Issue 27 (2010)
Il’ia Demichev: Crawfishlike (Kakraki, 2009)
reviewed by Masha Kowell © 2010
“A drama of lost expectations:” this is how Il’ia Demichev (b. 1978, Moscow), a screenwriter and director, describes his film, Crawfishlike. Chosen to participate in the competition for the best debut at the prestigious Venice Film Festival and a recipient of two awards at the Window to Europe Film Festival, Demichev’s work, however, reaches beyond the individual “drama” of a corrupt bureaucrat, Mikhail Mikhailovich Ponomarev (Paikova). Rather, it resolves on the screen as a powerful, intricately delineated metaphor of the corruption that has pervaded Medvedev/Putin’s society at every level. The society itself emerges as seemingly capitalist-like—a shell-version of what it officially purports to be. Combining elements of comedy and tragedy, the film embodies an incisive social parody modeled after the writing of Nikolai Gogol, the celebrated nineteenth century satirist and a founder of critical realism in Russian literature. Throughout the film, Demichev offers reverential nods to Gogol either through literal allusion to his name or through indirect quotation of Gogol’s famous story “The Overcoat“ (1842). In that story, while managing to incite sympathy, Gogol mocks the petty concerns of a minor tsarist bureaucrat, Akakii Akakievich, who finds ultimate happiness in buying a winter coat, which is eventually stolen from him. This loss causes Akakii Akakievich’s death. After all, it is not insignificant that Demichev’s film opens up with the protagonist’s nightmare (shot in the style of a black-and-white mock umentary), in which Mikhail Mikhailovich sees Gogol come alive in his coffin. This purposeful awakening establishes a concrete connection between the critical authorial stance of the director and that of his famed predecessor.
What this film is about? Crawfishlike tells the story of Mikhail Mikhailovich, flawlessly played by one of the most gifted contemporary comedic actors, Mikhail Efremov. Mikhail Mikhailovich is an upper middle-class, middle-age, mediocre, bribe-welcoming bureaucrat who has an attractive wife (Natal’ia Vdovina), a somewhat loving, mediocre son, an unfaithful mistress (Elena Safonova), and a dumb, drunkard boss (Sergei Koltakov). Mikhail Mikhailovich wakes up one day dissatisfied with his life, having begun to sense its enslaving limitations. The only true passion that remains in him is directed toward an excessive indulgence in vanilla fudge and shoes that “overflow his closet.” (Interestingly, this affection for shoes links him even closer to Gogol’s Akakii Akakievich, whose last name was Bashmachkin, derived from bashmak or a male shoe, per Gogol’s own etymological analysis as well). In order to undo his ennui, Mikhail Mikhailovich throws himself erratically into studying Chinese, learning to swim, and substituting more conventional black tea with its “exotic” analogue—green tea. As part of his restless search for a radical change, he works up the courage to ask a beautiful young woman, Nastia, on a date.
Nastia, perfectly played by a non-professional actress, Olga Sun, in her debut, is a theater student who sells books part-time. In Mikhail Mikhailovich’s eyes, Nastia’s youthfulness, ability to be surprised, love of the outdoors, and general lack of attachment to material items epitomize a potential source of freedom that he would like to regain, if only vicariously. In the construction of Nastia’s character, Demichev has clearly created an individual whose worldview stands in complete opposition to that of Mikhail Mikhailovich. As a result, Nastia emerges as an immaculately composed antithesis rather than a nuanced human being in the flesh. Despite the narrative lightness and a seeming flatness of her being, Nastia’s depth lies in the very fact that her emotions and feelings are carried on the surface of the evanescent white dresses she dons throughout the film. The expressive, hypersensitive pliability of the virginal fabrics embodies a metaphorical counterpoint to the hardened, impervious skin of the bureaucrats. In his self-quest, Mikhail Mikhailovich desires to open up this callous outer-layer, or at least to imbue it with some kind of sensual responsiveness even if the new found sensitivity inflicts pain.
