Issue 39 (2013)
Roman Prygunov: Soulless (Dukhless 2012)
reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2013
Your typical evening looked something like this: clinking glasses with the intelligentsia at Jean-Jacques [Zhan-Zhak]; clutching a glass of mid-shelf vodka while browsing books at O.G.I.; waiting in line for the bathroom at Galeriia; indulging in a mediocre meal for arresting prices in the gold and black suede booths of Vogue Café; dancing among the young and beautiful at face-controlled Fabrique. V.I.P., B.M.V., V.V.P. It was the 2000s, and you were fabulous.
In Russia, reflections on the zeroes, or nulevye—the period from 2000 to 2010—conjure up a set of locations and behaviors that are said to define the ethos of this already mythologized decade. Following the political and financial chaos of the 1990s, Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as President of the Russian Federation on 31 December 1999 ushered in a period of long-awaited stability. This political and financial consistency, in turn, assisted the emergence of a developing middle class in leading metropolitan areas among young overachievers born in the early 1970s. Thus, towards the middle and end of the 2000s, Moscow and St. Petersburg (and later satellites to the historical centers such as Novosibirsk and Astrakhan) underwent a process of cultural “bourgeoisification:” vacation travel increased, expensive coffee shop chains and specialized boutiques sprang up at every metro station, and billboards along main thoroughfares began advertising townhouses and villas where rich cities dwellers could escape the prying eyes of neighbors, coworkers, and local officials. The unspoken agreement between the burgeoning middle class and the authorities might have gone something like this: you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you.
It is not surprising, therefore, that secrecy and hedonism are two characteristics that dominate associations with the nulevye. In the face of governmental and broader institutional corruption, the 2000s are generally defined by indifference on the part of this new middle class: a disinterest in social concerns and a radical retreat into the personal sphere. Retreating to the suburbs is one way to circumvent the societal duty to speak up against social injustice; receding from the public eye ostensibly frees the agent from moral obligation (or, at least, guilt). If we buy into the above narrative about the nulevye, we cannot help but imagine its protagonists as the new superfluous (lishnii) heroes of the 21st century (see Artiukh and Solov’ev-Friedman)—modern-day Oblomovs who traded their dressing gowns for designer furs and crystal tumblers.
Soulless opens in the thick of this set of assumptions about the nulevye. Maks Andreev (Danila Kozlovskii) is a high-ranking manager in a Moscow bank. His life is defined by secrecy and hedonism: secrecy in his profession, where he dupes wealthy investors into backing elaborate real-estate ventures; hedonism in his life, which takes him to a different strip club, gallery premiere, or five-star restaurant each evening. The film is punctuated by brief clips from Maks’ decadent daily routine: a cup of coffee in his penthouse apartment; zipping around Moscow in his black BMW; a line of cocaine from his desk drawer upon arriving to the office. During the press conference directly following the film’s 21 June 2012 premiere in the Khudozhestvenyi Theatre at the 34th Moscow International Film Festival, an elderly journalist remarked that she felt Soulless was nothing more than an advertisement for strip clubs. “Don’t artists take responsibility for their work anymore?,” she asked. Actress Mariia Kozhevnikova responded that the film’s protagonists—her character in particular, a socialite clad in diamonds, fur, and cocaine dust—should be viewed as anti-heroes, as models of how not to act (“Press-konferentsiia DukhLess”). Indeed, Soulless takes a highly moralistic stance on the nulevye. A chance meeting with university student/activist Iulia (Mariia Andreeva) less than fifteen minutes into the film pushes Maks to radically reevaluate his penthouse lifestyle and his former friendships, leading him to the film’s concluding message: “It’s only money.”
Roman Prygunov (b. 1968) established himself directing advertisements and music videos in the 1990s and 2000s, in particular through his work with the group Zemfira. His third feature-length film, Soulless, opened the 2012 Moscow International Film Festival. The screenplay was adapted from Sergei Minaev’s fantastically successful novel Soulless: Story of an Unreal Man (Dukhless: Povest' o nenastoiashchem cheloveke, 2006) by Denis Rodimin, who also wrote the screenplay for Petr Buslov’s Bimmer (Bumer, 2003). While Soulless does not aspire to present a complete picture of life in Moscow during the nulevye, it does address the social politics of the transition from the 2000s to the 2010s—from the secrecy and hedonism of the 2000s to the unexpected and widespread social engagement of the early 2010s. In the world of the film, this transition comes about for the protagonist when he is introduced to the activism of Iulia and her friends, a group of twenty-somethings who organize art performances and public protests under the name Kraska. The actions of Kraska will immediately point the viewer to the street-art collective Voina, members of which in the summer of 2010 painted a 65 meter-long penis on the Liteinyi drawbridge in St. Petersburg, just in time for it to raise in the direction of the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters. The fictional group Kraska will also no doubt recall Pussy Riot, who would become internationally famous less than five months before the film’s premiere with their “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Church of Christ the Savior.
