Issue 37 (2012)

Viktor Shamirov: Exercises in Beauty (Uprazhneniia v prekrasnom, 2011)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2012

exercises stillIn provincial Russia, with its relative paucity of things cultural, a Moscow troupe finds itself, time and time again, on an enlightening, not merely entertaining, mission. Yet the actors’ principal motivation for joining the troupe may well be far from lofty. For students and recent graduates, this is usually one of their first professional opportunities. Those more experienced tend to do it for mercenary reasons. In the film under review, a beginner actress asks soul-searchingly a colleague who is considerably longer in the tooth: “What are we? Where are we from? And what is our purpose?”—“We are Gastarbeiter. From Moscow. For dosh,” comes the answer. While on tour, both types apparently quarrel and frolic to excess. Memorable—and often embarrassing—encounters with fans of diverse background, former classmates and the police are reportedly in abundance. Exercises in Beauty, co-produced, co-written and directed by Viktor Shamirov, an ex-student of Mark Zakharov and a theatre director in his own right (he worked, among others, at the Russian Army, Mossovet and Stanislavsky theatres), try to turn this potentially gratifying material into a belated Russian answer to Michael Frayn’s play Noises Off (1982). The success is partial.

exercises stillExercises in Beauty is based on a play by Shamirov and his two co-stars, Konstantin Iushkevich (who had also studied under Zakharov and subsequently worked in his Lenkom theatre) and Gosha Kutsenko (of the Antikiller and Daywatch/Nightwatch fame). The play heavily relies on the trio’s own touring experiences, interpreted largely in a comical way. Its dress rehearsal made such an impact on the independent film producer Andrei Novikov (a co-founder of the “Yalta-Film” Studios and a financial influence behind Grigorii Konstantinopol’skii’s 2009 package film Pussycat/Koshechka) that he volunteered to invest in a film version.

exercises stillExercises in Beauty tells a story of one actress, three actors and their administrator that travel from one unnamed provincial theatre to another (the credits reveal that the city of Tver’ and its surroundings were the crew’s location of choice). The group perform an unidentifiable (and probably non-existent) costume drama about the Francophone aristocracy, presumably to demonstrate graphically how distant life is in much of today’s Russia from anything traditionally associated with class, style and high culture. There is hardly any plot, and the chief interest lies in the relationship dynamics among the troupe members. Two little-known actors—the unhappily married Vasilii who cannot hold his drink (Iushkevich), and the Jew Albert (Shamirov) who is gay and shares a flat with his mother and a she-cat—envy the third’s (Kutsenko) fame because he has frequently been engaged in various blockbusters and popular TV series and is instantly recognised in the streets. Alisa (Kseniia Radchenko), the only actress in the troupe, is still a student, drafted in at the last moment because the show’s regular female lead has had to drop out at short notice. Predictably, Alisa becomes the object of her colleagues’ advances, with Kutsenko’s character, Evgenii Kalinin, anticipating an easy victory. While harbouring his own designs on Alisa, the administrator Andrius (Pavel Savinkov) is entrusted with a near impossible task of keeping from premature self-destruction this explosive mix of insecure and overinflated egos, united more by their fondness for alcohol than their vocation (or so it seems).

exercises stillIn such a set-up, a great deal depends on the ensemble’s chemistry and coordination in evoking a specific atmosphere. It has to be said, however, that the five main actors appear at their best mostly when they fool around together. Otherwise, their contributions are uneven. It is difficult to ascertain whether Radchenko portrays an inexperienced actress or simply is one (incidentally, in the theatre version of Exercises in Beauty, her part was played by a different actress, Anna Ostrovskaia). Kutsenko clearly enjoys himself acting out what looks like a self-caricature. Unfortunately, the intentionally silly yellow wig covering his habitually shaved cranium diminishes his magnetic sex appeal, and with it—strange but true—his histrionic powers. He repeatedly overacts and delivers too many of his lines in unseemly haste. The same can be said about most other company members, who have evidently been affected by the tight production schedule. The only exceptions are Shamirov, who always knows exactly what he is doing when he acts, and Robert Saral’p in the bit part of a local big shot who invites Kalinin to a post-performance meal in a restaurant in order to show off and becomes jealous and violent when his girlfriend asks to be photographed next to the celebrity. Yet it is Iushkevich who has been given a 2011 Kinotavr prize as the best actor for his role in Exercises in Beauty.

exercises stillIt is hard to argue, however, against another honour bestowed on the film by the same festival jury, namely the award for the best film script. Irrespective of its imperfect transfer onto the screen, the script (which has sustained some cuts and additions with regard to the original play) remains in effect dynamic, engaging and witty. All in all, its overarching concern with Russian theatre buckling under pressure from the present-day crude commercialism has survived in the film more or less intact. Exercises in Beauty’s vision of the immediate future for theatre is fairly grim. It is highly symbolic that the film concludes with Kalinin’s decision to leave the troupe and to concentrate on his television career instead. As he is the only star on the show with significant crowd-pulling credentials, his departure spells the end for the project. Kalinin realises this full well, but, as he has explained to Alisa earlier, ‘When they give you a degree in acting, they take your moral scruples away’.

Andrei Rogatchevski
University of Glasgow

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Exercises in Beauty, Russia 2011
Colour, 93 minutes
Director: Viktor Shamirov
Screenplay: Viktor Shamirov, Gosha Kutsenko, Konstantin Iushkevich
Producers: Viktor Shamirov, Gosha Kutsenko, Konstantin Iushkevich, Andrei Novikov
Cinematography: Semen Iakovlev
Music: Dmitrii Katkhanov
Cast: Viktor Shamirov, Gosha Kutsenko, Konstantin Iushkevich, Kseniia Radchenko, Pavel Savinkov, Robert Saral’p
Production Company: Stsena

Viktor Shamirov: Exercises in Beauty (Uprazhneniia v prekrasnom, 2011)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2012

Updated: 06 Jul 12