During the first conversation between Mikhail Mikhailovich and Nastia when he asks her on a date, Mikhail Mikhailovich senses an intoxicating whiff of liberation when he finds out that Nastia is unfamiliar with lobsters. This dialogue epitomizes the crux of the entire plot: “Have you ever eaten lobsters?—No. What do they look like?—They are like crawfish, only bigger.”She agrees to partake of these strange “crawfishlikes.” Initially Nastia’s lack of knowledge seems like a sign of naiveté and her symbolic separation from the world of excess to which Mikhail Mikhailovich is so powerfully welded. However, by the end of the film, the viewer is forced to realize that “crawfishlike” represents an effective misnomer (a syntactically improper merger of two words). It characterizes the entire social stratum of Russian bureaucrats—with their uncontrollably greedy and grabby claws, along with their deformed ethical innards that desperately cling to the hardened shell that protects them from the real conditions of existence, and without which they feel like fish out of water.
The virulence of the bureaucratic malaise, which Mikhail Mikhailovich and the colleagues of his department enact in this film, is underscored by the fact that the word crawfish and cancer are homonymous [rak (singular); raki (plural)] in Russian. “Crawfishlike” is equivalent to “cancerlike”—the true condition of Soviet bureaucracy that has metastasized throughout the entire society. The ubiquity of the social perversion in Medvedev/Putin’s Russia is reinforced by the fact that the viewer finds out the exact name of Mikhail Mikhailovich’s department (i.e. The Department of Capital Construction) only towards the middle of the film. Gogol undertakes the same approach by dismissing the exact name of the department where Akakii Akakievich holds his position, calling it “any-kind-of department.”
In an attempt to raise fifty thousand euros for Nastia’s cancer-stricken mother, a moment of confluence of virtue and vice, Mikhail Mikhailovich accepts a bribe and gets caught by an equally slimy and seemingly corrupt representative of the Department for the Fight against Economic Crimes. Surprisingly, Mikhail Mikhailovich does not reveal tangible signs of devastation, just those of an initial shock, almost willingly submitting himself to the authorities. He is incarcerated. In Mikhail Mikhailovich’s eyes, the literal restriction of freedom is equivalent to the emotional and ethical limitations of his life outside of prison: “I was transferred from one prison to another, that’s all.” He continues to open up to his neighbor who visits him: “Things were easier in the old one. The aquariums were bigger, we had secretaries; we had cars. We sat on top of each other waving our claws around…By comparison this prison is lousy for us, the Crawfishlike.” Here, he self-consciously invokes Nastia’s misnomer, thereby disclosing an ultimate awareness of his senseless condition. After a feast in his prison cell during which Mikhail Mikhailovich ravishingly consumes the white insides of the lobster that Nastia brought him, and after he finds out that his son is engaged to Nastia, Mikhail Mikhailovich dies of a heart attack, while symbolically reading Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” A guard nonchalantly hauls Mikhail Mikhailovich out of his cell and along the corridor of the prison into an obscure storage space. His red track suit drags behind him, as if a cracked cooked ectoderm, revealing a taut white T-shirt that hides a soft and bloated underbelly. This grotesque image of Mikhail Mikhailovich—limp but liberated—puts a full stop to the story. It is precisely the destruction of an outer-shell, or literally the over-coat—the exposure of his sensitive side in his surrendering to his feelings toward Nastia—that Mikhail Mikhailovich cannot bear.
Demichev constructs the plot of the film out of cultural and social binaries that the author pitches against one another, thereby loosening the conventional boundaries between them, while also punctuating the narrative with ironic twists to which the characters of the film succumb. This quality of storytelling represents an implicit homage to Gogol’s powerful satire. As in Gogol, often the opposed features of his characters telescope into one another, so that the viewer is forced to be simultaneously sympathetic to and repulsed by their actions. The oscillation between hardness and softness, emptiness and fullness, modesty and excess, youthfulness and aging, corruption and rectitude, humanities and hard sciences, among others establishes a complex narrative pattern that delivers the confluence of tragedy and comedy that constitutes Mikhail Mikhailovich’s life.
