Issue 38 (2012)
David Dodson and Aleksandr Maliarevskii: 8 First Dates (8 pervykh svidanii, 2012)
reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2012
Co-directed by an American and a Russian director (David Dodson and Aleksandr Maliarevskii), and with a list of script writers almost as long as the cast (Mikhail Savin, Iurii Kostiuk, Dmitrii Grigorenko, Iurii Mikulenko, Timofei Saenko, Vladimir Zelenskii, Boris Shefir, Sergei Shefir, Andrei Iakovlev), 8 First Dates strikes one as an amalgam of every romantic comedy in existence. The basic plot structure, acting style, music, costume choices, and sets here are all borrowed straight from Hollywood’s basic tool box. As one reviewer notes, Dodson and Maliarevskii clearly watched every American romcom (or “sitcom” as several Russian reviewers call it) before embarking on this project. In this film, the colors are bright, the music is upbeat, the actors are attractive—though Vera (Oksana Akin’shina) gets to be admired for her looks, while Kostia (Vladimir Zelenskii) is liked for his personality—the dialogue is snappy, and there is a fairy-tale structure that insists that there is a right person out there for everyone, and with the right amount of luck/fate/magical thinking we too will be able to find true love. Released on March 8, 2012 (International Women’s Day), this film was advertised as a “present” to women everywhere.
It is, as one reviewer put it, a “fairy tale for adults.” (see afisha.mail.ru; film.ru; films.imhonet.ru)
The film’s choice of title takes us straight to Adam Sandler’s 2004 50 First Dates, in which a skirt-chasing veterinarian (Sandler) befriends a young woman (Drew Barrymore), who wakes up every morning thinking it is Sunday October 13 of the previous year. Or, going a bit farther back, to Groundhog Day (1993), in which a self-centered and sour TV meteorologist Phil Connors (Bill Murray) wakes up to find that he is reliving February 2. We might also recall the 2001 film Serendipity in which a series of chance encounters first brings John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale together, then pulls them apart, and then reunites them. In a standard romantic comedy, the two lovers tend to be young, likeable, and apparently meant for each other, yet they are kept apart by some complicating circumstance (e.g., class differences, parental interference, a previous girlfriend or boyfriend) until, surmounting all obstacles, they are finally wed. While a wedding is not “mandatory,” living “happily ever after” is—after all, a romantic comedy is there to shore up our belief in the notion of true love. It is precisely this fairy tale aspect of the romcom that at once covers over and reveals a fundamental Lacanian truth: “there is no such thing as a sexual relation.”
8 First Dates opens inside a karaoke bar, though our first shots of Vera (Akin’shina) singing into the mike initially suggests a different mise-en-scène: that of a real singer on stage. Akin’shina’s earlier role in Valerii Todorovskii’s film Stilyagi (Hipsters, 2008) contributes to our image of her as a singer—a belief immediately undone by a counter shot of a television monitor showing Grigorii Leps and the words to “Just a glass of vodka on the table” (Tol’ko riumka vodki na stole) running along the bottom of the screen. Vera’s voice (now singing noticeably off-key) synched to the lip movements of Leps is perhaps our first clue that this film will be about mismatch, and about the desire for a certain kind of unity, if not union. But it also speaks to the mismatch between the provenance of this film (Russia) and its foreign antecedents: like the Sambuca that the young women drink while singing about vodka, the film itself is a kind of “karaoke,” a foreign product transported onto Russian soil.
We learn quickly that Vera is there for her bachelorette party, while at the table next to her, another group of friends is celebrating a bachelor party. Both Vera (the host of a talk show “Interviews in Bed”) and Kostia (a well-to-do veterinarian) are making the correct marital choices: Vera’s fiancé is a professional tennis player and Vera’s iPhone shows us shots of the couple in various picturesque spots around the world: at the beach, on the ski slope. Kostia’s fiancée Ilona (Ekaterina Varnava) is equally appealing: Kostia has only one picture of her on his phone, but it is worth a thousand words—she is a top rated plastic surgeon who specializes in breast augmentation, and has not failed to make herself look her very best. (As we learn later, Ilona is also a good head taller than Kostia, which enables many more gags about her breasts.) Vera’s girlfriends predictably coo over the tennis player, advising Vera to get pregnant immediately, as a way of keeping her man. Kostia’s friends, while elated by Ilona’s cleavage, advise Kostia to sow his wild oats in the short time remaining to him before the wedding. Both parties end up on stage dancing and singing and the very next morning, Vera and Kostia wake up together in an unfamiliar bed.
In the language of a romantic comedy, this is called the “meet cute”: the moment when our potential couple is brought together through a series of chance, mystical, if not downright magical encounters. In 8 First Dates the “meet cute” takes place in a location that is at once fantastic and banal: waking up the next morning, Vera and Kostia find themselves in a model “house of your dreams” constructed for an exhibition of interior design in Moscow’s Afimаll City [Afimoll siti] shopping mall. Leaving their dream house, Vera and Kostia walk through the mall, surrounded by gigantic matryoshka dolls (one reviewer calls them matreshki-mutanty). While the giant matryoshkas were not created for the film, but in fact, occupy the 6th floor of the mall even in reality, their presence here introduces a bit of Russian folklore into a space dedicated to Western-style consumerism. The fact that the dolls appear to suffer from gigantism points to the overblown dependence on fairy tale logic and make-believe that this film, even more than the standard romantic comedy, seems to rely on to move its plot forward.
