Issue 34 (2011)
Oleg Fliangol’ts: Indifference (Bezrazlichie, 2011)
reviewed by Kevin M. F. Platt © 2011
Oleg Fliangol’ts began shooting the film Indifference, based on a screenplay he wrote together with Mikhail Spiridonov, in the momentous year of 1989, at the tender age of 23. However, as he explains on his official site, work on the film stalled in the early 1990s because, “no one had time for film” (“Fil’m Bezrazlichie”). Subsequently, the film languished on a shelf for nearly two decades, until in the last several years the director pulled it out and finished the project. In the intervening years his two male lead actors, Fedor Bondarchuk and Aleksandr Bashirov, who in 1989 were both as wet behind the ears as the director himself, each managed to become Russian film stars of middling luminosity. Fliangol’ts, on the other hand, has had a less distinguished career: he has made a prodigious number of music videos and a rockumentary about Viktor Tsoi. Now, however, Indifference, his single feature-length dramatic film, twenty years in the making, has garnered him a great deal of critical acclaim and the coveted main prize at the 2011 Kinotavr festival.
The film’s main selling point, as every critical response to the film has noted, is its stylish recreation of Moscow in the 1960s. Lidiia Maslova, writing in Kommersant, calls the film a bit of “creative nostalgia” (Maslova). The director himself explains that the film was originally conceived as “a declaration of love,” and goes on to explain that he was in love with “Italian cinema, Moscow architecture and… a girl, of course” (“Bezrazlichie”). In terms of style, the film, a set of vignettes from the everyday life of “insignificant people” shot in black and white with austere, restrained editing, and incorporating a good deal of period documentary footage, is a straightforward homage to Italian neorealism. It is also well stocked with iconic images of Thaw-era Moscow: stiliagi (the era’s movement of non-conformist hipsters), international style architecture, skinny ties, cigarette smoke (looks great in black and white).
To fill out the incomplete film, which apparently lacked some key pieces of connective tissue, Fliangol’ts shot new scenes with his actors made up to look like their younger selves and overdubbed much of the original footage with new dialogue, delivered by the mature actors or by entirely new ones. Mostly, this new material is interwoven with the old rather skillfully. In a formal twist that radically departs from the visual style of the rest of the film, however, the director also inserted a number of animated sequences in various styles—some drawn and others computer generated, some including action with overdubbed dialogue and others cast as musical interludes.
Readers may be wondering at this point: but what is this film about? The critical consensus seems to be that this is a question of secondary importance in connection with Indifference. As Anna Balueva summed things up in Komsomol’skaia pravda, the film is “about nothing, more or less” (Balueva). Petia Selutin (Fedor Bondarchuk) is in school to become a choral conductor and works as a car mechanic. He listens to jazz records and spends a lot of time hanging out with his buddy Buchnev (Aleksandr Bashirov). Petia is smitten with a girl he met on a dance floor, Zhuzha Papanina (Ol’ga Shorina), who likes French cinema and seems intent on leaving him cold during his repeated telephone calls. Through a bit of perseverance he manages to convince her to come for a drive with him. However, Zhuzha is also the object of affections for Garik, a stiliaga with a mean streak (Sergei Bragin), more commonly referred to as “the dude in the hat.” Conflict ensues. An additional subplot, which is represented entirely via animated sequences, originates as a story Petia tells Buchnev about Tuzik, a dog being trained to participate in the Soviet space program, who has escaped from his secret laboratory.
So is the film really about nothing? Certainly, despite the director’s comments that the title has no relationship to the subject of the film (“Bezrazlichie”), the term “indifference” aptly captures the film’s peculiarly blank emotional palette. Petia pursues Zhuzha with a strange combination of insistence and apathy, delivering in a deadpan lines like: “In order to accomplish anything, one doesn’t need a reason, but an excuse.” Garik and his gang have basically no occupation other than carousing, beating up Petia, and fleeing from the police—this last being their main activity, as represented in several sequences of endless running through courtyards, in and out of buildings, along sidewalks, back and forth in front of the same blank brick walls, Tom-and-Jerry fashion.
This is a film chock full of false starts and unfinished phrases. At one point, Petia’s younger brother Vasia (Aleksei Taratorin) along with his friend, Sukov (Artem Prokin), spend an evening at the café Pingvin, waiting for Petia to show up. A crowd of stylishly dressed young people drink and demonstrate their mastery of swing dance, their passionless posing complementing the pointless banter of the two men. Sukov explains to Vasia that drinking in moderation is good for you, and tells a story about how he conquered his fear of flying by means of a massive dose of cognac, administered by a friendly man in the seat next to him on a plane. We never learn about the rest of Sukov’s trip. Petia never arrives. The ice cream that the two order is never brought. The scene ends when a tableful of tattooed former convicts decide to beat the hell out of the stiliagi. Without giving too much away, one may dial out from this moment to observe that the larger plot of the film as well ends in stalemate—Garik, Petia and Zhuzha basically cancel one another out. As Petia informs the audience in a final voiceover as “The End” (“Konets”) comes up on the screen, “It all started off so well. And then: the end...”