Mikhail Mikhailovich does not stand for a mere caricature and a generic sociological type. Rather, he is a human being who lacks “will power,” per his own admission to Nastia, allowing the right opportunities to slip away. During his walk with Nastia, he speaks of his missteps in life, especially his choice to apply to the Institute of Construction instead of the Literary Institute, where he would have studied poetry with one of the leading Soviet poets, Evgenii Evtushenko. Mikhail Mikhailovich’s awareness of his weakness and an implicit regret for not having sided with poetry points to an open, tragic gash in his life and his efforts to heal it. Poetry, premised on a flight of imagination and personal expression, at least in the manner in which it is worked into the plot of the film, is antithetical to the hard calculation, pre-structured, “material” path of Mikhail Mikhailovich’s education and career in construction. Traces of humanity, of his ability to “feel happy,” come forth especially in the moment when he reads his own verse in imitation of the poetry of Vladimir Maiakovskii, the legendary Soviet avant-garde poet whom Mikhail Mikhailovich admires. Interestingly, the verse about love that Mikhail Mikhailovich offers Nastia was written by Demichev, who indulged in poetry in his youth. The poem allegorically restages the protagonist’s recent torment and his desire to “breathe fully,” while also pointing to Demichev’s ever-present concern with propelling the message of the film through the invocation of cultural opposites. The poem speaks of a woman who shies away from a male suitor who suddenly realizes that he is happy, having begun to see the beauty of the world around him one morning. He admires the manner in which God was able to so “masterfully” combine “plus” and “minus,” thereby expressing a utopian dream of reconciling and harmonizing the opposed forces in life. He approaches a woman who “stirs” away from him “like a bird,” trying to dig her nails into his hands, which she then kisses. Overwhelmed by a physical contact with a woman, the man is about to cry. He praises God for such a manifestation of the ability to feel. In effect, Nastia’s image in this film signifies the unreachable “graceful firebird” that Mikhail Mikhailovich tries to hold on to so desperately, as if she were hope itself. While he obsessively collects expensive shoes, the outerwear closest to the ground, and abnormally indulges in viscous vanilla fudge, Nastia, clad in white and unburdened by age, soars above the restrictions that have contorted Mikhail Mikhailovich into a moral invalid.
In a quasi-modernist manner, the formal aspects of Demichev’s cinematography are beautifully reconciled with the overall content of the film—the suffocating conditions of the bureaucratic machine. Demichev prefers tightly cropped close-ups, where the proximity of the camera not only restages the strictures of the physical and moral space experienced by the protagonist, but also slightly estranges the physical appearance of the objects presented, while maximally “packing ” the frame with information in vogue with Soviet photography of the late twenties. Extreme close-ups of his face appear throughout the film. They register the nuanced changes associated with the wide range of Mikhail Mikhailovich’s emotions signified by sways from hysteria to apathy that Efremov ingeniously displays on screen. At critical moments, the foreground is partially obstructed, pressing itself against the background, as during Mikhail Mikhailovich’s conversation at a table in a restaurant during his first date with Nastia. Moreover, these visually unaccommodating frames push the viewer into a purposefully gratuitous proximity with the protagonist. The camera often locates the viewer on top of his skin, zooming in on the often-perspiring spongy neck and moistened hair of the bureaucrat. This kind of optical pressure, applied against the repulsive flesh of Mikhail Mikhailovich, reaches beyond the narrative into the larger context of political critique. The sweatiness of the skin is especially visible when Mikhail Mikhailovich pours his newly discovered green tea. During this process, he is shown in profile with the camera attentively zooming in on his face during the meticulous tea ritual. The perspiration pouring down his skin renders it blatantly organic and tactile; not only does this establish the necessary effect of repellent stickiness, but it also signifies the only mode of literal inner-expression that seeps through the hardened metaphorical ectoderm of this representative of the “crawfishlike.”
