Issue 40 (2013)
Avdot’ia Smirnova: Kokoko (2012)
reviewed by Lena Doubivko © 2013
“[The intelligentsia] put its will, its heart and its intellect into the study of the people.”
Alexander Blok 
Avdot’ia (Dunia) Smirnova, daughter of renowned director Andrei Smirnov, established herself as a scriptwriter—most famously for Aleksei Uchitel’s His Wife’s Diary (Dnevnik ego zheny, 2000) and The Stroll (Progulka, 2002), as well as an essayist, as the irreplaceable co-host of the popular TV program “School of Slander” (Shkola zloslovia), as actress and, more recently, film director. Infusing her work with intellectual flavor of the Soviet cinematic legacy, Smirnova is committed to making “quality” and “cultured” mainstream films with a recognized (yet not quite realized) potential to become commercial hits in Russia. Some film critics scorn such “mainstream” calls coming from a member of the hereditary creative intelligentsia with a rebellious avant-garde image that has clung to her since her youth. Yet Smirnova has repeatedly insisted on presenting her work as a genre phenomenon (generally conceived as the anti-thesis to art), in her opinion, much needed in order to revitalize the Russian film industry today.
Since her directorial debut with the romantic melodrama Relations (Sviaz’, 2006)—a film, in Smirnova’s own words, “simple as lowing, without complications and authorial flossing, exactly because I want it to be seen by a wide audience” (Baker)—the filmmaker’s propensity to genre movies has recently been strengthened with her romantic comedy Two Days (Dva dnia, 2011), immediately followed by the black comedy Kokoko (2012), both co-scripted with Anna Parmas. While in Relations Smirnova boldly realizes a pure melodrama, following in the footsteps of her father’s Autumn (Osen’, 1974), her two more recent films manage to revive the extinct Soviet genre of the lyric comedy. This genre has been mastered by El’dar Riazanov in the 1970s, and has never recuperated in the post-Soviet cinematic space. With her newfound niche seen as “an almost revolutionary experiment filling the void between fierce art-house and blockbusters” (Plakhov 2011), one can surely suggest that Smirnova has aesthetically distinguished herself from any other director debuting in the 2000s.
A viable contestant for Kinotavr’s Grand Prix in June 2012, and the outright audience favorite, Kokoko is Smirnova’s best and funniest film so far. It attracts mainstream attention, and, similar to Two Days, showcases enough social subcurrents and auteur handwriting to initiate lively discussions within an intellectual crowd. An apparent heir of Il’ia Averbakh’s drama Other People’s Letters (Chuzhie pis’ma, 1975), Kokoko moves away from the romantic disposition of Smirnova’s previous work, becoming a much more delicate psychological experiment. The film explores the intimate platonic bond between Lisa and Vika, seen by the filmmaker as “the highest, special form of love,” and becomes an exceptional example of a Russian female-centered buddy film shot from a woman’s perspective. Vika’s opening line addressed to Lisa: “Awesome! Alone, without men. I promise not to hit on you,” does not fall on deaf ears, but foretells female bonding from a humorous perspective while resisting the tradition of the male-gendered genre.
In line with the buddy film’s classic narrative, Kokoko draws much of its “con gusto” humor on the trivial yet fruitful juxtaposition of two incongruous heroines—the well-mannered and cultured ethnographer Lisa (Anna Mikhalkova), who works at the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera, and the uneducated, hoyden, flashy, but incredibly vital Vika (Iana Troianova), employed as a night club manager in Ekaterinburg. The opening scene in a train compartment, which two women share on their way to St. Petersburg, supplies plenty of visual and narrative clues to define their future relationship. On the one hand, its claustrophobic mise-en-scène, holding two characters in close proximity, reinforces their obvious disparity (plain and polite Lisa dressed in a grey T-shirt, contrasts with Vika’s fur collar, heavily made-up face, loud manners and dialect). On the other hand, its highly symmetrical design with the space divided equally between the protagonists tells of the equivalency that Lisa and Vika are to have in the film, and the potential harmony they are about to enjoy. Yet fragile as the empty wine-glass later symbolically forming the focal point on the screen (and staining Lisa’s book), this harmony will mainly be based on the large quantities of wine to be consumed together, and not much else.