The key to comprehension of this at times rather tedious film relates less to what it shows than to what it doesn’t. That, in turn, must be seen in the present context of history and memory of the Soviet past, in which ideologically charged banners are the norm. The 1960s were, depending on who you talk to, a moment of international prestige and renewed confidence in the project of building a communist society, the era when Soviet men and women enjoyed the fruits of a modern consumer society, or perhaps the era that saw the birth of the dissident movement and of broader strivings for intellectual autonomy. Opinions, as always, vary greatly, depending on whether you identify with contemporary patriotic historical nostalgia or with liberal dissatisfactions with Russia today. Yet in any case, the 1960s are commonly viewed in a mode of high ideological dither—as are all other eras of Soviet history at present.
In place of this, Fliangol’ts has offered us: nothing. The characteristic of the 1960s, as it turns out in this film, was style alone, without a shred of high purpose or ideological ferment. But why limit this diagnosis to the 1960s? The signature song of the film is a sweet, yet lugubrious melody about a love triangle, performed by Eduard Khil’, a popular Estrada baritone of the depicted era (who recently reentered the public eye as the performer of the “Trololo Song” that went viral on YouTube in 2010). Introduced in instrumental form during the credits, we hear the song in Khil’s lovely performance only in a musical interlude towards the end of the film. The camera pans along a brick wall and then peers through a window at the curved screen of a cathode-ray television showing Khil’ performing the song, wearing a striped shirt against a striped background. However, despite the period details, the Khil’ we see is an old man—Khil’ in 2011. This song is in fact a stylization of period music, freshly composed by the film’s musical team of Ivan Vasil’ev and Aleksandr Sazonov.
Like Khil’s song, the film as a whole is a stylized projection of one era onto another, a historical palimpsest of the present, the late 1980s and the 1960s. The pointless conversations of Petia and his friends could have just as easily taken place in the underground of the 1980s or in the apathetic youth culture of today—they are the perpetual stuff of Russian everyday life, persisting in the depths of the social ocean, while ideological waves toss and crash far above. The crucial allegorical moment of the film may be the longish animated sequence when Petia and Buchnev, seemingly for no reason at all, wander lost in a series of unlit cellars and passageways, joking about eating rats or one another if they fail to find the exit. Fliangol’ts counters the grand historical narratives characteristic of mainstream historical reflection in Russia, which pin ideological truths in the present to tendentious visions of the past. Instead, he offers an allegory of Russian social life as an extended episode of meandering in the dark. The tag line of the film is: “The Romanticism of the ’60s, the recklessness of the ’80s, and the wisdom of the 2000s.” But it all seems to compress down to something more like: “The indifference of the present.”
In sum, the film offers a rather grim picture: take apathy, add pointlessness and repeat. This cheery atmosphere infects both past and present, both individual lives and narratives of history writ large. The viewer’s only relief comes in the form of satisfaction at the film’s impeccable stylizations. One might have wished for a bit more psychological depth in the exploration of the labyrinths of the Russian soul, but perhaps that will be the subject of Fliangol’ts’ next film.
Kevin M. F. Platt
University of Pennsylvania
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Lidiia Maslova, “‘Kinotavr’ oglianulsia s ‘Bezrazlichiem,’” Kommersant 8 June 2011 ).
“Fil’m Bezrazlichie,” Oleg Fliangol’ts, Official Website
Anna Balueva, "Poslednii sovetskii fil’m ‘Bezrazlichie’: Ia ego slepil iz togo, chto bylo,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, 7 June 2011).
Indifference, Russia, 1989-2011
Director Oleg Fliangol’ts
Script Mikhail Spiridonov, Oleg Fliangol’ts
Camera Oleg Fliangol’ts, Anastasii Mikhailov
Design Oleg Fliangol’ts
Music Ivan Vasil’ev, Aleksandr Sazonov
Cast: Fedor Bondarchuk, Aleksandr Bashirov, Ol’ga Shorina, Sergei Bragin, Artem Prokin, Aleksei Taratorin, Iurii Pavlov, Aleksandr Sazonov
Producer Aleksandr Buzdakov
Production Studio “Hypnosis”
Distribution “Salvador D”
Oleg Fliangol’ts: Indifference (Bezrazlichie, 2011)
reviewed by Kevin M. F. Platt © 2011