Issue 36 (2012)
Stanislav Govorukhin: Jazz Style (V stile “Jazz”, 2010)
reviewed by Muireann Maguire © 2012
If, as the old joke goes, the archetypal Socialist realist romance followed the formula “Boy gets tractor,” Stanislav Govorukhin’s Jazz Style has introduced a new master plot for the new-moneyed, post-Soviet generation: girl gets motorcycle. Such is the climax of this gentle, visually rich, and narratively underwhelming film, starring Olga Kras’ko as Ira, a theatre actress venturing unsuccessfully into cinema, and Michal Zebrowski as Sergei, the overpaid novelist-turned-screenwriter who falls for her at first sight. With his relaxed charisma (and the gentle growl of a Polish George Clooney), Zebrowski’s character effortlessly captures the hearts of Ira’s mother and sister as well – setting the stage for a prolonged quadrangular intrigue. Yet this summary has already implied more plot tension than the film delivers. Having flounced off set in the opening scenes of Jazz Style, Ira never betrays the slightest subsequent regret for her movie career, apart from wistfully fondling a few DVDs in her local gastronom. Zebrowski resists the charms of both Ira’s teenage siren sister Zhenia (Aglaia Shilovskaia in her debut role), and the girls’ glamorous air stewardess mother Vera (Elena Iakovleva). The plot flows from one shop-worn romantic scenario to the next with the easy-going syncopation of a jazz suite, underscored by a luxurious bluesy soundtrack and punctuated with cameos by jazz musician David Goloshchekin and his orchestra. This is a film which relies on cliché, both narrative and cinematic, to make its points—if indeed there is a point at all.
The love story between Ira and Sergei, for instance, opens with a tricolon of slapstick incidents. Ira, who is playing a society dame in the screen version of Sergei’s novel, has to slap a perfidious suitor in the face. After several failed takes, she swings too hard and accidentally floors her co-star, causing her hasty flight from filming. Later the same day, Sergei is steering his glossy VW sedan along a Moscow street when he accidentally knocks Ira off her feet—coincidentally, at a spot just adjacent to her own apartment building, where Sergei duly turns up unheralded that evening with an extravagant peace offering of flowers. Despite joining forces with the brash and minxy Zhenia to inveigle Ira into a romantic dinner date, Sergei is forced to settle for a jazz concert (featuring Goloshchekin’s troupe) the following evening. During these encounters, Ira emerges as a proponent of maternal values, from home cooking to home remedies for coughs and colds. Sergei has to play up to this maternal side (by revealing a high temperature) to get invited upstairs after their date. Nonetheless, Ira also manifests a surprising gift for street violence: together, she and Sergei spontaneously see off a couple of thugs who fail to show a lady proper respect (Ira using her stiletto heel as an effective handheld weapon). Over a nightcap of tea and honey, Ira and Sergei indulge in flirtatious dialogue so remarkably wooden (“Can’t you see? I’m an extremely suspicious type.”—“That’s exactly why I know I can trust you.”—“How can you be so sure?” —“Because I associate with extremely suspicious types.”) that it actually induces a nosebleed in one of the actors. When first Zhenia and then Vera arrive home, Sergei finds himself at the centre of a set piece of matrilineal harmony, sharing an enormous melon and quaffing cognac with the girls. Vertiginously soon, he is accepted as Ira’s intended and as one of the family. When he flies to Odessa with the film crew, he encounters Vera on the same plane and spontaneously invites her to join him for dinner at an Odessa restaurant. Their date ranges through the clichés of Black Sea cinema, including a beach scene, an Odessa Steps shot, and a ludicrously prolonged, gluttonous feast at a seaside restaurant. At the end of the night, Vera has to guide Sergei back to his hotel and put the unconscious writer to bed (assisted by the director’s winsome assistant; it is suggestively unclear who is chaperoning whom). After Sergei’s return from Odessa, he asks Zhenia’s advice on choosing the perfect birthday present for Ira. It must be expensive, but not too bling; romantic, but original. Zhenia helps him select a motorcycle. Flattered that people take her for Sergei’s girlfriend, she tries to seduce him in earnest. Sergei firmly refuses, calling her a ‘capricious, spoiled infant’ and warning, ‘I can handle you’ (‘Ia spravlius’’). Zhenia restrains her hurt pride until all four arrive at the family dacha to celebrate Ira’s birthday. There, while Sergei is sent off to buy alcohol, Zhenia’s carelessness with some color prints exposes the fact that both mother and sister have had secret, apparently compromising meetings with Ira’s lover (Vera involuntarily lets slip about the night in Odessa). Fuming, Ira determines to finish with Sergei. Fortunately, the motorcycle is delivered just in time to convince her of his love; and Jazz Style ends with a panoramic view of the undulating Moscow River and a comical shot of Zhenia apparently pursuing, or fleeing, the lovers on her bicycle, pedaling furiously and weeping into the wind (oddly reminiscent of the cycling scenes in Pyriev’s The Tractor Drivers [Traktoristy, 1939]). In the very final scene, Zhenia reappears as a vocalist in Goloshchekin’s band.
