Issue 40 (2013)
Rezo Gigineishvili: Love with an Accent (Liubov’ s aktsentom, 2012)
reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2013
Among Russian audiences, it used to be a compliment to say about a film that one can “rest” in it (kino, na kotorom mozhno otdykhat’). Love with an Accent is a film made deliberately in this spa-like spirit. The plot lines are designed accordingly: an unhappy Lithuanian woman goes to Georgia to find a husband; a young Russian man flies to the Caucasus to introduce himself to his fiancée’s kin; a famous Russian couple—director/husband and producer/wife—are about to divorce but change their mind in the same mountain region... These and several more subplots are loosely combined in a film that does not take place in the Soviet era, as the multinational story mix might suggest, but in 2012. The atmosphere is upbeat throughout, the colors are bright, the music joyful, the performers young. This is the first Russian-Georgian coproduction after a two-decade hiatus, and if one did not know what happened during those twenty fateful years, the film would provide no indication whatsoever about it.
The mere fact that such a film could appear in today’s Russian-Georgian framework is remarkable in itself. But the price that the filmmakers are willing to pay for its very appearance is the complete and deliberate avoidance of any political or historical fact—there is not even a hint of a conflict, past or present. Instead, the whole focus is love, just as the title promises. The ten principal characters live in a space composed of majestic nature, classical and modern tunes, and endless cultural stereotypes and clichés—including the haunting folk song “Suliko,” the paintings of Niko Pirosmani, and the stern customs of deeply patriarchal yet also hospitable mountain folk. Love with an Accent introduces its characters with quasi-documentary interviews regarding their views of love. Subsequently, these views unfold in simple subplots that rarely if ever cross each other. Surely, the prominent film director makes headlines in the yellow press that is read by other characters, and the gifted boy who plays Mozart at a competition finally appears on TV for all to see. But the subplots’ disjointedness itself is part of the message: the entire cast is in love in one way or another, and all of them strive for happiness in this love – some melancholically, others aggressively. There is the Georgian cook who sells his apartment in order to buy a million flowers for the platonically admired tourist guide, thus emulating Niko Pirosmani’s legendary act of sacrifice for his French beloved. There is the poor Russian guy who loves a rich Georgian girl, and both have to escape from her disgruntled father’s bullies. The most developed character is that of “Helga” who dreams of having a family, or at least a child, and who immediately buys a ticket to Tbilisi when she watches a program about the exceptional fertility of Georgian men even at an old age. As usual in comedies, she chases after all sorts of unattainable marriage material while not noticing the bellboy at her five-star hotel who loses his mind in her presence. (Some Russian reviewers have asked why the filmmakers opted for a character from Lithuania—one possible answer may be that among the three Baltic republics, Lithuania is the one with the least troubled attitude toward Russia and Russians; another explanation could be the intended reinforcement of the film’s underlying concept of the transnational nature of love that overcomes all borders and prejudices). Perhaps the most interesting, although somewhat opaque character is that of a Georgian man in hiding from the police (Merab Ninidze who played Tornike in Abuladze’s Pokoianie/Repentance) who teaches a musically gifted boy soccer and who also develops a passionate relationship with a young woman living across the street from his hideout apartment. This subplot is the only one that does not end in shining happiness but on a somewhat bittersweet note, when the man is taken away in handcuffs.
Love with an Accent is fast-paced and full of commotion: the various characters dance, swim, jog, dive, fly, climb, drink, and gamble in one big colorful festival. Even the shallowest conflicts are merely hinted at before being resolved for good: the estranged husband and wife rediscover their love of old, the lost groom finds his bride in the mountains, the deluge of flowers convinces the tour guide of an unknown man’s devotion, the little piano wunderkind wins the competition. And the bellboy finds Helga and is already on his way to Vilnius… This conflict-avoidance strategy is obviously intended to keep the overall tone of pleasantness and harmony intact. The underlying philosophy is that people should not take themselves—or life as such, for that matter—too seriously because life is fundamentally good in this film, and most characters get what they desire in the end. Any obstacles on the path to fulfillment are temporary misunderstandings at best. Not surprisingly, such philosophy of spotless eternal sunshine angered the majority of serious film critics, given the current geopolitical context. In turn, the director, the producer, and several stars rejected critical objections as morose and uncalled for, juxtaposing the favorably inclined majority of viewers to the spoiled minority of intellectual sourpusses who can only enjoy a cinema of gray pessimism and endless suffering. Given the film’s obvious target audience and implied mode of perception, it is indeed unnecessary to measure movies such as Love with an Accent with a Sokurov or even Balabanov yardstick. And it is undeniable that the film’s demonstrative optimism produces a few genuinely funny jokes, although it also recycles many well-known ones. But when viewing Gigineishvili’s film against the backdrop of the tradition in which it would like to see itself – the cinema of Giorgi Danelia and Otar Ioseliani – the resemblance is only a superficial one. Certainly, the appearance of Vakhtang Kikabidze (Mimino) dancing with Nana Bregvadze undoubtedly signals cultural continuity, as does the list of second-generation stars, from the Mikhalkovs to Filipp Iankovskii. But Daneliia’s best films convey a melancholy about life’s vanity and human self-deception that is completely absent from Love with an Accent, to say nothing of Ioseliani’s ironic parables that always point to deeper, uncomfortable truths. And still, it seems silly to get angry at such a film whose creators make no secret of their benevolent intentions, including clear commercial incentives. The energy that carries Love with an Accent is one of unaggressive complacency – even “Make love, not war!” would be too serious a slogan to advertise it. Instead, “Don’t worry, be happy!” would be the perfect fit.
