Issue 29 (2010)
Dmitrii D’iachenko: What Men Talk About (O chem govoriat muzhchiny, 2010)
reviewed by Lena Doubivko © 2010
“I’m already seven years old. I’m a grown-up man,
stop hanging this pink bow on me!”
(Pekinese Dog, Whan Men Talk About)
Judging from the raving Russian internet forums, reviews, and box office results, Dmitrii D’iachenko’s recent comedy What Men Talk About appears to have gained the love and following of wide audiences. Worn out from primitive slapstick comedies, compulsory nudity, and smutty “below-the-belt” jokes, contemporary Russian moviegoers readily appreciated the film’s gentle quality humor, reminiscent of the extraordinarily popular comedies of El’dar Riazanov from the Soviet era and free from hackneyed clichés populating the comedy genre nowadays.
D’iachenko is not new to entertainment, and since the mid-1990s has been demonstrating his skill for combining commercial viability with artistic creativity. He is mostly known for his work on television and in theater, having directed five hip film series in various genres, several documentaries (some of which were included in theater plays), more than 40 commercials and 30 corporate events. After his debut with the fairly popular Day of Radio (Den’ Radio, 2008), What Men Talk About  became D’iachenko second collaborative feature-film project with “Quartet ‘I’” – a well-known and one of the funniest theater groups in Moscow for the past seventeen years. Its play Conversations of middle-aged men about women, cinema and aluminum forks (Razgovory muzhchin srednego vozrasta o zhenshchinakh, kino i aliuminievykh vilkakh) which, since its premiere in 2008, has enjoyed immense success, is at the heart of D’iachenko’s cinematic adaptation. “Conversations”–marketed by “Quartet ‘I’” as sharing a kindred spirit relationship with the Evgenii Grishkovets theater–has been praised for its “male sincerity” that audiences can identify with, self-reflexive humor, and lack of pathos and edification (Nechaev, 2010). D’iachenko’s decision to adapt an already successful stage play in times of economic decline is a fairly obvious and safe financial bet that paid off: filmed on a budget of $1.9 million, What Men Talk About earned $11.4 million in the box office first week, outshining Nikita Mikhalkov’s infamous $55-million Burnt by the Sun-2.
Part of the film’s success, in my opinion, is that in translating a dramatic text into film, D’iachenko does not lose the essence of the original play, privileging the aesthetic of theater over the aesthetic of film. He clearly emphasizes the primacy of the dialogue and acting–with the hilarious quad chatting away (mostly about women, in a lighthearted rather than sexist way), joking and imagining fantastic scenarios. The director’s choice fell on bare-bones cinematic language, which he describes as “unusually laconic for contemporary Russian film” (D’iachenko, 2009). Interestingly, the car scenes, which take up half of the film, also worked towards preserving theatrical values and creating favorable, stage-like conditions for the actors. An economical technological solution was found: according to D’iachenko, the technique was borrowed from Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006). In order to shoot inside the car, a robotic digital camera–the first in Russia–was constructed by the camera man and inventor Sergei Astakhov, and operated by Iurii Liubshin. The crew mounted the camera on a rig above the vehicle with the roof taken off. The car did not move, but actually stood on a platform in a tent-like construction, which allowed the use of studio lighting, thus creating a space not much different from the play’s set.