As another reviewer has observed, Govorukhin sternly restrains his film’s natural potential to develop into either an erotic thriller or a psychological portrait (Galitskaia). Instead, he prunes the narrative into what Galitskaia calls a bezdelushka, a topiary of contemporary trivia. Govorukhin’s new-found bonsai approach to plot was first evident in his previous film, the period romance The Passenger (Passizhirka, 2008), reviewed by Elise Thorsen in KinoKultura 28, which similarly lacked action or character development; what little did occur was seamlessly suppressed. Yet The Passenger was rescued from utter plotlessness by its historical context (a Pacific crossing on a Russian navy vessel in 1882), and from banality by the rich period detail. If we view Jazz Style as a historical drama of our own time, a study in pre-emptive nostalgia, the plotless approach begins to make sense. Where The Passenger revisited tsarist glory, Jazz Style reinvents modern Russia as a harmonious union of kitsch and creativity, where the family kitchen shelters both folksy pottery and modern Swedish fittings; where all career-women are couture-conscious sex kittens; where matching portraits of Medvedev beam at each other across a police commander’s well-appointed office; and coffee bars and expensive cars dominate Moscow’s streets. Similarly, old and new mores collide between the film’s surface heterogeneity and actual conservatism. The women’s sexual confidence is at once enhanced and betrayed by the camera’s obsession with hemlines and accidental flashes; there is a particularly voyeuristic shot of Zhenia in the shower, reflected full-length in a steamy mirror while the camera ostensibly focuses on Ira applying face cream. If not quite an everyman or everywoman, each of the main characters is at least instantly recognizable as the personification of particular social aspirations; Zhenia, the desirable brat with her Californian rollerblades and traditional pigtail; Ira, the self-sufficient yet vulnerable thirtysomething; Vera, the still-sexy, sentimental matron. Sergei, with his Literary Institute education, nebulous army background (“Did you fight in battles?” Ira asks him breathlessly during a tender moment), and equally nebulous wealth, fulfils several aspirational dreams simultaneously. Indeed, his wealth may be his single most important quality in this relentlessly materialistic society. Money is an ever-present, silent fifth partner in the film’s ménage à quatre, explicit even in the penultimate scene, where Sergei tips the delivery men for Ira’s motorcycle with a five-hundred rouble note (a wad of which he pulls carelessly from his pocket).
It would be heartening if we could speculate that Govorukhin is playing these stereotypes off against each other for polemic effect. Instead, Jazz Style reifies the culture it recreates, producing a sense of stultification and unreality. Where the social tensions of modern Russia are implied, they are just as quickly elided. When Zhenia is arrested for beating up a skinhead with an iron bar (acting in defense of a black girl attacked by a gang), Sergei expedites her release by persuading his ex-wife to ply the police commander with signed copies of her latest bestseller. The reality of brutality and bribes is replaced, improbably, by a softer kind of blat. Nor does Govorukhin follow his characters into their darker moments:we never learn why Sergei eats and drinks himself into a stupor on the night spent with Vera in Odessa. Fear of commitment to Ira? Semi-Oedipal lust for Vera? No explanation is offered. Conversely, the film is most successful when it portrays minor characters or humorous incidents that temporarily bypass or subvert the ruling atmosphere of cliché. There is an almost surreal scene where an Odessa taxi driver offers Vera a free ride through Odessa in return for listening to his rambling memories (‘My brother left for New York some forty years ago. He’s lived like this (points skyward); I’ve lived like this (mimes slitting throat). And I’ll tell you something else… my brother’s dead!’). Sergei’s estranged wife, his former classmate at the Literary Institute and, in his own words, a far more successful author until recently, is ably cameo’d by the novelist Tatiana Ustinova as herself; Irina Skobtseva plays Tatiana’s mother, an adoring, super-hospitable babushka, ever-proffering freshly baked pirozhki. Vladimir Sukhorukov, as the eccentric, Hitchcockesque director, burlesques Govorukhin himself. Yet despite the charm of so many talented actors, this film ultimately disappoints; it is hard to justify Jazz Style as anything more than a time capsule of propaganda aimed at the twenty-second century.
Wadham College, Oxford
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Galitskaia, Olga, “Govorukhin ‘V stile jazz…’,” Moskovskii komsomolets 18 August 2010.
V stile “jazz”, Russia, 2010
Color, 90 minutes.
Director: Stanislav Govorukhin
Screenplay: Stanislav Govorukhin, Kseniia Stepanycheva, based on Stepanycheva’s play Hearts of Four
Camera: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Art Design: Valentin Gidulianov
Music: David Golshchekin
Sound: Aleksandr Pogasian
Costumes: Elena Luk’ianova
Editing: Vera Kruglova
Cast: Olga Kras’ko, Aglaia Shilovskaia, Elena Yakovleva, Mikhal Zebrowski, Viktor Sukhorukov, Marat Basharov, Irina Skobtseva, Roman Kartsev, Anna Samokina, Anatolii Belyi, Fedor Dobronravov, Olesia Zhurakovskaia, Tatian Ustinova
Producer: Stanislav Govorukhin, Aleksandr Prosianov
Production: Vertikal' Film Studios
Stanislav Govorukhin: Jazz Style (V stile “Jazz”, 2010)
reviewed by Muireann Maguire © 2012