The thirty-year old Rezo Gigineishvili who in 2006 landed a box-office hit with a similarly contrived but effective story, Heat (Zhara), romanticizing Moscow and Muscovites, made a noticeable effort to emphasize the positive elements in current life. His choice of Russian-Georgian relations for such an ambitious project reveals a certain grit, considering all the negativity dominating present-day perceptions of the post-Soviet experience. This grit may be akin to the one mustered by Vladimir Men’shov when he distilled the laden and tense late 1970s into the megahit Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears and later the chaotic 1990s into the funny – albeit badly underrated – Shirli-myrli. However, while concept and intention may be similar, the difference lies in Men’shov’s fine ear for socially relevant intonations, whereas Gigineishvili prefers an attitude of absolute naïvete in regards to all the intricacies of modern neo-capitalist society. A British film that immediately comes to mind when watching Love with an Accent – and several Russian reviewers brought up the similarities, starting with the title—is the 2003 comedy Love, Actually, a sleeper hit whose profound insincerity masks as human benevolence and wisdom. However, the Russian-Georgian film never makes an attempt to smuggle a political message underneath its kitschy wrap—it simply avoids politics altogether, which is at least a more honest approach.
The peaceable essence of the film is beyond doubt. Indeed, Love with an Accent counts on the conflict-weary mass viewership, trying to please it by showing the positive human potential in the post-Soviet space while carefully avoiding any kind of unpleasantness, political or otherwise. The implied exhaustion from the politicization of society in Russia and the former republics, which in itself, of course, is a political phenomenon, translates into the filmmakers’ intention (apart from the box office) to soothe by simply not mentioning the wounds. In Love with an Accent, people are engaged in making music, films, and love—but never in adversity. Such paradoxical renaissance of “conflictlessness” can be observed in all post-Soviet societies, especially in the genre of television miniseries. Cultural, or quasi-cultural, consumption thus serves as a social anti-stress remedy rather than an agent helping to grasp reality—something that Hollywood and Bollywood movie producers have been practicing for decades, and with enormous monetary rewards. To realize this kind of unconcerned entertainment requires the acceptance of a high degree of artificiality, and Gigineishvili and his company are apt pupils in applying Western techniques from the existing rich arsenal of globalized culture. Indeed, if commercially profitable movie fare in the West indulges in smoothing over even the starkest and most ubiquitous conflicts, if billionaires can seriously fall in love with prostitutes and prime-ministers with secretaries, if unemployed workers can become happy strippers—why should different rules apply to the Russian and Eurasian cinema sphere? The critical discourse, however, is faced with a dilemma: what companies sell as “life-affirming optimism” is denounced as shameless opportunism by discriminating critics—but any attempt to mediate between these incompatible positions is futile by definition. Love with an Accent was made with the expectation that its carefree friendliness and harmless humor will appeal to millions and make millions. Those who detest profitable feelgoodism should simply avoid watching it.
The George Washington University
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Love with an Accent, Russia, 2012
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Rezo Gigineishvili
Script: Alisa Khmel’nitskaia, David Turashvili, Rezo Gigineishvili
Composer: Dato Evgenidze
DoP: Evgenii Ermolenko
Cast: Nikita Efremov, Anna Mikhalkova, Artur Smol’ianinov, Filipp Iankovskii, Svetlana Bondarchuk, Merab Ninidze, Nadezhda Mikhalkova, Giya Gogishvili, Vakhtang Kikabidze,
Producer: Archil Gelovani, Igor’ Mishin
Production: Nezavisimyi kinoproekt, AprelMIGPictures
Premiere: 11 October 2012
Box Office: $2.5 million
Rezo Gigineishvili: Love with an Accent (Liubov’ s aktsentom, 2012)
reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2013