Issue 36 (2012)
Dmitrii D’iachenko: What Else Men Talk About (O chem eshche govoriat muzhchiny, 2011)
reviewed by David McVey © 2012
In December 2011 the successful Russian comedy troupe Quartet I (Kvartet “I”) released its fourth film – just in time to capture another box office windfall from holiday moviegoers. This New Year’s-themed sequel, What Else Men Talk About, is the follow-up to the foursome’s immensely popular 2010 road movie, What Men Talk About (O chem govoriat muzhchiny). The first film, which was adapted from the group’s stage work, and which cost less than $2 million to produce, was released to relative critical and runaway financial success in March 2010 (Doubivko, 2010). According to an anonymous blogger, the original film became a nationwide sensation that sparked public dialogue about its themes, produced numerous quotable lines, and prompted repeated viewings, as filmgoers recognized a bit of themselves in the film’s likable characters and humorous situations. Sustained, widespread public interest resulted in the film’s accumulating over $15 million in ticket sales. Such profits undoubtedly inspired Quartet ‘I’ to plot the sequel, which to date has earned over $17 million at the box office.
The follow-up, however, diverges from the prior film’s winning formula in several key respects, a fact that Russian-language reviewers have already discussed. In an online review, Elena Tikhonova writes that despite differing from its predecessor’s title only by the addition of a single word, O chem eshche… is not so much a sequel as a stand-alone film (Tikhonova 2011).] True, the four protagonists – Lesha (Leonid Barats), Sasha (Aleksandr Demidov), Slava (Rostislav Khait), and Kamil’ (Kamil’ Larin) all reprise their characters. But whereas the leads spend the previous film primarily within the confines of an SUV on a road trip from Moscow to Odessa, in the sequel they have the freedom to move around the spacious, opulently decorated office of Sasha’s advertising firm (although they cannot leave it). The sequel also introduces the semblance of a plotted storyline. It affords the men’s female love interests considerable, albeit unflattering, dialogue. Furthermore, several other male characters—radio announcer DJ Maks (Maksim Vitorgan), Kamil’’s alcoholic army comrade Pasha (Aleksei Makarov), and a washed-up security guard (Konstantin Chepurin), who are less successful in life—feature in their own developed subplots as comedic foils to the four protagonists. Finally, whereas the screenplay of the original was adapted for the cinema from one of the group’s popular theater programs, the sequel is the first script the group has written specifically for the big screen (Tikhonova, 2011).
Online reviews and audience reactions have been fairly glowing, at least in their praise of the film’s comedy. The troupe’s talky shtick about their characters’ ups and downs with finances, personal fulfillment, and, above all, women strikes a chord with a wide spectrum of Russian viewers, who apparently glean certain truths from the men’s pithy pronouncements. The anonymous reviewer on Totalblog.ru writes: “The protagonists deliver to the viewer familiar situations from everyday life, which are beautifully wrapped up in humor” (translations here and throughout my own). These “familiar situations from life,” however, are not all chuckles and giggles. Although Svetlana Stepnova of RusKino.ru balks at the absurdity of the plot and finds the film’s pacing problematic, she writes: “The greater part of the film is a sniper-accurate portrait of the generation of those between 30 and 40, set against the backdrop of our complicated times.” Stepnova reads into the film an exploration of national morality and the crisis in the post-Soviet Russian family, which in this context, speaks to real-time relationships between men and women. Thus, it appears that for viewers and critics, the film effectively balances these rather weighty subjects, which are never too distant from current Russian public discourse, with non-stop sketch anecdotes and gags to soften the blows.
Indeed, this effect is the troupe’s self-stated purpose for its work. Although the members collaborate with other famous comedians, actors, and musicians, according to its website Quartet I has been writing its own material since 2002. Regarding these collaborative efforts and various performances, the website reads, “All this is done with a single goal – to create productions that most accurately express the spirit of the time in which we live. It seems to us that at least right now we are successful in this endeavor.” It is a bold claim to state that your work perfectly captures the national Zeitgeist. But, as is evident, film critics and the viewing public sense something revelatory in the works of Quartet I—something, anyway, that compels them to continue buying movie tickets.
