Issue 26 (2009)
Ivan Dykhovichnyi: Europe-Asia (Evropa-Aziia, 2008)
reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2009
Europe-Asia opens with a scene to which critics of contemporary Russian popular culture might not object: Kseniia Sobchak—daughter of former St. Petersburg mayor Anatolii Sobchak, the social equivalent of America’s Paris Hilton—is struck and thrown by a speeding car. So begins Ivan Dykhovichnyi carnival of the absurd, which layers obscenity and the grotesque over an increasingly illogical plot. The film opens with a simple heist: somewhere in Russia, on an isolated stretch of road across from a stele marking the border between Europe and Asia, a group of swindlers have staged a wedding. Almost all the film’s action takes place in this one spot, which may or may not be the true meeting point of the continents—the stele has been planted, though an under-construction pavilion does exist. Although they are tethered to one location, unlike Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, Dykhovichnyi’s characters have no time for contemplation. As part of their theatrical ambush, the mother of the bride (the film debut of television personality Tat'iana Lazareva) lures passing motorists to a stop with vodka and salad. After plying their victims with alcohol and Russian wedding traditions (“there is nothing more nonsensical and pitiless than a Russian wedding,” a character notes), the constructed family solicits gifts for the newlyweds. In the day’s most elaborate act of deception, they request money for fertility treatment: the groom is posing as an invalid, having lost his ability to reproduce in a circus accident.
Based on the 2000 play of the same name by the Presniakov brothers, the film was shot over a thirty-day period in the northern city of Vyborg (Korneeva). Dykhovichnyi was initially interested in adapting Oleg' and Vladimir Presniakov’s novel Kill the Referee (Ubit' sud'iu, 2005), “but for that we needed four million dollars,” Dykhovichnyi admitted in an interview, “and the producer did not give us that kind of money” (“Fashisty—eto militsiia”). Unlike the play, which is not nearly as digressional, the plot of the film is centered more on individual episodes than on traditional narrative development. This snapshot approach to plot is mirrored by the cinematography and post-production effects. Characters come together and pause as if for portraits, and the use of bird’s-eye views and split screens gives the impression that we are indeed documenting “a show,” as the lyrics to the film’s title song suggests.
Many scenes appear to have been chosen for the sake of citation alone, and the film jumps back and forth between references to high and low culture, with often disconnected segments lingering on celebrity cameos and cultural allusions. Besides opening and closing with a seemingly superfluous subplot involving Sobchak, the film includes a lengthy scene with Leningrad front man Sergei Shnurov. The opening song was composed for the film by Shnurov, who sings along with his own music in a moment of self-reference before pulling over to drink with the newlyweds.
Even the structure of the film is organized according to chapters, or snapshots, which refer directly to great works of literature. These include reproducing the titles of Viktor Astaf'ev’s short novel The Sad Detective (Pechal'nyi detektiv, 1982-1985/1986), Aleksandr Pushkin’s “The Shot,” (Vystrel, 1831), Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (Geroi nashego vremeni, 1839), and Anton Chekhov’s “Lady with a Lapdog” (“Dama s sobachkoi,” 1899). Literary allusions also leak into the dialogue of the film. Lazareva’s monologues do not only replicate (literally) Sharlotta Ivanovna’s soliloquies in The Cherry Orchard (Vishnevyi sad, 1904), but at one point the mother of the bride confesses to a group of tourists dressed as Elvis: “It was me who killed the old pawnbroker!”.
Of the film’s popular culture citations, the most obvious is the appearance of the Russian-language version of a recent McDonald’s campaign, “I’m lovin’ it” [Vot chto ia liubliu], on a garbage can: first as the group of Elvis impersonators file out of their tour bus, and later, at the end of the film, after the bus is blown up in a shoot-out with a rival band of thieves. But while recent films like Timur Bekmambetov’s Irony of Fate. Continuation (Ironiia sud'by. Prodolzhenie, 2007) and Evgenii Bedarev’s New-Year Tariff (Tarif novogodnii, 2008) have been censured for appearing more like extended commercials than feature-length films, Europe-Asia never takes its citations past the level of pure superficiality, maintaining a synchronic approach to narrative throughout.
Aesthetically, the film is a departure from Dykhovichnyi’s earlier body of work. It does not try to be visually stunning, as in Moscow Parade (Prorva, 1992), or overtly reflective, like Inhale-Exhale [Vdokh-Vydokh, 2006]. While Vida Johnson remarked that Dykhovichnyi’s use of water in Inhale-Exhale was reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovskii’s inclination to the element, in Europe-Asia the series of bog fight scenes remind us only of the film’s preoccupation with quotation—this time, referring the viewer to the sub-genre of the “underwater thriller,” like Anaconda (Luis Llosa, 1997) and What Lies Beneath (Robert Zemeckis, 2000). As part of this watery subplot, while the wedding party is scamming tourists, a police officer, assigned to investigate the increase of drunk-driving accidents in the area, is attacked in a forest swamp by a young girl identified only as “Little Red Riding Hood” [Krasnaia Shapochka]. As she flies toward him in slow motion, their impending struggle parodies Andy and Larry Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy, as well as recent martial arts thrillers such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (dir. Ang Lee, 2000). After several such parodies, the film quickly begins to resemble the sub-genre of the cultural citation comedy, such as the four installments of Scary Movie (Keenen Ivory Wayans, 2000 and 2001; David Zucker, 2003 and 2006), or The Best Film I (Samyi luchshii fil'm I; Kirill Kuzin, 2008) and II (Oleg Fomin, 2009).
