Issue 31 (2011)

Sergei Solov’ev: Classmates (Odnoklassniki, 2010)

reviewed by Oleg Sulkin © 2011

A Thousand Days after Childhood

Sergei Solov’iev is a brand—whether you like him or not. He is a brand without a system, a sovereign world with its own laws and lawlessness, its own vocabulary, its own ostentations and snarls. Everything within this brand is uniquely Solov’evian. This world is like a pendulum swinging between two obsessive ideas. The first is the desire to reduce Russian classics to a beautiful dialectical formula of triumphalism with the simultaneous destruction of the ‘beauty, intelligence and goodness’ triad. The second is a profound belief in some God-given and extremely subtle understanding of the maturing of Soviet and post-Soviet children.

solovievIn 2009-10, the Solov’ev pendulum made a full arc, producing two notable brand products. The ‘classical’ Anna Karenina featured the beautiful and intelligent sacrifice of Mr Karenin triumphing over Anna’s beautiful and reckless betrayal. Anna is played by Tat’iana Drubich, a completely different blood type to Tolstoy’s heroine. In a normal movie she would be considered terribly miscast, but in a Solov’ev film it promotes the thoughtful cocking of the eye and pronouncement: ‘There is something cool in this miscasting’. The second brand product was the teen film Classmates.

I believe the connections of the film’s title with the hugely popular social networking website Odnoklassniki.ru were important for Mr Solov’ev’ in terms of PR. David Fincher’s Social Network (2010) fulfilled audience expectations by telling the history of Facebook. In contrast, Classmates is about entirely non-virtual people, many of whom have not come close to a computer. The deceit begins with the title and smoothly transfers into the first frames that feature a factory—the conventional launch-pad for many industrial dramas of Soviet cinema. The foundry does not appear anywhere else, or at least I did not notice it. The big boss comes to inspect his holdings, instantly recognizable by the expensive black car and robust minions who obligingly open its doors. The boss-oligarch is played by Andrei Rudenskii, an actor of noble, aristocratic and somewhat nervous appearance that oligarchs, if for some reason they condescend to see this movie, will be pleased to observe.

Next, we see the oligarch in the car, where he negotiates a restaurant meeting by mobile phone. There they sit: two couples talking about things oligarchic. They recall our common Soviet past, becoming excited when they recall the price of vodka as “2.87” in old rubles and remember the melted cheese “Druzhba” accompanying their drinking in doorways. The oligarch’s friend, a man of much simpler appearance, demonstrates to the great amusement of the women how from prolonged pocket storage this cheese melted and then stretched and stretched and stretched. Then the man begins to imitate trying to unglue his hands, just like the unforgettable Louis de Funès showed pulling a very long nose in one of the most popular comedies of the 60s.

classmatesThe quartet recalls how they greeted the dawn on board a ship after an all-night Komsomol spree in their youth. They begin to hum a song about a roll of film that wants to be rewound a decade and about a guy who is madly in love and ready to kiss the sand on which his girl has walked. They sing, gesticulate and laugh. And it seems that the film will be about them, well, at least partly. But with deceit of de Funès the director leads us by the nose, and these parents will be almost forgotten, because they flick through later in just a couple of scenes.

The main characters are presented in a celebration of disco, pop culture, lights and lots of people. It is a prom. Among the hard-core party crowd are friends: Fedia, the handsome and masculine son of the oligarch (actor Konstantin Kriukov, grandson of Sergei Bondarchuk), and the cheeky poser Stepa (Aristarkh Venes), a clone of Bananan from ASSA. And Fedia’s girl: fresh, and pretty. I did not hear her name and then tried hard to catch it in the dialogue. But the name was never spoken. In one interview with Solov’ev I read that the main character was intentionally left without a name. Why? There is no answer. Sergei Solov’ev likes to leave strange elements in his films, apparently believing that nonsense supports the brand.

The nameless young woman is performed by Sonia Karpunina. She is not an actress but a writer, studying with Sergei Solov’ev at the Film Institute VGIK. He really liked one of her coursework screenplays and took it for himself to stage—asserting his métier right. As compensation for such unceremonious raiding, he offered Sonia the main role.

On the surface, Sonia is a pure, reverent, passionate and intelligent creature. She brings to mind Sergei Solov’ev’s main muse, Tat’iana Drubich who accompanies him through his films since the classic One Hundred Days after Childhood, where she appeared as a teenager. Whether Sonia looks like Tania is for the glossy magazines to debate. The main thing is that Sergei Solov’ev looks just like himself, whether he is 30, 40, 50, or 66—as he is now.

At a graduation party Fedia and his girl are presented with a prize—something weighty of pure gold. The reason for the award is not clear. It is the secret idea of daddy oligarch. Fathers and sons sit in limos and drive through pre-dawn Moscow. From the open windows Russian flags wave in the wind. This is “Our Russia;” we are now the coolest and happiest people in the world. At this blissful moment it becomes clear that this love story will not end well.

