Issue 32 (2011)
Andrei Kavun: For Children under 16… (Detiam do 16..., 2010)
reviewed by Masha Kowell © 2011
For Children under 16… is a melodrama (interspersed with comedic moments) about two young girls and two young men whose relationships constitute an unstable “love square.” Constructed by director Nikolai Kavun, each corner of this metaphorical square is marked by a different protagonist: Dasha (Lianka Gryu), Leia (Anna Starshenbaum), Kirill/Kir (Dmitrii Kubanov), and Max (Pavel Priluchnyi). The film paints a picture of sexual self-discovery, erotic passion, bodily frustration, and a growing cynicism toward love. These are all processes that unfold in the apartments and on the streets of contemporary Moscow. In fact the city, largely idealized and sanitized through the editing and (glossy) visual effects, plays the role not merely of a backdrop but also that of a fifth protagonist—one who sets the amorous games in motion.
While Kir is in love with Dasha, his shyness precludes him from asking her out. Conversely, his best friend Max is an unabashed “player” who does not hesitate - and approaches her. Dasha, however, had already been exchanging glances with Kir at a university lecture hall, indicating her interest. She agrees to go out with Max on a first date only if Kir comes along – a request that surprises Max, yet emboldens Kir. In order to keep Kir occupied, Max asks Dasha to bring one of her girlfriends to the rendezvous, too. That friend is Leia. A banal story thus unfolds: Kir suffers while Dasha continues to date Max, whose sole intention is to have sex. Kir’s relationship with Leia evolves as she gradually falls in love with him and he, in turn, becomes infatuated with her, albeit without abandoning his feelings toward Dasha.
Kir and Leia’s relationship is fully consummated the first time they have sex; this initiates a series of passionate trysts. In the meantime, Max is working on his plan of seducing Dasha. The strength of the affair between Kir and Leia is compromised by Kir’s never-ending desire to confess to Dasha his love toward her. He therefore suffers not only when Dasha eventually marries Max, but also whenever Max articulates a perverse outlook on his relationship with her. Max claims that she is an “ice-queen” and yet he is unable to set her free: “I love her when she is away, and I am ready to kill her when she is right next to me…I am simply used to her.” These fights between Max and Dasha escalate. Kir ultimately takes advantage of this marital breakdown. He sleeps with Dasha - unable to resist her vulnerability and seduced by her confession that he, not Max, was her original passion. A realization of this “mistake” prompts Kir to ask her to marry him and therefore divorce Max.
Leia is devastated when she finds out about Kir’s betrayal. The camera cuts to her stepping into a bathtub with a razor in her hand—and then jumps to footage of her in a stream of blood. The suicide fails, though. We know this when, two years later, we’re shown Kir as he runs into her at a café. By this time, she has fully recovered and become a successful commercial artist.
Having experienced family life with Dasha, Kir is overcome with “boredom.” The mere sight of Leia ignites old passions, as well as the realization of a pitiful loss. During their conversation after a two-year separation, Leia addresses the pain that Kir had caused her. She emphasizes his flawed psyche, encouraging him to love not those whom “We cannot have, but rather those who are right next to us.” Her wise words ultimately soothe his anxiety, leaving him refocused upon the relationship with Dasha. Such is the moral of the story; it comes partially into relief in the middle of the film. While witnessing Kir angrily destroy his room after losing Dasha to Max, his father implores him to “build a princess from the woman next to you… rather than run around for a ready-made version.” In a similar manner, Leia embodies a certain wisdom in her frank deconstruction of Kir’s flawed, immature behavior. She confronts him with a criticism: “We only desire that which we do not possess… You do not know how to love, Kir! According to you, to love is to suffer!” Leia’s assessment provides a partial key to the film’s title. Its reference to sexually explicit filmmaking becomes a call for young people to prepare both emotionally and intellectually for the vagaries of love. It is never too early to learn.
This web of love affairs amongst inexperienced youngsters is built on a number of clear-cut oppositions. However, several motifs within the script provide a more nuanced approach to character development, metaphoric transpositions, and formal issues.
The male and female protagonists embody opposite aspects of one another. Max is a “superficial” figure, who openly admits his fickle nature, while Kir is a thoughtful and sensitive counterpart. In the opening scene of the film, Kir gives a lift to a man who offers him the crude, misogynistic advice to “rip women apart while you can.” In other words, he is told to do so now—“as a young man,” not burdened by family life. Kir’s reaction, while slight, is not one of agreement; he listens unresponsively. Max’s pursuit of women, however, perfectly fits this stereotype of a “player.” His goal is sex. With each victory, he embellishes what Kir disapprovingly calls a “collection” of women.