A disaster brings two heroines together. Vika returns late from the restaurant car and, while trying to get rid of a latched-on male drunk, forgets to lock the compartment. Next morning the fellow-travelers find that their handbags with money and documents have been stolen. This incident not only propels the plot; it becomes indicative of Smirnova’s wish to establish a dialogue with the male buddy genre that traditionally victimizes and marginalizes its female characters. In her analysis of the contemporary Russian buddy film, Dawn A. Seckler writes:
The [male buddy] films fail to offer liberated images of female characters, relying instead on clichéd and reductive binaries. Within a culture famously resistant to feminist politics, the questioning of traditional feminine and misogynist behavior cannot possibly produce a feminist text because the terms of the conflict continue to be defined by dominant patriarchal structures, namely the Russian film industry and the films’ male directors. Resistance to female-centered texts begs the question: is the buddy film necessarily a male-gendered genre? (211-212). 
Smirnova’s answer is, obviously, in the negative. Yet Kokoko is not quite a feminist text. Whereas Vika and Lisa assume subjective parts (in most cases), the male world is transformed into an Other and is intentionally presented as a negative space. Men rob heroines of identity and means of existence. Policemen are violent against Vika, and street hooligans attack both women. Lisa’s predominantly male colleagues at the Kunstkamera may have refined taste and be promiscuous with women, but the image of manhood they present is non-effectual and passive. Women’s ex-husbands are also pictured unfavorably: Valerka, Vika’s ex, now Father Valerian (Sergei Borisov), is a hypocrite, whereas Kirill (Konstantin Shelestun), with whom Lisa has on-and-off relationship, is repugnant, sexist, neurotic and abusive. When Lisa tells Vika that her friend Mitia (Evgenii Muravich) is a skirt chaser, Vika floutingly responds: “your skirt chasers are meeker than eunuchs.” In contrast to men of the intelligentsia, whom Andrei Plakhov (2012) labels he “comic Greek chorus,” Vika and Lisa enjoy “solo parts”: they are agents in advancing their lives and their strange relationship.
When the police suspect Vika to be accomplice to the train theft, Lisa comes to her rescue and invites her to stay in her large studio-apartment. Virtually overnight (and over several bottles of wine) the women strike up a close friendship that Smirnova visualizes by frequently framing both protagonists together (when they sit at the table or walk arm-in-arm and in step, both dressed in black or red), and using medium and close-up shots to accentuate their likeness and dissimilarity. Delighted in Vika’s humor,everyday wisdom, joie de vivre, and capacity for survival in any circumstances, Lisa “chokes” her new-found girlfriend with kindness (“choking” will assume new darker significance at the end of the film). Driven by populist ideas, she not only indefinitely harbors Vika, but takes her to the Kunstkamera, introduces her to the university friends, offers to help with a job, and—in the spirit of George Bernard Show’s Pygmalion—sets to educating Vika and correct her provincial accent (“Your accent is a problem. But we’ll fix that!”). Vika in turn dotes on her rescuer who does not have a knack either for men or for household. She incessantly cleans Lisa’s neglected apartment, cooks for her benefactor and her friends, overwhelms Lisa with expensive presents, and introduces her to the city’s night life. To Lisa’s joy, Vika quickly, albeit superficially, absorbs new words and ideas like Tyshler, becarre and Rococo (which she hears and utters as “kokoko”).
This seemingly indissoluble female friendship masks the film’s two foremost themes: the crisis of the intelligentsia (also explored in Two Days), and the ever problematic relationship between the intelligentsia and the people (narod). Nevertheless, Smirnova has stated in various interviews that Kokoko does not aim to provide the social context but is rather about the communication problem between two social strata. Keeping in mind Smirnova’s insistence on a linguistic interpretation, the film is very telling about the filmmaker’s relentless attitude to her own social class. When the museum director Leonid (Gennadii Smirnov) tells Vika about the unlikelihood of her future employment there, he emphasizes the specialized education and primary research the staff ethnographers are supposed to produce. Vika’s brisk response “I’ve seen their work. They just sit there, shuffle some papers and stare at glass jars” is not far from the truth. The museum world represented in Kokoko, visually dominated by empty spaces and dark tones, is fruitless and dead, like the Kunstkamera exhibit items themselves. After frequent parties with Vika, Lisa does nothing but sleep at work. Doctoral degrees are seen in terms of future prospects to go abroad, and intellectual activity (the absence of which is striking at a research institution) is substituted with complaints and gossips about the museum politics and colleagues who have better connections. Civic and charity activity takes place not by conviction but by inertia: the intelligentsia is supposed to oppose the power after all. Hence, their participation in small political picketing in support of Mikhail Khodorkovskii (which Lisa easily leaves yielding to Kirill’s pressure) and donating to children’s orphanages because “it’s nice to be a good person, isn’t it?” as Mitia says.
