Issue 31 (2011)
Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii: Pussycat (Koshechka, 2009)
reviewed by Sergey Toymentsev © 2011
Pussycat is the second film by the director Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii, who is more known for filming music videos and TV commercials. Partly because of the director’s marginal relation to the film industry, Pussycat exceeds genre categorization as it merges theater and cinema by presenting four dramatized monologues (about 25 minutes each) given by excellent actors and shot by different skilled cameramen. A similar example of such an experimental genre could be the monologue films with writer/actor Spalding Gray (e.g. Jonathan Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia (1988) or Steven Soderbergh’s Gray's Anatomy (1996)) or Evgenii Grishkovets’s work. Konstantinopol’skii himself defines the genre of his film as a “psychedelic comedy designed to widen the boundaries of consciousness.” Such a genre definition is probably driven by a number of deliberate absurdities involved in the film: for example, Mikhail Efremov plays the part of a retired ballerina, while Viktor Sukhorukov does the part of an 11-month-old baby boy who can neither walk nor speak, yet (verbally) fantasizes about killing his babysitter with a huge kitchen knife. Yet it is neither “psychedelic” nor a “comedy,” but rather an “absurdist dramedy,” since all four monologues are mired in the concrete reality of today’s Russia and dramatically much more complex than just comic. The set decoration is reduced to a bare minimum; thus, the entire action of the film dwells on the performers’ facial expressions and gesticulation. As Konstantinopol’skii notes, “we’ve made a spectacle (attraktsion) out of the close-up of a good actor.”
Just as his first film $ 8 ½ (1999) is a frivolous or “postmodernist” attempt to remake Fellini in the context of post-Soviet Russia full of glamour, non-sense and banditry, in his Pussycat Konstantinopol’skii attempts to portray the spirit of contemporary Russia through another classic narrative: Russian literature of the 19th century (Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov). All the monologues are written by the director himself in beautiful Russian, and they are full of allusions to classic Russian literature. Furthermore, just as the protagonist of $ 8 ½ struggles to shoot a film on an extremely low budget, Konstantinopol’skii has managed to produce Pussycat with a minute budget of $ 80,000. The entire film was shot in Konstantinopol’skii’s own apartment over five days. In almost all the reviews the film is described as a proof that serious art is indeed possible, regardless of the economic recession (see, for example, Perunov; Kuptsova; and Bogdan). Despite the inevitable shortcomings that any cinematic experiment might have, the fast-baked “anti-crisis” Pussycat managed to win three awards at the 17th Russian Film Festival “Window to Europe” in Vyborg: the Savva Kulish Prize “For Creative Search”; the Prize of the Guild of Film Critics and Film Scholars “White Elephant;” and the Best Actor Award for Mikhail Efremov.
The film opens with Efremov’s monologue (titled “Crazy Ballerina”) on behalf of a retired ballerina who has known glorious moments in the past and whose present life is in extreme poverty and despair. Efremov’s character is shocking yet convincing. Dressed up in a “swan’s” tutu, wearing almost no makeup and speaking in his own voice, the actor still wins the audience’s empathy due to the abysmal sadness in his eyes, which seems to be an uncanny marriage of Brecht’s alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt)and Stanislavskii’s psychological realism. The retired ballerina’s monologue seems to have been directly inspired by Chekhov’s “Swan Song”, a one-act sketch about a superannuated comedian locked inside a theater at night, recounting his career as if it had been successful, yet concluding that he is but a failure. Both monologues nostalgically eulogize the golden past and bitterly lament the miserable present and lost opportunities. Modeled after the disenchanted and frustrated middle-aged intelligentsia of Chekhov’s plays at large, Efremov’s character seems to refer to a new Russian déclassé who used to belong to the elite but now has to share breakfasts with the homeless in a garbage dump. Although Efremov’s ballerina has never been granted a lead role in any ballet performance, she did enjoy the benefits of her dancing career, the most precious and memorable of which is the admiration of her lovers, whose changing social status reflects the regime change in the recent history of Russia. Given that a ballerina is often associated with a trophy that only the social elite could afford to date, her first lover was the son of some Soviet diplomat, while after the collapse of the USSR she happened to be with a so-called “new Russian”, an incredibly rich bandit who would have bought her the entire theater had he not been assassinated under quite obscure circumstances. With no family, job or friends—except Isadora, a bulldog she stole from a stranger in the street—Efremov’s ballerina nonetheless tries not to lose her spirit by keeping up practicing at the exercise bar with fanatic dedication as well as spending her entire pension on charity and the most expensive cognac. As Konstantinopol’skii admits (in an interview with Ershov), he himself was the prototype for the ballerina’s character, which he was writing specifically for Efremov (notorious for his chronic alcoholism). But it seems that his Chekhovian image of retired ballerina inadvertently captures a number of mixed affective tendencies predominant in contemporary Russia, such as loss, nostalgia, despair, wounded pride, cynicism, and hope.