Soulless does not only hint at growing activism among Russians in the present decade; it directly references the mounting dissatisfaction with Vladimir Putin among certain demographics. This is imaged most explicitly during Maks’ business trip to St. Petersburg. While smoking hash on a rooftop patio, Maks sees a Batman-like figure flying towards him. The likeness of the face behind the mask is unmistakable; it is an unequivocal parody of Vladimir Putin. The Putin-superhero lands on the roof to deliver a public service announcement: “stop smoking hashish and visit the Hermitage or the Kunstkamera instead.” At the film’s premiere, the audience broke into jeering laughter at the on-screen entrance of the Putin-lookalike, complete with black suit, mask, and cape. This scene is not merely Maks’ drug-induced hallucination but is representative of a larger nightmare—it is the collective demon of the opposition at the time of the film’s production, who had, since December 2011, been meeting in the streets with white ribbons and white balloons in support of transparent procedures and the end of shady politicians in black masks. If at the beginning of the 2000s Putin was a force of stability, a real-life (and often shirtless) hero offering a strong centralized hand (see, for instance, Ol’ga Zhulina’s A Kiss Not for the Press [Potselui ne dlia pressy, 2007]), by 2011 he had become a parody of his earlier self, reduced in cinema to cameo roles in black leather.
Prygunov and his team began filming Soulless in September 2009. About 60 per cent of the film was completed before the project ran up against financial hardship, as is increasingly becoming the case with contemporary Russian productions. Prygunov then brought Fedor Bondarchuk (Director of 9th Company [9 rota, 2005] and Inhabited Island [Obitaemyi ostrov, 2008]) onto the project as an additional producer. Filming continued and was completed by the end of 2011. Although production on Soulless was over before the contested Russian presidential elections, as Sergei Minaev pointed out in the press conference to the film, the events in the film did not appear out-of-date during its summer 2012 premiere (“Press-konferentsiia DukhLess”). On the contrary, it speaks to broader sentiments that are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
To be exact, Soulless is not about politics but about choices (of course, here the dual significance of the word vybory in Russian, meaning both “choices” and “elections,” cannot be ignored). At the end of the film, Maks has lost nearly everything: he is fired from his job after being undermined by a sneaky French colleague; he is estranged from Iulia, who considers him a money-obsessed egoist; and he loses his best friend, Vadim, who commits suicide after investing a substantial sum of money (together with Maks) into a night club scam. After recovering his and Vadim’s lost money and donating it to an orphanage, Maks passes out in a dumpster and wakes up the next morning in a landfill. Since the opening sequence of the film, which follows the route of a garbage truck to a landfill, the film has been progressing towards Maks’ final set of choices here. By the close of Soulless, the debauchery of Maks’ lifestyle is literalized visually in his being thrown out with the very trash we watched the truck collect earlier. The film sets Maks’ choice to donate the money and pursue Iulia as his choice to forsake his hedonism and begin a new life—in effect, to regain a soul. As Danila Kozlovskii formulated the film’s political and social message: “there is a difference between the choice of which blazer to wear in the morning and the choices that define the future of your life” (“Press-konferentsiia DukhLess”). Soulless sets up an idealized construction of morality, according to which choices between good and evil are black and white. In this cinematic world, Maks moves from lower-order choices to higher-order moral decisions, where the 2000s are the blazer and the 2010s are the nuanced sphere of social accountability.
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Artiukh, Anzhelika and Denis Solov’ev-Fridman, “Dukhless. Retesnziia,” OpenSpace.ru (25 June 2012),
“Press-konferentsiia DukhLess,” Youtube.com, Soulless (Dukhless), 2012
Soulless, Russia, 2012
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Roman Prygunov
Script: Denis Rodimin, adapted from the novel by Sergei Minaev
Cinematography: Fedor Liass
Production Design: Evgenii Kachanov, Zhanna Pakhomova
Editing: Nikolai Bulygin
Music: Pavel Esenin
Cast: Danila Kozlovskii, Mariia Andreeva, Artem Mikhalkov, Artur Smol'ianinov, Mikhail Efremov, Mariia Kozhevnikova
Producers: Petr Anurov, Fedor Bondarchuk, Dmitrii Rudovskii
Production: Kinoslovo, Art Pictures, Universal Pictures International
Roman Prygunov: Soulless (Dukhless 2012)
reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2013