Smirnova’s harshest criticism, however, is aimed at the colonialist attitudes of the museum intelligentsia, especially at her protagonist Lisa. It is no coincidence that Lisa and her colleagues work in ethnography—a field that grew out of the master discourse of colonization (Said 1978). Their unjustifiable arrogance towards the Other (here: the people—narod) felt in Lisa’s previous unsuccessful attempts to “civilize” the Aleut, or in Kirill’s judgmental remark about policemen “of course they’re not going to look for your stolen bag, did you see their mugs?” manifests itself above all in their self-righteous attitudes towards Vika (identified in the film not only with the people, but with the witch and the rusalka—the ultimate folkloric Other). Lisa’s intelligent friends party together with Vika, eat food prepared by her, but make no bones about marginalizing and sexualizing her by calling her “a woman like that”, “monster”, “creature”, “rat”, “vulgar”, “brazen”, and “a fish wife” (khabalka) behind her back.
Although Lisa—Vika’s voluntary benefactor—defends Vika before her intellectual friends, she falls into the trap of self-aggrandizement and constructs Vika as primitive and inferior. Together with Kirill, Lisa mocks Vika’s presents which are “simply atrocious” (uzhas nechelovecheskii). Another time, she accuses Vika of a primitive understanding of her relationship with Kirill in front of her best friend Galia (Iuliia Snigir’). Anxious about Vika’s lack of cultural knowledge, Liza engages with Vika’s education, characteristically centering on the European discourse: “India, China, and Egypt … you don’t need to know much.” Using the highly expressive oblique high angle, the camera hovers above this scene conveying to the viewer Lisa’s alliance with the all-powerful hegemonic order that promotes the Westernized view of the Other. This scene also clearly marks the division between two heroines, who are physically separated by a column, with Vika identified with Galatea by close proximity to a female statue. At the Kinotavr Press Conference on Kokoko, Smirnova reflected on the danger of the intelligentsia’s habitual enlightening of the Other:
Precisely with this participation and knowledge ‘how to do things’ we can choke the person. I wanted to tell the truth about ourselves, about our knowledge ‘how things should be done’, our confidence when we exactly imagine what constitutes a morality.
Further in the film, Liza scales the highest peak of hypocrisy in a remarkable scene when she patronizingly accuses Vika’s of a “fascist” interpretation of a nationalistic blockbuster they just saw together: “Will you listen to yourself? …Has it ever entered your head that it was us Russians who went there and forced all our rules on them, nobody invited us, by the way”, breaking Vika into saying “I’m sorry, Lisa. I think I’m just too dumb”. Smirnova’s claims about the search for language’s meaning make perfect sense, indeed. If the intelligentsia’s use of language carries with it liberatory possibilities (such as in the scene or Galia’s entertaining story about the Aleut), the same language has an oppressive quality to Vika, who reads a very different meaning into it. While everyone else is entertained, she’s not laughing.
That said, the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera (identified by Smirnova as a central image) functions as a vivid metaphor for the intelligentsia’s oppressive attitude to the people whom they wish to enlighten. Founded by Peter the Great, the Kunstkamera is the first natural history museum in Russia and a testimony to the Tsar’s attempt to modernize the backward country. Yet this Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography also stands as a vivid symbol for colonial constructions. As Dragan Kujundžić points out:
The objects displayed in the Kunstkamera are meant to represent not themselves but the “epistemological master pattern” (Foucault, Donato) by which the world can be explained, structured, clarified and mastered. Every object displayed in the Kunstkamera [represents] Peter’s attempt to … [acquaint Russia] with the Other, the knowledge of the Other, and the otherness of the enlightened knowledge, which should come from the West, and which Russia lacks (139).