If read in light of the quartet’s goal on the website, the literal title What Else Men Talk About advertises to viewers that the film purportedly articulates the essence of what Russian men currently have on their minds. But the mission of accurately representing “the spirit of the time” cannot be construed as a claim to depict any sort of empirical social reality. After all, the film is not a documentary. In this case, especially given the medium of mainstream narrative cinema in which the message is couched, the film can be taken as a fantasy of an idealized reality for the “average Russian male viewer,” a fantasy that ultimately reassures the four protagonists, as well as said male viewer, of their masculine subjectivities amid perceived social crises. Contrary to Stepnova’s conclusion, the film can be seen more as an assuagement of masculine anxiety in a tumultuous moral milieu than an indictment of that tumult. The film’s conversations, which are expressions of and reactions to various relationship and social pressures; sympathetic characters, with which viewers eagerly identify; and mise-en-scène, which is saturated with a fetishistic consumerist aesthetic, converge to accomplish this effect. Quartet ‘I’ has succeeded in generating that cinematic magic or “fascination of film” (6), which, Laura Mulvey contends, parallels the psychoanalytical development of male subjectivity in a patriarchal system, disavows lack, and offers up visual pleasure to the audience via voyeurism and narcissistic identification (Mulvey, 1975).
The film’s plot is incited by an encounter between Sasha and a woman, Anzhela Viktorovna (Ekaterina Vilkova), who is a hyperbolic caricature of an unhinged harpy. On New Year’s Eve, Sasha is driving down one of those Moscow side-streets that doubles as a makeshift car park, when Anzhela nearly rear-ends his SUV while exiting a parking space. Sasha clearly has the right-of-way, but the near fender-bender devolves into an incident of extreme road rage. Anzhela unleashes a torrent of insults at Sasha. Sasha quickly understands that he is not going to convince such an unreasonable woman, rolls up his window, and whispers under his breath, trailing off, “Da poshla ty na…” (“Go and f*** yourself…”). Anzhela catches Sasha’s casual retort and flies into an even greater fury. To exact revenge, she telephones the henchmen of her husband (Vitalii Khaev), a local bandit who means business. The thugs lay siege to Sasha’s office, barring his departure to any New Year’s festivities until their boss arrives to engage in a man-to-man chat with Sasha. Fearing that he will be assassinated by the mob, Sasha summons the three remaining members of the quartet to help him out of his predicament. The remainder of the film consists of the men’s plotting their escape, concocting excuses to their love interests over the telephone, and reflecting upon their anxieties, careers, and love lives. These confessions, naturally, are accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol consumption. Numerous embedded sketches, which are to be taken as the individual or collective daydreams of the protagonists, enhance the fantastic quality of the film and provide comedic commentary to the men’s confessions.
So what are the personal anxieties consuming Quartet I’s characters that the film so poignantly touches upon? First, and perhaps most importantly, the protagonists express a common sentiment that they have not achieved their full potential as adult males. They perceive a yawning gap in their lives that they should have been able to fill by the age of forty. They are confronting midlife crises and they are their own harshest critics. Kamil’ remarks that he is still making the same salary (adjusted for inflation) that he made twenty years ago. He thought he would be very successful by this point in his life, but expresses consternation that he has wound up so “average.” With Chekhovian ennui he rues: “I have enough brains to understand all this, but not enough brains to change anything. And I understand why—because I have never seriously wanted anything.” Sasha likewise laments feeling undistinguished and wishes he could blame his position in life on someone else (although he can blame his current captivity on Anzhela). In an embedded skit where he dons a dress and urinates in a potted plant, in order to give justification to his complexes and earn the sympathy of others, Sasha imagines that his mother had an affair. In another running sketch, Sasha imagines attending therapy sessions with Sigmund Freud, who distractedly diagnoses him with a small penis. Essentially, the men are plagued by an ambiguous fear that they do not measure up.
The other primary topic of conversation concerns the women in the men’s lives—wives, mistresses, crushes that got away, and casual flings. Women, whether as the object of a moral quandary or as the shrewish catalyst of the film’s plot, figure at the center of the men’s problems. The film’s dialogue opens with a telephone conversation between Lesha and Kamil’, in which Lesha rehearses an alibi for a New Year’s Eve assignation with his mistress. For the remainder of the film, Lesha harangues his friends about the dilemma of choosing between his mistress and his wife, both of whom are wildly in love with him. In another running sketch, he discusses with Leo Tolstoy (Vladimir Men’shov) the morality of two-timing, imagining himself with the author in one of Sasha’s paintings and later envisioning him in a bathroom mirror, from which the old man chides people for not washing their hands. Of course, Tolstoy is denounced as a womanizer and a hypocrite, and no one heeds his advice. After all, Lesha is not concerned that he is cheating on his wife, but rather is burdened by strong love for both women. He has too much of a good thing. At one point he notes: “I feel guilty because I don’t feel guilty. I like it here and I like it there—and I don’t like that!” To cheer him up, his friends brainstorm creative excuses to tell clingy mistresses as to why the men cannot abandon their wives and children.