Vowing never to see each other again, Vera and Kostia wake up together again the very next morning in exactly the same bed, and this “meet cute” continues until they begin to accept their life as a couple in the dream house—brushing teeth together, drinking their morning coffee, and lying to their fiancé(e)s. It is only at the point that they realize that they have fallen in love that fate turns against them: the dream house is disassembled and shipped off to various locations around the Russian Federation, and now, no matter what Vera and Kostia do, they are magically kept apart, just as before they were magically brought together. Searching for each other all over Moscow, Vera and Kostia must learn that they are meant to be together, like Adam and Eve, in the story that artist and designer—and, as it is revealed in the end, architect of the “dream house”—Klim Aristarkhovich “Abramson” tells Vera on her talk show. God, he tells her, made it so that no matter where Adam and Eve would fall asleep, they would always wake up next to each other the next morning. In the closing shots of the film, Vera comes back to the now reassembled dream house to find Kostia sleeping on the floor (the bed was the only item that could not be recalled. Even Abramson could not make it happen). Finally reunited and with no further obstacles to their union, Vera and Kostia can now begin to live happily ever after. The final shot of the film is from inside the mall where the architect/God/Abramson contemplates the exterior of his “dream house,” with Vera and Kostia now successfully enclosed within.
Writing about courtly love in his seminar “God and the Jouissance of the Woman,” Jacques Lacan posited courtly love as “an altogether refined way of making up for the absence of sexual relation by pretending that it is we who put an obstacle to it.” “For the man,” he wrote, “whose lady was entirely, in the most servile sense of the terms, his female subject, courtly love is the only way of coming off elegantly from the absence of sexual relation (l’absence du rapport sexuel)” (Lacan 1982: 141). “L’absence du rapport sexuel” is Lacan’s formulation regarding the “deadlock” of sexuality. For Lacan, courtly love is about avoiding the sexual relation by pretending, by putting in place, a series of obstacles to prevent access to the object one ostensibly loves. Something similar can be said of Stalinist socialist realist films, where the conventions of prudishness, mistrust, loyalty to the state, and the complete removal of sexual desire together allow the Stalinist hero—handsome, virile, and strong—to “come off elegantly” from the absence of sexual relation.
The romantic comedy, on the surface, appears as the very the opposite of this notion of courtly love: over and over again, romantic comedies stage the possibility of an ideal heterosexual union that ends in marriage. Even Valeriia Gai Germanika’s deeply cynical but ultimately optimistic TV series Short Course for a Happy Life (Kratkii kurs shchastlivoi zhizni, 2012) ends on a positive note: every woman gets her man, no matter how improbably. (There is a nod in 8 First Dates to Gai Germanika’s TV serial, which premiered on TV 1 on March 12. Convinced he’s found Vera, Kostia knocks on a car stuck in traffic only to find Svetlana Khodchenkova—who plays the main character, Sasha in the Short Course—inside. He apologizes and leaves, but then does a double take, as if suddenly struck by the thought that he has seen this woman somewhere before.)
And yet, as 8 First Dates demonstrates, the romantic comedy is precisely the genre that underscores the impossibility of this union by relying on the forces of fate and magic to bring together its protagonists, by moving heterosexual happiness beyond the realm of the everyday, and into the purely fantastic. The revelation of the “designer’s” presence at the end of 8 First Dates underscores Lacan’s second point about the deadlock of sexual relation: there is no direct, unmediated relation between the male and female sexual position, he stresses, “because the Other of language stands between them as a third party” (Lacan 1975: 64; Lacan 1982: 141).
Through a “network of detours, approximations and near-misses,” (Žižek 1994: 95), 8 First Dates makes clear that true love is attainable only by way of an incessant postponement and magical intervention, until it surpasses everyday reality and becomes something blown out of all proportion—like a two-story high matryoshka doll. It is here that “love,” normal, everyday, is elevated into the dignity of the Thing (the Freudian das Ding). Suddenly, we are no longer satisfied with regular everyday relations, suddenly those perfect partners we thought we had are no longer good enough—we need something bigger. We need dream houses, magic, God. More than teaching us that true love is possible, I think, the romcom actually does the opposite. It teaches us instead that our belief in true love is founded on a series of fantasies, produced by the “dream” laboratories of Hollywood and its imitators, and hermetically sealed off in a magical world we like to call the “cinema.”
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
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Lacan, Jacques (1975), Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil.
Lacan, Jacques (1982), Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne. Eds. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. London: Macmillan.
Žižek, Slavoj (1994), The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality. New York: Verso.
8 First Dates, Russia 2012
Color, 83 minutes
Director: David Dodson, Aleksandr Maliarevskii
Script: Mikhail Savin, Iurii Kostiuk, Dmitrii Grigorenko, Iurii Mikulenko, Timofei Saenko, Vladimir Zelenskii, Boris Shefir, Sergei Shefir, Andrei Iakovlev
Director of Photography: Bruce Alan Greene
Production Design: Vladimir Rodimov
Costume Design: Anastasia Nefedova
Musical Director: Brian Carr
Editing: David Dodson
Cast: Oksana Akin’shina, Vladimir Zelenskii, Ekaterina Varnava, Denis Nikiforov, Sabina Akhmedova, Viktor Vasil’ev (III), Sergei Barkovskii
Producers: Ekaterina Gordetskaia, Vladimir Zelenskii, Andrei Rad’ko, Sergei Shefir, Boris Shefir
Production: Studia Kvartal-95
David Dodson and Aleksandr Maliarevskii: 8 First Dates (8 pervykh svidanii, 2012)
reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2012