Issue 36 (2012)

Rezo Gigineishvili, Alisa Khmel'nitskaia: Without Men (Bez muzhchin, 2011)

reviewed by Theodora Kelly Trimble © 2012

without menTwo women meet by happenstance traveling from Moscow to Perm in Rezo Gigineishvili’s and Alisa Khmel'nitskaia’s Without Men. After the flight is delayed, Aleksandra Nikolaevna (Vera Voronkova) and Zhenia (Nadezhda Mikhalkova) spend a night in Moscow that turns out to be full of unforeseeable adventures. The film, both melodrama and romantic tragicomedy, draws on tropes and themes from the Hollywood chick flick while also adding elements from the Russian literary tradition. This distinguishes the film from one that merely engages with predictable narrative undercurrents—love, heartbreak, fate—but also confirms its place in the above-mentioned genres.

without menThe film, which competed at Kinotavr 2011 and premiered in fall of the same year, initially introduces the heroines as opposites. Voronkova’s character, a museum gunsmith, is intelligent and polished, but begs to be labeled as the victim of a midlife crisis. Mikhalkova plays a young, energetic student, not yet jaded by love. While Aleksandra Nikolaevna is traveling to finalize a divorce from the husband who left her, Zhenia is on her way to get married. The middle-aged woman is cynical and edgy, while Zhenia is full of life and hope. This dichotomy is well planned and noticeable at the most basic level through costume choices: Aleksandra Nikolaevna wears a black coat for most of the film, while Zhenia dons a childish, white dress.

without menThe women first become entangled with one another after Aleksandra Nikolaevna rescues Zhenia from two men who are harassing her on the bus from the airport. This scene sets off a series of episodes in which they find themselves in precarious circumstances. From embarrassment in a strip club to attempted molestation by a massage therapist, each vignette confirms Aleksandra Nikolaevna’s bad luck and the viewer’s desire to see her attain some sort of retribution against her “evil” husband. The viewer sympathizes with her, yet cannot help but laugh at the way the women handle the situations. During several scenes, the pair temporarily escapes their problems by hitting the men over the head with Aleksandra Nikolaevna’s case of relic pistols. The plot becomes more dynamic as the episodes send the women all over the city, adding to the way it is permeated by themes of transience and vulnerability.

without menThe film begins and ends in the airport. Other women are almost entirely absent from the narrative, with a couple of exceptions—the appearance of Aleksandra Nikolaevna’s daughter and the mistress of a stock two-timer. The overabundant male presence reaches an interesting visual moment at the film’s end, through a shot in which a crowd of men disperses to reveal the silhouette of only one man in the middle of a now empty terminal.

This ending reinforces the film’s target audience: women. Adhering to chick-flick expectations, it strikes a chord with a range of audience members, from self-proclaimed man-hater to hopeless romantic. And it does not need to try very hard. While much of the film’s narrative is improbable, it is not necessarily impossible, making it easy for the viewer to identify with the heroines’ real-life problems. Aleksandra Nikolaevna, for example, is rarely shown not dragging her luggage, a nod to the emotional baggage she must haul around from her marriage. Compared to the light backpack Zhenia tows, the bulky blue suitcase is an obstruction on the screen, and is a clear presence every time Aleksandra Nikolaevna lectures her about reasons not to get married.

without menIf the film’s narrative falls in line with the Hollywood chick-flick genre, it also departs from it, if not in plot development, but with plot elements. It is difficult to recall a contemporary Hollywood counterpart that references nineteenth-century American literature in the filmic text. Without Men adapts moments from Aleksandr Pushkin’s narrative poem “Tsygany” (“Gypsies”), coding fate and love as not only predetermined in the film, but as governed by the Russian literary tradition. The repeated bows to Pushkin, himself—a monument in Moscow, a duel between the women in the airport bathroom—add to the importance of this narrative thread and add a twist to the contemporary Russian melodrama. At the same time, the fatalistic nuances add a certain kitsch that simply makes the film fall back in line with genre expectations.

without menReferences to Pushkin’s text invite the viewer to make a parallel from filmic fate to the question of destiny in life and love. While recalling whiny storylines of romance, love, and love’s loss, it becomes apparent that the heroines are “real” people with “real” problems. The acting is a success. Voronkova’s talented performance perfectly complements that of Mikhalkova. With only a small filmography under her belt, this performance evokes a nostalgic memory of her role as Nadia in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye solntsem, 1994). Her role as Zhenia is a somewhat older version of her naïve, innocent character two decades ago. And yet one becomes curious about the film’s plot choices after connecting all of the production dots. Nadezhda Mikhalkova is the wife of Gigineishvili, and the pair caused a media frenzy over the terms of their relationship.

without menIrrespective of these details, the film does provide a few interesting elements aside from the literary and celebrity references. Atypical shots reinforce that the conflict is really about Voronkova’s character and her broken self-image. The narrative drags her through the self-perceived tragedy of her life, illustrated by one shot, in particular, during a heated moment while standing beside a mirror in the airport bathroom. Aleksandra Nikolaevna aims a pistol while her profile is reflected as multiple images in the mirror. This shot reinforces the heroine’s own image of her fragmented self.

The film’s ending is somewhat ambiguous. The women, it seems, are not total opposites after all. The viewer, however, must ultimately separate the entertainment of watching the film from its merits. Without Men is only seventy-two minutes long, and that is enough. While both maintaining and departing from genre expectations, the humor and endearing moments are refreshing, and at the same time, do not contribute any earth-shattering revelations to the banality of broken love, finding new love, and relationships in general.

Theodora Kelly Trimble
University of Pittsburgh

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Without Men, Russia, 2011
Color, 72 min.
Directors: Rezo Gigineishvili, Alisa Khmel'nitskaia
Script: Alisa Khmel'nitskaia
Cinematography: Maksim Osadchii
Composer: Dato Evgenidze
Cast: Vera Voronkova, Nadezhda Mikhalkova
Producers: Maksim Korolev, Gennadii Ostrovskii, Bakhtier Khudoinazarov
Film Company: VVP Al'ians

Rezo Gigineishvili, Alisa Khmel'nitskaia: Without Men (Bez muzhchin, 2011)

reviewed by Theodora Kelly Trimble © 2012

Updated: 09 May 12