Issue 33 (2011)
Mariia Makhan’ko: Egor’s Grief (Egorino gore, 2008)
reviewed by Sasha Razor © 2011
Egor’s Grief is a low-budget comedy written and directed by Mariia Makhan’ko and produced by Iurii Berdnikov at the film studio Russkii Medved’ (Russian Bear). Mariia Makhan’ko is a young director who graduated from the Russian Film Institute (VGIK) in 2004. She specializes in comedy. Her other works include: Piano Scales (Gammy, 2004), Russian Means (Russkoe sredstvo, 2006), Swindlers (Zhuliki, 2006), Operation ‘Saint’ (Operatsia “Pravednik”, 2009, co-directed with Pavel Bardin), and Masculine Feminine Game (Muzhskaia zhenskaia igra, 2011). Her feature film Swindlers won her the Best Director’s Debut award at the Brigantine film festival.
Egor's Grief is a comedy that narrates the misadventures of a Moscow pop music producer. Twenty-seven-year-old Egor (Mikhail Grebenshchikov) is out of luck. His project failed: his girlfriend, the star of the show, ran off with the competitors. Unable to pay off his loan, Egor lost his apartment. Even worse, he owes money to some sketchy people in the industry. The creditors give him seven days to make the payment or… to find another talent! In desperation, Egor absconds to the first remote location available, the distant town of Glukhoman—which means “backwoods” or “the ends of the earth.” There, he overhears a conversation in a club and assumes a false identity as a fishing inspector sent by the center to replace old Stepanych (Igor’ Bochkin). Egor is gradually assimilating to a booze-addled provincial life. He falls in love with a local post-woman Katia (Alisa Grebenshchikova) and even organizes a talent casting among the locals. His routine is suddenly disrupted by the industry bandits. Hot on the trail, they want their money back. Egor, Katia, Stepanych, and his dog Kil’ka fight a losing battle: their house is quickly destroyed. In a moment of cool, Stepanych takes his balalaika out and sings a song he wrote in his youth. Thus, all the film’s conflicts are resolved: a new talent is born, Egor’s debt is paid off, he finds his true love in Katia and his real father in Stepanych’s paternal figure.
A comedy by genre, Egor’s Grief relies on fairy-tale schemes that include a quest for truth and the triumph of good over evil. Everything in the movie reminds us of Russian folklore. Take, for example, Egor, a quintessential Russian fool, whose search for talent replicates the well-known folk tale formula “go there, don’t know where, bring that, don’t know what” (poidi tuda, ne znaiu kuda, prinesi to, ne znaiu chto) or the episodic role of the old lady played by the director herself. In the best tradition of auteur cinema, this mysterious old lady shows the way to the characters, thus structurally connecting the scenes. Makhan’ko used similar fairy-tale approach in her previous comedy Swindlers, drawing on the viewer’s knowledge of fantastic narratives and masterfully engaging with them through numerous allusions.
This intertextuality equally manifests itself beyond the fairy-tale genre boundaries. In fact, the film is loaded with references and allusions. Even its title is formed by association with Fedora’s Grief (Fedorino Gore), a 1926 children’s story in verse by Kornei Chukovskii. Other references in the film originate from various eclectic sources. For example, upset after a dangerous encounter with the bandits, Egor explains that he feels sorry for a bird—ptichku zhalko—a direct citation of Leonid Gaidai’s 1967 The Prisoner of the Caucasus, or Shurik's New Adventures (Kavkazskaia plennitsa, 1967). Continuing a discussion about the whereabouts of the truth, a local priest tells Egor that the truth is out there—ironically, the famous tagline of the X-Files TV series. Attacking Stepanych’s house on the water, the leader of the bandits screams theatrically ‘Moscow is behind us’ (za nami Moskva)—a title of a 1967 Soviet patriotic film about the Second World War. Makhan’ko’s use of these citations illustrates how they generally work in Russian culture. Appropriated by mass consciousness, they are recycled and reiterated till their original meaning is destabilized and flattened through multiple repetitions. Despite the originality of such citational reversals (i.e. bandit citing a war hero, an Orthodox priest citing an expert on the supernatural), they seem less germane to the original plot than the director’s use of the traditional fairy-tale tropes that are structurally motivated.
Another structural leitmotif of Egor’s Grief is a father-son relationship reinterpreted through a center-periphery binary opposition. Unlike numerous protagonists of socialist cinema who went to Moscow to build a new life for themselves in the proximity of stately paternal authority, Egor escapes the center precisely because his life is at risk. Brought up without his father, he rebels against the paternal authority. At the same time, unable to survive on his own in the periphery, Egor quickly begins to appreciate Stepanych’s help. A thought of his real father crosses his mind for a second. As for Stepanych, he is a victim of ruthless show business, too: his wife stole the song he wrote while living in Moscow and ran away with her producer, forbidding him to see their son. Stepanych also escapes the center and settles in a provincial exile, though not forgetting about his son for a second. In a manner of rather forced coincidence, the father and the son finally find each other. Two Muscovites, a songwriter/performer and a music producer, they reunite once again to combat the forces of evil. What evil? … All evil comes from the center, of course...