Lesha’s mates express regrets and indecision about the women in their lives as well. Slava admits to having his pick of nubile women, but complains that they are all stupid because they have never heard of Pink Floyd. Kamil’ remembers the one true love from his distant past and considers reconnecting with her, even though he has a devoted wife at home organizing a New Year’s party for him and his friends. Sasha refuses to marry his longtime girlfriend, Vika (Natal’ia Shvets), who has threatened to leave him over his foot-dragging. To justify their unwillingness to make romantic commitments, the friends imagine a “non-wedding ceremony” between DJ Maks and a young woman, in which the “non-spouses” agree to forego marriage and preserve each other’s freedom. Maks vows not to parade around in his underwear, come home drunk, have affairs, or beat his “non-wife,” who in turn promises not to nag, snoop in Maks’s mobile telephone, be jealous of his friends, or walk around the apartment in a cucumber mask. Devoted married life is just too onerous for the protagonists. For them, it is best not to get too seriously involved, as Kamil’ later jocularly proclaims: “I’ve discovered the second law of gravity. The more passionately you pursue a woman, the more heavily she weighs on you later.”
The film, though, eventually consoles the men in their female troubles. Their romantic interests are all stunningly svelte, stylish, and beautiful. In spite of their men’s boorish behavior and attitudes, the women are endlessly devoted to them. When the situation at the besieged office escalates, the men telephone the women for advice and consolation. Sasha’s girlfriend immediately leaves a swank New Year’s function to check up on him. Kamil’s and Lesha’s wives drop their New Year’s preparations and—though drunk, armed with kitchen cutlery—drive to their husbands’ rescue. Yet even after this demonstration of unconditional love, Kamil’ slinks off to the bathroom in an attempt to text his past flame. At the end of the film, however, all is forgiven, at least for the night. DJ Maks invites the rock band “Neschastnyi sluchai” to serenade a holiday dance at the office. The men and women embrace and sway to the music, as the lead singer croons, “If there were no you, tell me, then, what would I have to live for?” The protagonists, despite their dilemmas involving women—and their mistreatment of them—really are quite fortunate in love. The women’s unflagging adoration alleviates any anxieties of not measuring up. Things could be much worse—they could be saddled with a wife like Anzhela Viktorovna.
So what are these men like – these four fellows whom women cannot help but adore? They are in their late thirties. They have receding (or already receded) hairlines and expanding waistlines. None of them is strikingly handsome. But they dress fashionably enough and drive SUVs. They are all gainfully employed. Sasha has a palatial office, and his mates are evidently in his income bracket. The four decidedly belong to the upper middle class, even if they are contending with various neuroses and fancy themselves as sad sacks. They are just right—sympathetic and admirable, but not too threatening—for the narcissistic identification Mulvey classically detects in mainstream cinema. But these heroes are not the alpha males of the film. This position belongs to Anzhela Viktorovna’s thuggish husband. He wields the threat of violence and dispatches a pair of hired goons to do his bidding. At the film’s climax, he arrives at the office to demand a private conversation with Sasha. He makes a “gentleman’s request” (muzhskaia pros’ba) to Sasha to telephone his wife and apologize for the row earlier in the day. Sasha grudgingly does so, telling her through his teeth, “I was wrong to lose my temper around a woman. For this rudeness I apologize.” His abject apology is met with an outburst of shrieking, so he hands the mobile back to her husband, who leaves Sasha to stew in indignation and humiliation.
The fact that this bandit is higher on the social totem pole galls Sasha, who moans resentfully to his friends: “I am 40, and look how this guy talks to me. Why is he in control? What is he, smarter?” But Anzhela’s husband is decidedly not in control of his life. Before leaving, he asks Sasha whether the latter truly told Anzhela “to go f*** herself” (“Ty poslal ee?”). Sasha, expecting more grief, replies timidly that he did. Anzhela’s husband responds, however: “I really envy you.” Sasha—a beta male—has a freedom that the bandit lacks. Indeed, after he leaves Sasha, he is forced to visit his mother-in-law. Anzhela then blows up in a rage when he kisses her on the ear at a banquet. This henpecked hegemonic male gets the final imaginary sketch of the film, in which he envisions two hooded female figures dangling from a gallows. One has a sign around her neck reading, “This bitch ruined my life;” the other has a sign that says, “Her mother.” It is clear that the film’s four heroes actually have it better than the New Russian bandit. They are not controlled by their women, even though their problems all involve them. The four men of Quartet I may view themselves as “average guys,” but they provide viewers with a fantasy that average guys can have a satisfying, successful life.
