Issue 28 (2010)
Il’ia Khotinenko: The Clairvoyant (Iasnovidiashchaia, 2009)
reviewed by Eva Binder © 2010
Il’ia Khotinenko’s film The Clairvoyant is billed as a “dystopia combined with elements of a mystical thriller”. This mix of genres is partially explained by the film’s context within current Russian mainstream cinema, which is constantly blending tried and proven devices in its drive to create films with mass appeal. On the other hand, the film’s dystopian vision more than fulfils audience expectations of “cutting edge” social critique.
The film’s story takes place in the near future of 2012. A young female teacher’s dire economic situation forces her to take on a job of an obviously dubious nature. A distant relative invites the shy and seemingly unworldly Kseniia (played by Alla Iuganova) to work for her as a fortune teller. Kseniia’s relative has no illusions whatsoever: fortune-telling is not about foretelling the truth; it is about milking people in need for as much money as possible. Kseniia agrees to take the job but, unlike her employer, she actually develops the ability to see into the future. Holding her clients’ hands, Kseniia’s mind is filled with visions of horror. Although able to predict their tragic end, she cannot help the victims, much less protect them from their impending doom.
Kseniia’s job brings her into contact with two businessmen. Ivan (Denis Burgazliev) and Ignat (Evgenii Stychkin) have been friends since childhood and must decide whether to sell the factory where their parents once worked to a shady businessman by the name of Burov. While Ivan commits suicide following his consultation with Kseniia—she foretold that he would be killed by a gunshot—Ignat’s meeting with her prompts him to change his life and turn his back on the office for good. The two narrative strands unfold in parallel and merge in the film’s second half. With the aid of Kseniia, Ignat uncovers a crime—a child abduction committed by an off-duty militia officer. Together they flee from Burov, who is behind the crime and is pressuring Ignat to sell the factory. In his villa, Ignat uses a bow to kill the assassin sent by Burov before hiding Kseniia at the home of a young fashion model and friend. Burov’s pursuit ends fatally for both Ignat and the fashion model—the latter is evidently mistaken for Kseniia. Standing before the model’s corpse, Kseniia makes a desperate plea to God for help, before she is overwhelmed and drugged by the arriving ambulance team with a syringe.
Presented chronologically, the narrative is framed by a scene that introduces two different levels of reality to the story. Set in an idyllic park with stands of birch trees, the scene depicts an archer—Evgenii Stychkin—shooting arrows at a target, while a young mother (played by Alla Iuganova) strolls through the park with a baby stroller. In the first part of the film, the clairvoyant Kseniia has a recurring nightmare of herself as a desperate young mother with a screaming child in the same park. The frame at the end of the film shows the mother sitting on the park bench, lost in a daydream. The archer is in fact her friend or husband, and the young family soon heads home together through the park. The film does not reveal whether the park scene is merely a figment of the clairvoyant Kseniia’s imagination, or if in fact the story of the clairvoyant is a daydream in the mind of the young mother.
Director Il’ia Khotinenko, born 1972, is the son of filmmaker Vladimir Khotinenko, who started his career as director’s assistant to Nikita Mikhalkov. In the 1980s and 1990s, Vladimir gravitated toward auteur filmmaking with productions such as Mirror for a Hero (Zerkalo dlia geroia, 1987) and The Muslim (Musul’manin, 1995). More recently he has swung over to Putinesque patriotism with the production of historical dramas such as 1612. His son Il’ia has made seven feature films since 1999 and, unlike his father, has set his sights on success in the film industry. Khotinenko Junior’s films mostly consist of comedies and melodramas but also include historical material. However, none of his works have met with major success to date. Only 50 copies of his most recent film, released in Russia on 5 November 2009, went into distribution; a far cry from the 300-400 copies Khotinenko had hoped to see (“Il’ia Khotinenko pokazal…”).
The film’s genre mix is clearly evident in its settings, which feature visual contrasts previously used with success by Timur Bekmambetov in his urban fantasy Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006). In The Clairvoyant the cold glass palaces of the Russian business world that represent downtown Moscow’s burgeoning business district stand in sharp contrast to the shabby streets and dilapidated Soviet-era housing. Khotinenko underscores this contrast with moments of dystopian techno critique by drawing on visual methods such as those developed by Ridley Scott in his science fiction film Blade Runner (1982). Khotinenko uses decidedly Soviet décor to stylise his settings. For example, Kseniia meets with her clients in a decaying industrial building, whose glass facade harks back to the Soviet Constructivist architecture of the 1920s, situated on a deserted street where old women run a market stall among piles of wooden crates. Smoke billows from old pipes, garbage tumbles through the streets on gusts of wind and the towers of the Soviet heating plants look like ruins from some distant industrial age. Low angle shots interchange with bird’s eye perspectives from the heights of the glass skyscrapers. In the poor neighbourhood the streets are shrouded in a hazy gloom. Similar lighting effects are used in Kseniia’s reception room, which has all the charm of a disposal site for electronic appliances. The technical utopia of the Soviet era ekes out its sad existence at the edges of the post-Soviet esoteric boom.