While these binary oppositions of center vs. periphery and good vs. evil are appropriate for the fairy-tale aesthetic of the film, a deeper explanation of these oppositions’ connection to the realities of music production in Russia is somehow missing. While the film criticizes the soulless and ruthless pop music business in the capital, it does not offer any genuine local talents to oppose it. Indeed, it ridicules the very possibility itself, because all the people who come to the casting look degenerate. Moreover, the poet and village fool Pafnutii, the only flamboyant presence among the locals, cites poets from the center (Evtushenko) rather than reading his own work. Only Stepanych, an implant from Moscow, can speak up for the periphery. The periphery itself remains subaltern. As for show business, it is represented in a glamorous aesthetic mode that shares certain similarities with the fantastic. The viewer sees brainless socialites who appropriate Russian country style by wearing valenki (Russian felt boots) and a telogreika (a heavy lined coat) to Moscow parties in hopes of boosting their own authenticity. Typically for the glamour mode of representation, the viewer does not know who finances this dolce vita and to what end. Unable to provide subtle critique beyond its very clichéd set of characters, the film makes completely unclear the value of talent vs. mediocrity, the cultural production processes in the periphery vs. those in the center, or how this industry functions at all. Makhan’ko uses Mikhail Grebenshchikov’s own song for the sound track, thus blurring the boundaries between Grebenchikov as an actor and as a public presence/performer, but she does not use her actors’ potential to its outmost degree to create a musical comedy par excellence. Besides the screamingly low budget, this production’s pitfall resides in the lack of creative ideas and the basic knowledge of the Russian provinces, its subject matter.
Perhaps the blame for the negative portrayal of the periphery can be attributed to Russian culture in general, which, with the exception of its endless 19th century “provincial town Ns,” invented very few innovative strategies to represent it. The name of the town, Glukhoman’, etymologically evokes deafness, voicelessness, noiselessness, and indistinctiveness. It is somehow connected visually to the thickest of the forest, the very edge of the woods, the place so remote and distant that sounds of human civilization rarely reach it. A glance at the filming location, however, denotes historic specificity that collides with the film’s representational indeterminacy. Rostov Velikii and Borisoglebsk, where Egor’s Grief was shot, are towns not only famous for their medieval history, but also known as the locations where Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (Ivan Vasil’evich meniaet professiiu, 1973), a popular Soviet comedy, was filmed. Despite the region’s remarkable history, the concluding song performed by Stepanych depicts it as an empty space, a blank spot (mesto pustoe), only visited by guests for short periods of time:
|We are all guests here,
We are not staying for long,
We simply stopped by this town.
Let’s experience a little bit of happiness,
But then we should leave
So that the place stays empty.
|Vse my gosti, vse my nenadolgo,
Prosto my zaexali v etot gorod.
Ispytaem kapel’ku schast’ia,
A potom pridetsia uexat’
Chtoby bylo mesto pustoe
Unable to articulate outside of the center’s language and paradigm, the film’s peripheral drive short-circuits itself from the inside. A conflict born out of opposition between the center’s mythical forces of evil and the lack of creative means to oppose them, the film’s intrigue boils down to the conflict between non-being and nothingness, leaving its viewer with a feeling of toska—a very special kind of Russian longing—induced by the country’s state of popular culture production. At the same time, both Egor and his antagonist end up moving to Glukhoman’ and find themselves there. By removing her characters from the zone of unhappiness in the center to the happy space of periphery, the film’s director seems to gesture towards the future themes and perspectives for young Russian cinema.
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Egor’s Grief, Russia, 2008
Color, 82 minutes
Director: Mariia Makhan’ko
Scriptwriter: Oleg Volkov, Mariia Makhan’ko
Cinematography: Aleksandr Pushkin
Production design: Sergei Danilov
Costume Design: Ol’ga Mezentseva
Music: Petr Grigoriev, Ivan Lubennikov
Cast: Mikhail Grebenshchikov, Igor Bochkin, Alisa Grebenshchikova, Sergei Pogosian, Ramil Sabitov, Andrei Andreev, Sergei Badichkin, Aleksandr Ovchinnikov, Irina Bragina, i Makhan’ko, Dmitrii Smirnov, Vadim Smirnov, Natal'ia Makhan’ko, Anar Polunov, Sergei Krylov, Svetlana Fedorova, Anatolii Terent’ev, Emilia Abramova-Leshchinskaia
Producers: Iurii Berdnikov, Anatolii Terent’ev
Production: Russian Bear, RS Studio
Mariia Makhan’ko: Egor’s Grief (Egorino gore, 2008)
reviewed by Sasha Razor © 2011