And then suddenly there is an inserted cameo of a highly realistic elderly lady who explains that Stalin did not die, but it was his double, or rather, one of his doubles. This section is filmed in the style of a mockumentary. Why? Will we return to this theme later? Will the Stalin era doubles reappear? It seems not. Then why the cameo insertion? What does it add or emphasize? The film races on at full speed without an answer.

classmatesThe film is interwoven with chapters, quotes from serious books, such as the Old Testament, and musical interludes. The director loves this type of collage. Remember his films ASSA, both the first (1987) and the sequel 2-ASSA-2 (2009); Black Rose—Emblem of Sorrow, Red Rose—Emblem of Love (Chernaia roza—emblema pechali, krasnaia roza—emblema liubvi, 1989) and his other youth steb films. Are these inserts essential? It does not matter. They are designed to create a sense of the handmade, to provide a suggestiveness to the main narrative and to draw the film into a new dimension. Does it always happen? I guess not. ASSA was the most successful example, perhaps because at the crest of perestroika Solov’ev struck a chord with his postmodern exercise. Today ASSA is viewed differently, as a monument to itself and its eclectic naivety in comparison with Western models is striking. In Classmates, the collage technique appears archaic. World cinema has moved on and there are no surprises in mixing the Bible with pop culture.

The existential convulsions of the heroine, who consumes the lion’s share of screen time, are in no way connected to the actions of the people around her. These people remain unchanged, but suddenly she begins to dislike them. Her life and well-being, which would be the envy of millions of her peers, ceases to fulfill her. The scene of her attempted suicide is shot with the same degree of naturalism which is peculiar to some South Korean or Japanese directors. She cuts her veins with a kitchen knife. The camera freezes sadistically, showing us all the details of this self-execution. The director is unconcerned by the mismatch between the graphic crudeness of this scene and the film’s otherwise glamorous poetic style. He seems to revel in this freewheeling assertion of his artistic will, confident that the scene will work. In comparison, the much harsher and macabre director, Aleksei Balabanov, is far more modest in representing self-immolation in his modern parable about Russia’s demise, The Stoker (Kochegar 2010).

What prompted the girl to attempt suicide? Yes, she had a falling out with Fedia, but discontent is not enough justification for wrist slashing. Desperation must be the experience of a complete dead end. Once again there is an absence of motivation. It sounds paradoxical, but irresponsibility and unpredictability are the heroine’s main “motivation.”

At some point the film starts focusing solely on her and you realize that she is the engine and nerve centre of the film - the main “classmate”. Her impulsive trip to St. Petersburg with the loopy Stepa was fraught with meeting the philosophizing alcoholic, embodied with extreme conviction by Mikhail Efremov. In St. Petersburg, the girl allows Stepa to seduce her but doesn’t let it go so far as to betray Fedia. Stepa is indecisive in bed and at some point the girl decides to stop. The bedroom scenes are parallel cut with shots of Fedia running in a gym in Moscow. Strangely, there is no hint of suspense or drama. This is a sure sign that the heroes have not taken the viewers hostage and you listen to them with indifference, as though they are mechanical models not people. Then the director—feeling that the love triangle intrigue is not working—adds to Efremov’s philosophizing alcoholic another crackpot: a retired boxer (Daniel Olbrychski). Clearly abusing any rational thought, the director forces the 65-year old actor to portray a powerful fighter who wins a boxing match against a young black man.

Spluttering like an old car, the action is enlivened in a variety of different ways. A shift to the exotic landscape of Goa, which represents for New Russians something like the old Soviet Sochi, only a little further away. Cult songs are peppered throughout, which in themselves are terrific, for example, the remarkable “Stirlitz” of the group Ivan Kaif. These inclusions, as well as the graphic images used for chapter titles, are at times charming, but only if we forget that this is not a collage of clips, but an expression of total cinema.

In summary: the romantic cruiser with the touchingly naive heroes is long gone. The conceptual, poetically ironical surrealism that raised ASSA to the level of manifesto for the angry young generation of 80-90s is no longer relevant today. Sergei Solov’ev does not offer any new concepts in Classmates, relying instead on ready-made techniques. Showing the poetics of platitudes and the clumsy bling of generation “zero” cannot be defined as making a point. Classmates is a latently passionate, disjointed and eclectic commentary that is at times poignant and at times trivial, but, alas, is largely illegible like computer text in the wrong encoding. As in the lyrics of the wonderful song about Stirlitz: “want some sort of connection, but there is no connection.”

Translated by Greg Dolgopolov, UNSW, Australia

Oleg Sulkin
New York

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Classmates, Russia 2009,
Color, 98 minutes
Director Sergei Solov’ev
Scriptwriters Sonia Karpunina, Sergei Solov’ev
Director of Photography Sergei Machil’skii
Production Design Sergei Ivanov
Composer Anna Solov’eva
Cast: Sonia Karpunina, Konstantin Kriukov, Aristarkh Venes, Elena Bondarchuk, Andrei Rudenskii, Elena Drobysheva, Daniel Olbrychski, Mikhail Efremov, Andrei Mezhulis
Producers Sergei Solov’ev, Vadim Shushunyants
Production Linia Kino (Cinema Line), Niskom, with participation from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Distribution Nashe Kino

Sergei Solov’ev: Classmates (Odnoklassniki, 2010)

reviewed by Oleg Sulkin © 2011

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