In contrast to the retired ballerina’s “swan song,” the novella “Marriage for Money” deals with a jealous 29-year old millionaire (Aleksandr Strizhenov) hiding inside the closet and spying on his wife. As we learn from his monologue, he wanted to marry his wife, a 50-year old business lady who happens to be one of the richest Gazprom shareholders, exclusively for money yet could not help falling in love with her. Sitting inside the closet with an axe wielded against her hypothetical lovers, he experiences an epiphany of love while cursing his previous financial interest in her. The novella ends with a twist: after he finally leaves the closet, he accidentally overhears two quests gossiping about how his wife has now gone bankrupt yet managed to get married to a young millionaire.
In the third monologue “Strange Dream,” Viktor Sukhorukov plays an 11-month-old boy who wants to kill his babysitter Svetka. Sukhorukov’s character seems to derive from Dostoevsky’s “underground man” in his embryonic stage, unable to either walk or talk, yet capable of experiencing a militant angst in all its unresolved moral complexity. What is more interesting, though, is that Sukhorukov’s evil child keeps referring to the supreme authority of his father, an attorney working for an Uzbek client and a full-fledged nationalist. Sukhorukov’s popularity thanks to Balabanov’s nationalistic blockbusters Brother and Brother 2 further emphasizes the nationalist component of his monologue. In this novella, the emergent fascist following the steps of his father does not kill anybody after all, yet his alarming statements about all that “scum” (sbrod)—“blacks, Jews, sodomites, prostitutes, junkies”—do sound symptomatic of the overall political atmosphere of contemporary Russia.
It is only in the final monologue “Pussycat, or from the Author” that we learn that all these stories have been written, or dictated, by the writer’s muse or ghost writer, the pussycat that he received as a modest compensation from a jeep driver who accidentally hit him. Once the pussycat starts telling the stories, the writer (Evgenii Stychkin), whose prototype is the “little man” (malen’kii chelovek) of the classical Russian literature of the 19th century, becomes famous and rich. He no longer lives in the refrigerator’s carton box, but hires Tajiks to build him a tower where he continues to live with his mother and the pussycat whom he eventually marries, and with whom he has two kids.
Despite the excessive theatricality of the monologues as well as their epigonic stylization into a postmodernist spoof, which the director seems to naively mistake for an aesthetic innovation, Pussycat does succeed as a solid and consistent work precisely because of its sheer immersion in the actual everydayness of contemporary Russia, no matter how absurd or “psychedelic” it is. The director’s turn to classic Russian literature as an organizing meta-narrative may be not just another instance of postmodern parasitism but rather a sincere search for a moral standard as well as sober and critical position in the context of rapid social change in the wake of recently imported capitalism. Because of its overall ironic tone, the film does not provide any definitive answer to the moral quest for a position in the current situation in Russian society, such as the widening economic gap between the richest and the poorest, post-Soviet nostalgia, the influx of Muslim immigrants, the rise of nationalism, and the abuse of basic human rights. Yet it does not seduce the spectator’s perception into any of the aforementioned dogmatic traps either. Pussycat shocks, but softly, with humor and self-conscious melodramaticism. In this regard, it does a little “widen the boundaries of consciousness.”
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Bogdan, Ariuna, “’Volchok’ i ‘Koshechka’,” RBK Daily, 16 June 2009.
Ershov, Evgenii, “Menia ne vziali v Bol’shoi i ia stal rezhisserom,” interview with Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii, GZT.ru 2 December 2009.
Kuptsova, Alena, “Kino epokhi krizisa,” Rus//News 10 December 2009.
Perunov, Igor’, “’Okno v Evropu’: iz teni v svet pereletaia,” Proficinema.ru, 14 August 2009.
Pussycat, Russia, 2009
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii
Screenplay: Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii
Camera: Vlad Opeliants, Levan Kapanadze, Sergei Machil’skii, Maksim Osadchii, Andrei Makarov
Costume Design: Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii
Music: Valerii Razumovskii
Editing: Dmitrii Slobtsov
Cast: Mikhail Efremov, Aleksandr Strizhenov, Viktor Sukhorukov, Evgenii Stychkin, Pavel Derevianko, Iurii Kolokol’nikov
Producers: Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii, Andrei Novikov
Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii: Pussycat (Koshechka, 2009)
reviewed by Sergey Toymentsev © 2011