Issue 30 (2010)

Dmitrii Meskhiev: The Man at the Window (Chelovek u okna, 2010)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2010

In large Japanese companies with social welfare structures there is a designated position for a person to stand by the window and tell the toiling office workers—too busy to raise their heads from the grindstone—what is happening outside throughout the entire day. This position is known as “the man at the window” and is often reserved for people who are a little slow. This story was told to actor Iurii Stoianov some twenty years ago and became the origin for Dmitrii Meskhiev’s The Man at the Window, a romantic sad comedy mixed in with a little action and a sprinkle of gangsterism. It is a film about actors, the power of performance and the small, detailed observations of people in and out of love. 

man at windowShura Dronov is “the man at the window,” who imagines that he improves the fate of people he sees outside his window while stubbornly ignoring what is inside. He leads a doppelgänger existence: in reality he is a timid, fumbling, episode actor at a St. Petersburg theatre, while in his fantasy world he is a resourceful man of action. He is happiest observing life around him, daydreaming about other people. This would be an ideal existence for an actor, but in contemporary Russia he is like Dustin Hoffman’s “Rainman:” poor, blind to those around him, and socially inept. His daydreaming causes him to make mistakes on stage and in his relationship with his wife. Shura has been married for twenty odd years and his relationship has stagnated. His wife wants a man who is passionate, active and desiring—not a loser who floats through life looking out the window… But everything changes when Shura unexpectedly meets a young, beautiful woman, Sonia in a car accident, and his feelings for her send him reeling. She, too, is attracted to him despite the age difference. A strange and delicate relationship develops: Sonia has a boyfriend, Stas—a young, active businessman who gives her fancy gifts and is ready to solve any problems that she may have. But she longs for something more… Shura’s wife, too, seeks something different—and starts a romance with Shura’s colleague, the successful actor Kazantsev. Meanwhile Stas hires Shura to perform various characters for him to improve his business dealings, a role at which Shura excels. He becomes wealthy, stops bumbling and begins to dress well—all the while longing for Sonia. Then, all of a sudden, his charade comes to an abrupt end and the romances intertwine, with the five characters involved in a complex, tantalizing ménage à cinq.

windowThe Man at the Window is a rare find in contemporary Russia’s cinematic context – a gentle, optimistic romantic comedy. More sophisticated than Dmitrii Astrakhan’s comic melodramas, such as Everything will be OK (Vse budet khorosho, 1995), it bears some resonances with the performative romantic drama Veronika isn’t Coming (Veronika ne pridet, dir. Elena Suni, 2008) and, unexpectedly, with the youth melodrama Parental Guidance (Detiam do 16…, dir. Andrei Kavun, 2010) in its playful exploration of the complexities of relationships. Both share the credo of loving-the-one-you-are-with (or nearest to at the time) that runs counter to the frivolousness of multiple pairings and illicit affairs. The roots of Man at the Window lie in those complex genre hybrids: Soviet sad comedies, such as Autumn Marathon (Osenii marafon, dir. Georgii Daneliia, 1979) and Beware of the Cars (Beregis’ avtomobilia, dir. El’dar Riazanov, 1966) with its fine portrait of a good, but weak, man caught up doing (somewhat) bad things. Shura, like Detochkin before him, is caught by the police red-handed. But instead of being punished by the authorities, the good detective sees that Shura is no criminal and he is released. Hidden within the folds of a romantic comedy is a fresh consideration of love affairs, relationships and cheating. The film also offers a subtle critique of materialism alongside poignant meditations on contemporary themes such as racism, the meaning of money—and surprisingly clean prisons.

windowIt is a film about transformation, performance and the lives of theatre actors away from the stage, performed by some of Russia’s best-loved actors (Stoianov, Garmash, Vdovichenkov).  The screenplay by Il’ia Tilkin was written specifically for the great television actor Iurii Stoianov so he could discover a different type of performance to the one so loved by fans of the television sketch comedy show Gorodok. This was an enormous challenge, given that over seventeen years Stoianov has performed a myriad of different comic roles in thousands of one-minute sketches, specializing largely in corpulent women. In Man at the Window Stoianov plays it straight, apart from a nervous twitch, and succeeds in delivering a subtle, although somewhat studiously serious, well-rounded performance. In contrast, his wife (played by Maria Zvonareva) is a seething, tumultuous, changeable and damaged soul—a role delivered with searing restraint. Vdovichenkov is pleasingly cast against type as the canny businessman and jealous lover, Stas. Similarly the St .Petersburg setting also goes against expectations with the mise en scène remarkably avoiding the city’s classic vistas, rivers and palaces while focusing on contemporary, stylish images of the city with its newly restored and newly constructed buildings.

windowThe Man at the Window has had a curious fate at film festivals, with many critics questioning its inclusion in hardnosed festival programming. In 2010 it has thrice featured as the closing night film (Kinotavr, Moscow and Odessa Film Festivals) while at the Australian Russian Resurrection Film Festival it was programmed for the opening night. Festival programmers have intended to use this unusual film to either set up a positive, comic and romantic mood or let their audience’s down lightly after the usually dark festival fare of purposefully perverse authorial visions. No stranger to experimentation or art-house, Dmitrii Meskhiev made a point of arguing that he did not see his film as winning any prizes at a film festival despite the very audible audience appreciation that resounded during its premiere. Directed at a mature audience and presented in a popular genre format with lovely comic surprises the film highlights the enormous divide between mainstream and festival cinema. But Meskhiev was wrong: his film picked up a Kinotavr Festival award for Best Actress for Maria Zvonareva’s excellent performance. At the Kinotavr press conference he railed against festival fare in his fervent support of audience-orientated ‘kind’ cinema: “why do we always need films about poo? The world is not made entirely of poo. Even the interiors of police stations have changed. I just don’t want to continue filming excrement filled foyers, because not all foyers are soiled.” The fairytale representation of police stations caused considerable consternation among critics, who simply did not want to believe that not everything was soiled. Meskhiev sought to clarify the cinematic distinctions: mainstream cinema is a simple film about good people, whereas art-house is a difficult film about bad people. Perhaps what dismayed some critics was the smooth merging of television and cinema. Meskhiev has developed a striking ability to work across genres and formats. The Man at the Window was commissioned by the television channel, Rossiia no doubt to exploit Stoianov’s enormous popularity. It is a neo-nostalgic example of an optimistic, romantic and kind film about good people, but it has a few layers, resonances and surprises too many for a simple and unsoiled mainstream film.

Greg Dolgopolov
UNSW, Australia

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Works Cited

Mukhina, Mariia. “V fil’me ‘Chelovek u okna’ net nichego takogo, chto dolzhno prinosit’ prizy na festivaliakh,” Interview with Dmitrii Meskhiev, ProfiCinema, 12 June 2010

 


The Man at the Window, Russia, 2010
96 minutes
Director Dmitrii Meskhiev
Script Il’ia Tilkin
Director of Photography Sergei Machilskii
Production Design Aleksandr Stroilo, Igor’ Karev
Composer Iurii Poteenko
Producers Sergei Shumakov, Sergei Melkumov, Dmitrii Meskhiev
Production Studio Cherepakha (Turtle)
Cast Iurii Stoianov, Kristina Kuz’mina, Sergei Garmash, Maria Zvonareva, Vladimir Vdovichenkov

Dmitrii Meskhiev: The Man at the Window (Chelovek u okna, 2010)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2010

Updated: 04 Oct 10