Similarly, the female protagonists are symbolically antipodal. Dasha emerges as a romantic, Botticellian type. Her porcelain skin and classical, elegant face are framed with a billowing cascade of blond curls. She even writes poetry. Her demure ways and relative coyness verge on submissiveness. She is aware of her gentle, lithe beauty. Leia, on the other hand, plays the role of her “ugly” friend, against whose gothic backdrop Dasha seems even more scintillating. An artist and a student who (somewhat unrealistically) lives by herself in a large studio apartment in Moscow, Leia leads a bohemian lifestyle unlike that of Dasha (being upper-class and dependent upon her parents). Leia’s dark, short dreadlocks are likewise in stark contrast to Dasha’s “renaissance” coiffeur. Leia is an eccentric rebel who prefers to smear oil paint on her face and body—much as she prefers dilapidated warehouse spaces, covered in graffiti, to any kind of glamour. Leia’s character comes forth when she visits a hairdresser in order to change her wild locks into a more styled look. As if from habit, the hairdresser addresses her: “So…the uglier, the better – just as always, right?”
Despite relying upon this constellation of opposites, the director also introduces some more subtle symbolization. He does so in order to focus upon the inevitability of human mistakes and painful transgressions—which merely increase with the characters’ shift from youth to adulthood. Max, for instance, emerges as a victim of his own parents’ unrealized love. And, as such, his treatment of women loses any sinister quality and becomes a more circumstantially acquired weakness: his culpability is increasingly linked to childhood experience.
In this film,, the characters pass from the uniformity of being into a more complex existence—one comprised of an unstable mélange of both “good” and “bad.” For instance, when Kir finally finds some private time with Dasha in his apartment (a scene right before she has sex with Max for the first time), her relative “emptiness” comes to the fore through excited yet superficial discussions of both poetry and nature. She then announces that she feels an urgent “need to commit some magical act.” Enchanted, Kir attempts to kiss her… as she pulls away and ruins this “romantic” moment with the announcement that she suddenly “wants to pee.” This downgrading of ideals continues.
On a formal level, the blurring of cultural and societal categories is articulated through various signifiers of liquefaction. They emerge in numerous references to tears, “rosy snot,” oil paints that cover the lovers’ bodies, rain, puddles, and blood. The director further enhances these scenes of “formal dampening” by invoking the painterly effects of colored swirls, superimposed upon a number of city scenes. A similar process of erasure also occurs through an editing technique that is openly choppy—and thus announcing its own structural instability. The dissolving of any binary plot structure occurs most strikingly in a scene during which Kir collects his belongings and is about to leave Leia’s studio - to initiate his formal relationship with Dasha. Leia, devastated by his betrayal, sits in front of a canvas and turns two butterfly-like drawings (of male and female polarities) into a singular brownish mess. She then, rather dramatically, massages them into the canvas. This smearing process breaks down any pre-conceived social opposites: male and female, love and hatred, anger and tenderness.
The views of Moscow itself also include contrivance or idealization—at least initially. On the one hand, the director attempts to show Moscow as an urban metropolis—a kind of sanitized version of Manhattan. In order to do so, he shoots upwards into the capital’s most modern construction site—that of the “Moscow City” project. In doing so, he hides any attractive scaffolding or signs of incompletion. Tailored images of the sleek skyscrapers also mask the notorious sites of shanty housing, where Gastarbeiter live. Similarly, the director prefers to employ shots of an elevated monorail that runs only through a small part of Moscow; the city has a much more extensive metro system underground. And yet the frequency with which this shiny bullet train traverses the screen creates a sense of its ubiquity.
For all that tailored approach to filming the Russian capital, it is also a place of messy renewal, full of mud and dirty puddles. These are the less frequent symbols of weakening social categories. They indicate the kind of slow, yet inevitable breakdown that is powerfully foregrounded in one of the film’s final scenes. It occurs in a dialog between Leia and Kir.
Kir confesses to her that “You’ re the only one!” Leia, however, responds to him in merciless tones: “There’s no such thing…There are no ‘only ones’!” She brings him back to earth and destroys his singular understanding of love; nonetheless she also liberates him—by opening a door to a multitude of new choices. As an exponent of abstract art (which Kir does not appreciate), Leia normalizes these gray areas in human relationships. She also symbolizes the danger of constructing a singular object of desire—since this is the mistaken belief that destroyed her own love.
University of Pennsylvania
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Children under 16…, Russia, 2010
Director: Andrei Kavun
Scriptwriter: Oleg Malovichko
DoP: Sergei Mikhalchuk
Production Design: Marat Kim
Costumes: Svetlana Klevanskaia
Music: Andrei Feofanov
Cast: Lianka Gryu, Anna Starshenbaum, Dmitrii Kubasov, Pavel Priluchnyi, Aleksei Gorbunov, Aleksei Shevchenko
Producers: Vadim Goriainov, Valerii Todorovskii, Leonid Lebedev
Andrei Kavun: For Children under 16… (Detiam do 16..., 2010)
reviewed by Masha Kowell © 2011