From the enormous Kunstkamera exhibit, Smirnova chooses to focus on Frederik Ruysch’s bizarre collection of anatomical preparations. Illustrating the typical Baroque topoi of memento mori, its most significant part includes fetuses, neonates, individual organs and body parts embalmed in formaldehyde that ironically become the metaphor for modernizing Russia (Kujundžić 140). This irony is not lost on Smirnova. The most symbolically loaded shot of the film features Vika and Lisa framed on either side of a container with embalmed Siamese fetuses. Not only the intelligentsia and the people, as the twin fetuses, are infinitely bound to each other, their problematic relationship is going to remain stale and unaltered like the formaldehyde solution in the stuffy museum.
Not surprisingly, the two women’s friendship is not meant to last. Independent, charismatic, good-looking, and sharp, Vika is quick to find her own friends, connections and eventually a job as art director at a St. Petersburg music club. Once Lisa realizes she is losing control over her “anthropological subject,” she feels antagonistic. Their relationship is completely ruined when Lisa comes home one day to find Vika and Kirill having sex. As befits the “Petersburg Text”, the darkly comic finale has a Dostoevskian subtext. Acoustically accompanied by a murmuring fountain—another “atrocious” present from Vika—the last drop in the cup of Lisa’s tolerance and she attempts to choke her girlfriend with a pillow. Vika puts up a fight, Lisa calls the police, and the two women are back in the police station—the same place that brought them together at the beginning of the film. Leaving Vika behind the bars, Lisa resolutely walks out … only to come back seconds later to “rescue” her friend again. A fast and abrupt ending with Vika crying out: “No, don’t give me back to her! I want to go home!” (to the remixed dance version of Lidiia Ruslanova’s Valenki-Valenki) completes the “circle” of this uneasy relationship, offering no clear resolution. Lisa, obviously, has learned nothing from this experience. She may, like Raskol’nikov, be tormented by guilt, but Smirnova refused to nudge her into spiritual resurrection. Only Vika with her folk wisdom offers a sensible option of a peaceful divorce. To Smirnova, this seems the only answer to the distressed saga of the intelligentsia and the people.
While not tied to box-office success (although quite successful with US$ 500,000), Kokoko is Smirnova’s remarkable achievement. Both, socially pointed and entertaining, the film is replete with sharp dialogues, tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted humor, and terrific acting. Smirnova’s beloved Anna Mikhalkova (who had starred in Relations) and Iana Troianova, who impressed the director with her superb performance in Vasilii Sigarev’s Wolfy (Volchok, 2009), were jointly awarded Best Actress at Kinotavr. Granted, Kokoko did not collect the best film prize there, yet Smirnova’s aspiration towards quality mainstream filmmaking has most definitely enriched the contemporary comedy genre.
University of Washington
2] As Smirnova articulated at the 2011 Kinotavr press conference, she films “in a viewer friendly format, which is not Comedy Club, but certainly not Tarkovskii’s Mirror; go, watch, relax, and think of something at that.”
3] Seckler also analyses three Russian female-buddy films, Valerii Todorovskii’s Land of the Deaf (Strana glukhikh, 1998), Sergei Bodrov Jr.’s Sisters (Sestry, 2001), and Fedor Popov’s debut film, Caucasian Roulette (Kavkazskaia ruletka, 2002), and concludes that they don’t qualify as women’s cinema.
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Baker, Mariia, “Dunia Smirnova: vzroslaia liubov’—eto katastrofa” BBC Russian.com 28 June 2006.
Kujundžić, Dragan, The Returns of History: Russian Nietzscheans After Modernity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Plakhov, Andrei, “Nomenklaturnyi romkom” Seans 6 September 2011.
Plakhov, Andrei, “Sokrushitel’nyi mezal’ians” Kommersant” 15 June 2012.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1978.
Seckler, Dawn A. “Engendering Genre: The Contemporary Russian Buddy Film,” Diss. University of Pittsburgh, 2009.
Kokoko, Russia, 2012
Color, 90 minutes.
Director: Avdot’ia Smirnova
Screenplay: Avdot’ia Smirnova, Anna Parmas
Cinematography: Maxim Osadchii
Producer: Sergei Sel’ianov
Composer: Sergei Shnurov
Cast: Iana Troianova, Anna Mikhalkova, Konstantin Shelestun, Evgenii Muravich, Gennadii Smirnov, Iuliia Snigir’, Sergei Borisov
Avdot’ia Smirnova: Kokoko (2012)
reviewed by Lena Doubivko © 2013