Khotinenko’s genre mix covers a lot of ground; elements of the supernatural fantasy genre meet with the mafia thriller, crime film, romantic drama, echoes of horror films (Rosemary’s Baby by Roman Polanski, 1968), and above all, the genre of the dystopian film. According to Khotinenko, the film’s setting in 2012 (a fact that neither the plot nor the setting overtly reference) is intended to evoke associations with the Mayan calendar, which foretells the end of the world in the same year. The film’s working title, Gift 2012 (Dar 2012), is an allusion to both the lead character’s special talent and the use of the number twelve in other films such as Michalkov’s 12 and his father Vladimir Khotinenko’s 1612. Unfortunately for Khotinenko, his “joke” was pre-empted by a far weightier film; Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster 2012, which had its cinema release in the summer of 2009 (“Il’ia Khotinenko pokazal…”).
Usually dystopian films are grim depictions of futuristic societies. Although this definition hardly applies to Khotinenko’s dystopia, his critique of recent developments in the social make-up of Russian society is obviously meant in earnest. Khotinenko’s barely nuanced depictions of the characters clearly give the capitalists a bad rap: whoever makes money or manages to climb up the social ladder is soon revealed to be little more than a greedy crook. This rule applies to the post-Soviet business-world, the bogus fortune-teller who profits from the lead character’s supernatural powers, and the corrupt officials from the militia. The film’s insipid, narcissist, or merely bitter minor female characters are juxtaposed with the selfless, even saintly Kseniia, who is described as “blazhennaia” numerous times throughout the film. In addition to this overtly religious asceticism, Khotinenko’s film also reveals a certain admiration for the ascetic lifestyle of the communist era. In one scene the two friends reminisce about childhood picnics complete with cucumbers, tomatoes and hard boiled eggs celebrated in Soviet industrial landscapes. Dwelling in his childhood memories, Ivan remembers his father as a cheerful and carefree man, unaffected by his modest life and hard job.
As a text on popular culture, Khotinenko’s film offers a dense vision of fearful fantasies, wishful thinking and human behavior, in which a variety of sentimental family tragedies are carted out for the audience’s delectation: a son’s drug addiction leads to the disappearance of valuables, parents are driven to desperation by the abduction of their child, and a long-distance truck-driver fails to return to his family. In The Clairvoyant women dream of a loving husband while men give full rein to their machismo. Coarse, crude language, slapping a passing secretary on the behind or coercing a female partner into having sex all seem to be part of the standard repertoire of male behavior in Khotinenko’s film, which unintentionally presents a cultural image of post-Soviet society that seems more revealing and credible than the intended dystopia and its mystical elements. This conclusion is also shared by one of the film’s few other reviewers—Natal’ia Bobrova sees in Khotinenko’s mystical devices, if nothing else, an attempt to conceal the film’s numerous dramaturgical weaknesses and explain away the screenplay’s more incomprehensible and incoherent elements.
Translated from German by Damian Harrison
University of Innsbruck
|Comment on this review via the LJ Forum|
Bobrova, Natal’ia, “Iasnovidiashchaia” Il’i Khotinenko – eto tonkaja sviaz’ mistiki i real’nosti. Vecherniaia Moskva, 17 November 2009.
“Il’ia Khotinenko pokazal v fil’me ‘Iasnovidiashchaia’ Moskvu 2012 goda,” RIA Novosti, 27 October 2009.
The Clairvoyant, Russia, 2009
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Il’ia Khotinenko
Screenplay: Liudmila Pivovarova
Cinematography: Denis Alarkon-Ramires
Music: Il’ia Iazov
Cast: Alla Iuganova, Evgenii Stychkin, Denis Burgazliev, Liudmila Arte’eva, Kseniia Riabinkina, Ol’ga Mashnaia, Ol’ga Sidorova, Viacheslav Grishechkin, Vladimir Goriushin, Iuliia Zimina, Aleksandr Golubev, Iana Studilina, Ol’ga Prokhvatylo
Producers: Anton and Andrei Malyshev
Production: Kinokompaniia AMA
Il’ia Khotinenko: The Clairvoyant (Iasnovidiashchaia, 2009)
reviewed by Eva Binder © 2010