Another such disconnected scene features a Hungarian pilot and stewardess who pass by singing a sexually explicit song after leaving their flaming aircraft in the woods. How they came to end up in that spot, or what happened to the other passengers on board, is not broached. Like the sub-plot surrounding “Little Red Riding Hood,” the segment is never resolved. Instead, Dykhovichnyi noted in an interview that it was precisely the obscene content of the song that drew him to the scene (“Fashisty”). The song was deemed so crude, in fact, that it was left in the original Hungarian so as not to embarrass viewers. “We simply do not have that kind of profanity [in Russian],” he explained (“Fashisty”).
Although we might be inclined to consider the film in spite of its preoccupation with sex organs and bodily fluids, the director is quick to hail some of the more shocking scenes as integral to the production’s overall message. For Dykhovichnyi, the goal was not just to create a comedy that would speak to the director and his fans, but a film about ordinary people and problems that would appeal to the general public (see “Ivan Dykhovichnyi snial…”). Specifically, Dykhovichnyi speaks of what he sees as the crisis of work ethic in Russia—“the astonishing ability of Russians to act as if they were working,” as he describes it (“Ivan Dykhovichnyi”). Just as in the Presniakov Brothers’ play Terrorism, [Terrorizm, 2000], which, according to Michael Billington, “extends the definition of ‘terrorism’ to embrace most of modern Russian life,” in Dykhovichnyi’s rendering of Europe-Asia the problem of “work” is stretched to the absurd and infused with the grotesque of the everyday. Though the characters spend the entire day in one spot, they are unsuccessful at gaining any profit off their production: Shnurov has no bills on his person, the police officer can offer only the cufflinks of a corpse, and instead of money the passerby Kasik volunteers himself as a sperm donor for the newlyweds. Furthermore, while the goal of their heist is to improve the conditions of their lives—“Yes, the times are terrible, but it won’t get any better, so let’s mobilize,” one character exclaims—the majority of the film’s action is spent on distraction from the task at hand: a plane crash, a truck crash, a kidnapping, competition with a rival gang, and the allure of a robot dog. An absence of results resounds. It is fitting, thus, that in lieu of narrative closure, the absurdity culminates in a twister that picks up all the characters and blows them away.
Upon first viewing, one might be hard pressed to disagree with the director, who has admitted that, on the surface, his film takes the form of a “trash” comedy. However, in interviews Dykhovichnyi is quick to emphasize Europe-Asia’s larger questions: “Where is it that we are living? Who are we?,” and “How should one live when he has one leg in Europe and the other in Asia” (“Ivan Dykhovichnyi snial…”). Although in the film these Chaadaevian queries are not posed nearly as politely, for Dykhovichnyi they are persistent and undeniable elements of contemporary Russian culture, not unlike Sobchak, who, in the film’s final frame, gets up, wipes herself off, and continues down the road.
University of Pittsburgh
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1] In 2006 Oleg and Vladimir Presniakov’s play Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2002) was adapted into a film by Kirill Serebrennikov. See the film’s official site.
Billington, Michael. “Terrorism.” The Guardian (15 March 2003).
“Fashisty—eto militsiia.” Interview with Ivan Dykhovichnyi at Kinotavr Film Festival (2009).
“Ivan Dykhovichnyi snial komediiu absurda Evropa-Aziia.” Snob 14 January 2009.
Johnson, Vida. “Review of Ivan Dykhovichnyi’s Inhale-Exhale.” KinoKultura 15 (January 2007).
Korneeva, Irina. “Izobrazhaia svad'bu.” Rossiiskaia gazeta (10 June 2009).
Europe-Asia, Russia, 2009
Color, 84 minutes
Director: Ivan Dykhovichnyi
Screenplay: Presniakov Brothers
Cinematography: Eduard Mel'nikov
Art Director: Igor' Karev
Sound: Andrei Khudiakov
Music: Sergei Shnurov
Editing: Elena Afanas'eva
Cast: Tat'iana Lazareva, Ol'ga Medynich, Dmitrii Dykhovichnyi, Kseniia Katalymova, Nodari Dzhanelidze, Sergei Shnurov, Svetlana Obidina, Ivan Urgant, Kseniia Sobchak
Producers: Nikita Klebanov
Ivan Dykhovichnyi: Europe-Asia (Evropa-Aziia, 2008)
reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2009