A scene where Mikhail Mikhailovich’s boss, Mr. Vasil’ev, ecstatically boasts about a purchase of a new pair of expensive crocodile skin shoes is peculiarly shot, with the same up-close peering of the camera. The euphoric desire with which Vasil’ev ogles the shoe is amplified by the unnatural proximity of the camera to the leather. The result is a virtual flattening of the image and an absurd visual coupling of the boss’ face with the shoe. The shoe, which Vasil’ev identifies as a “God-created masterpiece,” is the only object of the affection capable of touching him to the point of tears.
The scopic discourse of the skin is tightly linked to that of the close-up in the film, both in relation to form and narrative. But the same theme is also associated with instances of metaphorical penetration, where either the object or subject of the narration is submitted to a process of incision. Part of Mikhail Mikhailovich and Nastia’s date is spent at a table at an expensive restaurant, where Nastia is introduced to lobsters and the way in which they are eaten. Mikhail Mikhailovich adroitly cracks the outer shell with the pliers, while Nastia struggles and fails to do so. Mikhail Mikhailovich extracts the sumptuous white flesh from the red shell for her. This “surgery” is performed under the close scrutiny of the camera, which zooms in on the strenuous moment of messy cracking. As such, the inside and the outside are symbolically pegged against one another. Demichev articulates the critical dialogue between the opposed sites of existence—the “inside” and the “outside ”—that in the world of the bureaucrat lack inter-fluidity. Although Mikhail Mikhailovich quickly pulls the desired white flesh out of the lobster, his lack of internal peace is transparent, as he offers to raise glasses for “inner happiness.”
Nastia’s subsequent suggestion to go for a walk, as opposed to staying inside the restaurant, becomes an attempt to transcend the physical constriction of Mikhail Mikhailovich’s psychological experience, but also that of the close-up itself. While Mikhail Mikhailovich’s temporary “breaking out” does occur during this promenade—the reading of poetry, the closeness to Nastia—he remains trapped “inside” throughout the film. His movement in the narrative of the film occurs either inside his car or within the empty hallways of his department or the desolate prison corridors that formally and contextually intersect.
Crawfishlike represents an indisputable contribution to contemporary Russian cinematography. Replete with puns and literary allusions, multifaceted protagonists and banal characters, comic missteps and tragic misrecognitions, sobering pragmatism and airy poeticism, angry realism and surreal emotionalism, Demichev’s story erects a metaphorical mirror in front of an ersatz Russian world, where, in the best Gogolian spirit, a modicum of humanity remains visible amidst the social morass and hopelessness. A tale of squandered hopes and talents, Crawfishlike is an accusatory work that reveals Demichev’s “responsible” approach to satirizing a noxious contemporary environment, against which a superficially fierce campaign is being waged by the Putin-Medvedev duo (Demichev). Bent and locked into an unbreakable circle by the references to Gogol in the dream-space of the beginning and the nightmarish locale of the prison cell at the end, Demichev highlights the ubiquity of corruption, as well as complacency, that contorts human beings into repulsive creatures whose lives are mere parodies of human existence.
University of Pennsylvania
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Paikova, Valeria, “Fishing for Compliments in Venice,” Prime Time Russia, 5 September, 2009.
Demichev, Ilya, Press Release for the Venice IFF, 2009, p. 6.
Crawfishlike, Russia, 2009.
Color, 105 minutes
Director: Il’ia Demichev
Screenplay: Il’ia Demichev
Director of Photography: Mikhail Agranovich
Music: Eduard Artem’ev
Cast: Mikhail Efremov, Olga Sun, Sergei Koltakov, Natal’ia Vdovina, Elena Safonova, Sergei Gazarov, Aleksandr Samoilenko, Aleksandr Bashirov, Tatiana Kravchenko
Producers: Nana Getashvili, Andrei Klichas, Saida Medvedeva
Production: Irakli Karbaia
Executive Production: Kseniia Efimtseva
Il’ia Demichev: Crawfishlike (Kakraki, 2009)
reviewed by Masha Kowell © 2010