The film features an uncomplicated storyline using highly subjective, self-conscious narration, elevated by the use of medium shots and frequent close-ups, and featuring flashbacks, fantasies, dreams and childhood memories. The plot revolves around four old friends–Kamil’ (Kamil’ Larin), Lesha (Leonid Barats), Sasha (Aleksandr Demidov) and Slava (Rostislav Khait)—all well-to-do professionals in their late 30s embarking on a two-day road trip from Moscow to Odessa (the Olympus of humor in Russian and Ukrainian cultures). They wish to escape the metropolis and the everyday routine of work, family and girlfriends to relax in a nightclub run by Slava’s friend and to see the concert of a popular band B-2 (who wrote all original music for the film). Despite its promise of the road movie genre (by D’iachenko), this road trip is completely stripped of action, juicy adventure, sex and violence. Thus, the quad makes three completely adventureless stops on the way to Odessa: at the off-road café run by a Georgian man who, unlike other Georgian men, can’t sing but cooks wonderful inexpensive shish kebab (shashlyk); in Bel’diazhki, a poky hole of a place (with all-time favorite Nina Ruslanova and stunning Zhanna Friske in secondary roles), where the quad spends a night in a filthy motel full of cockroaches and bugs; and in Kiev, where they savor traditional Ukrainian cuisine, as well as art in a local gallery. Close to Odessa the four miraculously survive a car accident (the only hint of adventure in the film), which causes Kamil’, Lesha and Sasha to undergo some kind of change, but doesn’t affect Slava at all. The quad eventually gets to Odessa, meets Slava’s friend– the owner of a glamorous nightclub filled with crowds of sexed-up women, goes to the beach to do some reflection, and eventually to the concert of B-2. The final crane shot shows the four friends at the B-2 concert singing along with hundreds of other fans.
The dominant storyline is interrupted four times by a rather idiosyncratic interview-within-a-film device, where “real-life” stars—Aleksei Kortnev (lead singer of the band “Neschastnyi Sluchai”), Vasilii Utkin (sports commentator), Andrei Makarevich (lead singer of “Mashina Vremeni”) and Oleg Men’shikov (a famous film star)—address the audience with their reflections on life for a show called “One Hundred Smart Thoughts from One Hundred Smart Men” (“Sto umnykh myslei ot sta umnykh muzhchin”), produced by Sasha, one of film’s protagonists. These interviews are to appear on the web and in a fashionable men’s magazine. In the opening scene, Kortnev picks up on the show’s impossible promise that all one hundred interviewed men and their thoughts are going to necessarily be “smart,” and makes a mocking retort to Sasha, the producer: “You should name your next project ‘One Hundred Stupid Thoughts from One Hundred Dumb Men’—judging by the tendency, it will meet a ready market.” Kortnev’s poking fun at popular media discourses, which support a rather stereotypical view of masculinity, makes it clear that the film–with its promise to be all about smiles and laughter–will offer more than light entertainment to its viewing audience.
With the masculine quad’s friendship at the center of its narrative, What Men Talk About pertains to the buddy-film genre tradition. In her dissertation “Engendering Genre: The Contemporary Russian Buddy Film,” Dawn Seckler writes that unlike the “powerful, virile, macho, and active characters” of the more popular genres,
“[t]he buddy film’s average middle-aged characters struggle with identity crises: they recognize their inability to attain heroic proportions. Rather than pump bullets, these men secrete anxiety as tears flow from their eyes and palpably suffer a profound sense of alienation. The Russian buddy film uses its characters to put the fractured ego on display; this shattered identity must be read in the context of the Soviet Union’s own fragmentation and dissolution” (Seckler 4).
Although tears do not flow from the eyes of the protagonists (if only from laughter), What Men Talk About resonates with Seckler’s description of the genre, as it focuses on its characters’ middle-life crisis and their profound and shared anxiety about women and gender identity. Thus, Kamil’ struggles with confusion in his private life, agonizing whether he should leave his pestering and controlling wife for the non-demanding, gentle, romantic lover or stay in a marriage that reminds of a war zone. His relationship with his wife, in which she makes rules and places prohibitions on him, is akin to that with a mother, confirmed by Kamil’s statement: “First, my parents forbade me things, now it is my wife. When will I grow up?” Lesha, similarly, feels dominated by his wife, who despite her easy-going nature has the upper hand in their relationship. She too is a mother-figure commanding Liosha on what to do, and loading him up with a bunch of domestic tasks when he is late for his trip. Sasha and Slava’s anxiety about women is felt in their refusal to marry because of their fear of commitment. The phrase “This is why I will not get married!”, already ‘winged’ (according to Russian internet forums), becomes a leitmotif of the film. While Sasha does not display sexual desire or interest in women, substituting his masculine sexuality with an intense career drive, Slava is a notorious womanizer (although with a hint of homosexuality) who cannot commit to a serious relationship, preferring numerous one-time lovers while keeping a steady girlfriend.
