and is totally emo—dismissed the film without having seen it and declared, “No, that’s not emo – it’s only all dressed up in black and pink.” The film contains several segments that feature music by Aleksandr F. Skliar (the film’s psychotherapist) and the rock group Tsvetaeva (Ц.в.е.т.а.е.в.а.). While their music is both pleasant and sufficiently emotive, it calls attention to their generic and generational distinctions. They neither look nor sound fully emo, and they are simply too old to be emo. Perhaps many in the Russian emo crowd perceived such differences as deficiencies and therefore resented and avoided the film.
It is worth noting that Closed Spaces opened on the very same weekend as Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008) and The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008). Both of these American blockbusters certainly appealed to adolescents at large, but the emo kid in particular might have been drawn to The Dark Knight for its infamous anti-hero. In the outcast, misanthropic, and makeup-friendly character of The Joker—portrayed by the smoldering, sensitive, and, most significantly, deceased Heath Ledger—the emo crowd might have found a more pleasing and visceral emo experience.
Rhode Island College
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1]See the official websites closedspacesfilm.ru and closedspacesfilm.com. Both sites contain fairly identical information: a trailer, stills from the film, cast and crew information, and outtakes. The Russian site, however, also contains a long list of links to reviews of the film and a Q&A forum for ‘Psychological Assistance.’
Felperin, Leslie, “Closed Spaces.” Variety 10 July 2008.
Greenwald, Andy, Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003).
Koretskii, Vasilii, “Zakrytye prostranstva.” Time Out 6 August 2008.
Simon, Leslie and Trevor Kelley, Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture (New York: Harper Entertainment, 2007).
Closed Spaces, Russia, 2008
Color, 95 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Igor' Vorskla
DoP: Ruslan Gerasimenkov
Production Design: Viktor Nikonenko
Costume Design: Elena Stepanova, Dar'ia Zonova
Sound: Filipp Lamshin
Music: Leonid Fedorov, Vladimir Volkov
Cast: Maria Mashkova, Leonid Bichevin, Oleg Makarov, Aleksandr Skliar, Anatolii Uzdenskii
Producer: Igor' Lebedev
Igor’ Vorskla: Closed Spaces (Zakrytye prostranstva, 2008)
reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2009