The camerawork and mise-en-scène also enhance the film’s idealized reality. All events take place on the biggest Russian holiday of the year, imbuing the timeframe with a jolly, celebratory mood. The opening scene entails crane and aerial panoramic shots of a wintry Moscow, whose domes and rooftops sparkle with whites, yellows, pinks, and pale blues in the mid-winter sun. Traffic flows peacefully. Holiday lights adorn the fir trees. Pedestrians casually stroll arm-in-arm, as snow flurries swirl about them. The city looks magical. This is a picture-perfect, postcard version of Moscow if ever there was one, a perspective that is confirmed as the camera zooms out, revealing that the previous shots have been pages in a booklet of postcards in a store where Kamil’ is shopping. In short, the time and setting place the film’s events in a fantastical world.
The interior of Sasha’s penthouse office is also a sort of masculine Shangri-La, a retreat from woe and an entertaining place to pass the time. The office is huge, occupying the entire top floor of the building and impeccably furnished. It features a multitude of luxurious consumer goods that act to divert attention from perceived personal shortcomings. There is an endless supply of imported alcohol. Moreover, the walls are covered with artwork. Most prominent are various blown-up photographs of powerful American and Russian men from multiple sectors of culture. A pixilated reproduction of a cigar-smoking Clint Eastwood from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) occupies an entire wall and serves as a backdrop for several of the film’s conversations. Additionally, portraits of Iurii Gagarin, Steve Jobs, Leo Tolstoy, and Andy Warhol provide omnipresent role models for the characters and for viewers. In a sort of meta-identificatory moment, the characters surround themselves with images of legendary men with whom they wish to identify, just as viewers identify with them—and the four leads—on the screen. Finally, the office balcony affords the men breathtaking vistas of the Moscow skyline at night and an unhindered view of the hideous Peter the Great statue on the Moscow River, giving the men one more role model for inspiration. The men joke about how Peter would be horrified by what has been done to his image with the statue. Perhaps they are projecting their own feelings about how post-industrial society has made it harder for them to control their own image. But all they need do is step back inside Sasha’s office to have a drink and feel better.
The film peddles a consumerist fantasy that distracts the middle-aged Russian male from the anxieties of his life. The likeable leads seem perfectly geared toward narcissistic projection. They are not sufficiently handsome, heroic, or rich to prevent identification, but are (upper)-middle-class, heterosexual, urban(e), and good-looking enough to attract gorgeous women. Moreover, they lead a comfortable material existence. And through all the turmoil, they have the loyal support of their friends. True, as Stepnova notes, the film alludes to a moral crisis in heterosexual relationships in Russia, but its dialogue and images dwell predominantly on its male leads’ anxieties and effectively work to assuage them. The film, then, is ultimately an escapist reverie set during the holidays in an ideal Moscow. It permits men to air their (imagined and petty) grievances, but ultimately rewards them with consumerist goods and a bounty of beautiful, doting women. What heterosexual man would not trade in his tribulations in a heartbeat to be burdened with problems like those of Quartet I? You really can have it all. Life is tolerable. At least in the movies.
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Doubivko, Lena, "“Dmitrii D’iachenko: What Men Talk About," KinoKultura, 29 (2010).
Mulvey, Laura, “Narrative Cinema and Visual Pleasure,” Screen, 16.3(1975), pp. 6-18.
Stepnova, Svetlana, “Bez novogo schast’ia,” RusKino.ru.
Tikhonova, Elena, “Muzhchiny na grani nervnogo sryva,” Film.ru,27 December 2011.
What Else Men Talk About Russia, 2011
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Dmitrii D’iachenko
Screenplay: Leonid Barats, Aleksandr Demidov, Rostislav Khait, Kamil’ Larin
Producers: Leonid Barats, Rostislav Khait
Cinematography: Andrei Debabov
Music: Aleksei Kortnev
Cast: Leonid Barats, Aleksandr Demidov, Rostislav Khait, Kamil’ Larin, Maksim Vitorgan, Maksim Chepurin, Aleksei Makarov, Ekaterina Vilkova, Vitalii Khaev, Natal’ia Shvets, Vladimir Men’shov, Sergei Burunov
Production Company: Kvadrat
Dmitrii D’iachenko: What Else Men Talk About (O chem eshche govoriat muzhchiny, 2011)
reviewed by David McVey © 2012