In the course of the film, the four friends exhibit a nostalgic desire to revisit the safety of their childhood, when everything was “great”, “logical”, and it was “clear what was good and what was bad”. In line with Freud’s techniques of introspection, such recourse helps get rid of anxieties and gives their voyage a reflective flavor. Although D’iachenko notes in an interview the impossibility to simulate the psychoanalytic conversation that Quartet ‘I’ presents in their play (D’iachenko, 2009), he successfully taps into the unconscious of his heroes by using symbolic language and imagery, such as fantasy digressions that visualize the friends’ conversations. Thus, childhood memories and fantasies appear at the center of the friends’ mental lives throughout the film and are given a particular importance. Introduced as a story-within-the-story, they interrupt the scenes of reality, discrediting narrative reliability, and essentially mark the film as a text of anxiety. The fantastical scenes have a distinct dynamic visual style energized by fast cutting, odd camera angles, computer graphics and absurd comedy. In one such scene, the ninth-grader Slava, in order to impress a girl, arrives at his school in a white Mercedes (practically impossible in 1987) in the company of D'Artagnan (a cardboard image of Mikhail Boiarskii) from the popular Soviet musical miniseries D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers (1978). In another,Lesha, who is haunted by war movies of the Soviet period, imagines himself in an interrogation with fascists, when his life depends on him telling them truthfully which school girl he is in love with. While funny, absurd and whimsical, these fantasies reveal the characters’ longing for a sense of stability and security that both childhood (with its lack of responsibility and complications with women) and the Soviet system (with its idealized vision of stable masculinity) provided. “Everything got mixed up now”, Lesha says.
D’iachenko obviously realizes the creative potential of dreams and fantasies, which, as Carl Jung saw it, are a way of gaining access to the collective unconscious. The characters’ unresolved anxiety about women, for example, surfaces both in their conversations and is encoded in the imagery of the fantasy scenes, which are to appeal to the viewer on an emotional rather than simply visual level. In a very funny and surreal fantasy sequence, imagined by Slava and Lesha in Bel’diazhki—chosen as trailer for the film—Zhanna Friske (star of Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006)), who just happens to be in Bel’diazhki (!) falls in love with an average guy, Viacheslav Gavrilovich, who rejects her because he wants to stay faithful to his wife. As a fetishized symbol of masculine desire and an incarnation of male anxieties, Friske implies the threat of castration, which is cured in line with Laura Mulvey’s scenario: by punishment and devaluation. In Lesha’s and Slava’s fantasy, Friske is stupid, having confused the congress of billionaires [kongres milliarderov] with the congress of irrigation engineers [kongress melioratorov] that landed her in Bel’diazhki. The rejection by Viacheslav Gavrilovich, as Lesha points out, epitomizes revenge on all women. Equally important is Friske’s image as a phallic woman: when she declares her love to Viacheslav Gavrilovich, she holds an incandescent electric water heater—an obvious reference to the erect penis—that goes limp at the moment of his rejection. By imagining Friske with a phallus, the film essentially labels her as masculine, insisting on an image of ‘normality.’ As imagined by Liosha and Slava, she poses no threat to the patriarchal order, rather becoming “a comforting phantasy of sexual sameness” (Creed 1994: 158).
Apparently D’iachenko does not offer a cure to the contemporary Russian male for his predicament and anxieties. His examination of the protagonists’ psychological state does not go further than exposing his characters’ permanent immaturity, reflected in their never-ceasing infantile demeanor. What stands in the way of the characters’ growth and improvement is their constant wish for regression, emphasized throughout the film and culminating at the very end. Shaken up after the accident, Lesha, Kamil’ and Sasha are not happy in Odessa. They leave the night club full of glamorous, available women and walk to the beach. The final sequence assumes a somber tone and is separated from the rest of the film with the symbolic inter-title “The Sea”, with its allusion to change, but also to the womb. This raises the question whether the heroes have grown or improved over the course of the story, as the convention of the road movie would suggest, or whether they have regressed into the ever-childish urge to return to the womb. Sure enough, some change is evident. Lesha, who clearly desired other women, now despises extra-marital affairs; Kamil’ chooses his wife over his lover; and Sasha gets philosophical about death. The film’s finale, however, suggests that the heroes’ anxieties and confusions will remain unresolved, at least for that generation. Infused with symbolic meaning, the phallic shaft of moon light reflected on the water alludes to Edvard Munch’s expressionist paintings conveying the artist’s anxious and neurotic relationship with women. The distant image of a loving, elderly couple caring for each other symbolically suggests that the older generation was able to preserve traditional values, whereas the younger one is not. Furthermore, as they stand by the sea, Kamil’ and Lesha express a wish to return to the darkness and peace of the prenatal universe: “It’s nice when it’s dark. Like in childhood.” Sasha joins in, and the conversation again digresses into childhood memories. At this point Slava gets ostracized for his vulgarity as he tries to break the group’s infantile harmony. Followed by Sasha’s philosophical reflections on death—“We are sitting and arguing here, but it could all have ended”—the scene reveals the film’s lack of a solution for its heroes who are “children who just got old,” as Sasha says. These characters, together with the comedic language, sum up D’iachenko’s apologetic message: to go easy on the generation of males who grew up under the Soviet system.
While What Men Talk About offers plenty of opportunities for kind-hearted smiles and laughter, it also has many absurd moments, such as the quad’s fantasy of a husband cheating on his wife with a sausage (an overdone allusion to Freud’s “amplified auto-erotism”), or Slava’s harem fantasy (reminiscent of Guido’s harem fantasy in Fellini’s 8 1/2), in which he introduces his countless lovers to his wife—and they all get along beautifully. Overall, What Men Talk About is a nostalgic film that would especially appeal to “Quartet ‘I’”and D’iachenko’s generation. Despite its unease about women and masculinity, the film is also uplifting, leaving the audience with a sense of warmth.
University of Washington
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Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film. Feminism and Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1994.
D’iachenko, Dmitrii, interview with Alena Sycheva, “Nash film vskyvaet otnosheniia mezhdu muzhchinoi i zhenshchinoi,” ProfiCinema 25 November 2009.
Nechaev, Aleksander, “Quartet I: Razgovory muzhchin srednego vozrasta pro dushu i Zhannu Friske,” Komsomol'skaia pravda 5 March 2010.
Seckler, Dawn A. “Engendering Genre: The Contemporary Russian Buddy Film,” Diss. University of Pittsburgh, 2009.
What Men Talk About, Russia, 2010
Color, 93 minutes
Director: Dmitrii D’iachenko
Screenplay: Leonid Barats, Sergei Petreikov and Rostislav Khait
Producers: Leonid Barats, Sergei Petreikov, Rostislav Khait, Alexander Nakhimson
Cinematography: Iurii Liubshin
Cast: Leonid Barats, Aleksander Demidov, Kamil’ Larin, Rostislav Khait, Nina Ruslanova, Zhanna Friske, Konstantin Chepurin, Sergey Nikonenko, Nonna Grishaeva
Original Music: B-2
Production: Kinokompaniia "Kvadrat"
Dmitrii D’iachenko: What Men Talk About (O chem govoriat muzhchiny, 2010)
reviewed by Lena Doubivko © 2010