Issue 40 (2013)
Aleksei Balabanov: Me Too (Ia tozhe khochu, 2012)
reviewed by Irina Anisimova © 2013
Nikita Kartsev: “Does your appearance give this film the form of a personal statement?”
Aleksei Balabanov: “I wanted everything to be real, that people would believe.”
Aleksei Balabanov described his new film, Me Too, as his most personal film. Can we then interpret this film as Balabanov’s statement of his religious views and of the coming end of the world? With its allegorical elements and religious symbolism, can we call this film an expression of a “new sincerity” in contemporary Russian culture?
The film certainly gestures towards the transcendental. In its interest in existential questions and use of the fantastic, Me Too shares thematic similarity with Andrei Tarkovskii’s Stalker (1979). Yet do the film’s message and style suggest the timeless and the eternal? Does Balabanov’s fourteenth film significantly differ from his other ironic and postmodernist works?
Me Too begins in a way not unusual for a Balabanov film, when one of the characters, the bandit (Aleksandr Mosin) kills four of his adversaries. However, the film’s plot moves into a different register when its protagonist enters a sauna. The bandit tells his friend, the musician (Oleg Garkusha), a tale about “the bell tower of happiness (kolokol’nia schast’ia).” The bandit himself learned the story from his confessor, Father Rafail. Located somewhere between St. Petersburg and Uglich, the mysterious bell tower is surrounded by something similar to Tarkovskii’s Zone, in that after a strong pulse of electromagnetic radiation this place fell into a nuclear winter, where most people die because of high radiation. However, the bell tower is also a place of rapture, where the chosen are taken to happiness. The friends decide to go to this place of no return. On their way, they rescue the bandit’s friend, whom they call Matvei (Iurii Matveev), from a rehabilitation center. Matvei decides to pick up his elderly father (Viktor Gorbunov). On their way to the bell tower, they also give a ride to Liuba, a prostitute and a former Philosophy student (Alisa Shitikova), and, finally, to a boy-prophet (played by Balabanov’s son Petr), who can predict the future and knows exactly who will be “taken” by the bell tower.
Emphasizing the new quality of his film, Balabanov described Me Too as belonging to a “completely new genre” (ITAR-TASS 2012) At the film’s premier at the 69th Venice Festival, Balabanov characterized the genre of the film as “fantastic realism” (Kartsev 2012). According to the interview, the director does not mean this new genre to be simply a combination of realistic and fantastic details, but rather a kind of documentary style. All roles in the film are played by non-professional actors. Of course, Balabanov used non-professional actors in his earlier films. For example, the cast of Stoker for the most part consisted of actors with no formal training. However, in Me Too, this quality of Balabanov’s films is taken to a new level. Thus, the actors’ roles correspond to their activities in real life, Balabanov plays a director and the rock musician Oleg Garkusha plays a rock musician. Balabanov explained that everybody plays themselves, drawing on their personal experiences. Similarly, the dialogue was largely suggested by the actors themselves, where even the smallest of anecdotes told during the film supposedly happened in real life. Similarly, the film’s director of photography, Aleksandr Simonov, stated in an interview that most of the film was shot in a documentary style (Shavlovskii 13 Dec. 2012).
In his films, Balabanov has a very creative approach to sound, represented, for instance, by the interplay between diegetic and non-diegetic music (see Condee 2011). A similar dynamic characterizes the use of music in Me Too. For example, choosing between the records for the road trip, the bandit asks whether he should choose the CD of his friend, the musician. In real life, Oleg Garkusha is one of the musicians in Auktsyon, and the songs of this group serve as the soundtrack for the film. However, unlike in Stoker and Cargo 200, the music in Me Two does not create an obvious dissonance with the film’s contents. The words of the songs, with their free association, seem to confirm the transcendental message of the film. At the same time, the message of the songs is often indecipherable and ironic, similar to the film itself.
Nancy Condee argues that the irony of Balabanov’s film endings often lies in the intersection between the film’s production history and the actual deaths of charcaters—a tendency that she describes as the director’s “own wry necrology” (Condee 2011). This necrological tendency is taken to a new level in Me Too, where the film’s ending is marked by the death of Balabanov himself, in the role of a famous film director, a member of the European Film Academy. Ironically, like the bandit, Balabanov, in his role of the famous film director, is denied the happiness of the bell tower.
The fantastic part of the film begins when the travelers arrive from summer to the eternal winter surrounding the bell tower. The film’s fantastic elements partially rely on religious symbolism. For example, some of the character’s names seem to be symbolic: the name of the prostitute is Liuba (from Liubov’, love), and Matvei (Mathew) may suggest the first Evangelist. Similarly, the religious symbolism is suggested, when Matvei remains behind to bury his father, thereby literalizing the biblical injunction to “let the dead bury their dead.” Adding to the religious associations, the rapture occurs through a bell tower, and the candles are still burning in the ruined church months or even years after the original catastrophe. Due to these religious allusions, Aglaia Chechot (2012) describes Me Too as an Orthodox road movie (pravoslavnyi roud-muvi). The Orthodox references are somewhat heavy-handed. For example, at the military post before the zone, the heroes learn that the Patriarch allows people to enter, but also decrees that they be informed that no one has returned and that not everyone will be “taken by the bell tower.”
The expected happiness has both religious and extraterrestrial explanations. At the beginning of the film, we learn about a planet that, like earth, has water and air, and also has happiness. The boy, who tells of the planet, is always correct in his predictions. Later, the characters meet the boy again on the road, and he correctly predicts who of the travelers will reach happiness. In their discussions of world history, Matvei and the musician also mix religious and extraterrestrial explanations of history. As a result of this ambiguity and the absurd and comic details, it is hard to take the references to the transcendental seriously.
Despite the numerous dead bodies of the non-chosen, the fantastic place has its comic aspect. There is a store, well-stocked with alcohol, where the travelers can renew their supply of vodka, even if it is of inferior quality. As in several other Balabanov’s films—Brother and Brother-2, The River, and The Stoker—the characters in Me Too are rather flat and one-dimensional. Some film scholars have commented that this lack of psychological depth results in a folktale-like or mythological quality in Balabanov’s films (Majumdar 2005; Condee 2011). However, in Me Too, this flatness of its characters also results in a somewhat comic affect, which is produced by the film’s dialogue: the characters hardly listen to each other and are always saying the most banal things even when talking about transcendental notions.
In Me Too, Balabanov contributes to the popular genre of apocalyptic films with this characteristically absurd and darkly humorous work. In spite of Balabanov’s dramatic statements, the film itself does not fully commit to any version of the transcendental. Is its happiness extraterrestrial bliss or Christian paradise? Why did the prostitute and musician deserve this happiness and the bandit and Balabanov did not? Even the end of the world is partial, confined to a small area. This ambiguity perhaps explains why Balabanov dies rather than joins the chosen few, since the director himself does not subscribe to the happiness he proposes. Rather than serving as an example of a “new sincerity” or an expression of Balabanov’s religious beliefs, the film offers a thoroughly postmodern representation of the end of the world. In its irony, it undermines its own transcendental message by creating a playful or simulated apocalypse. The film also relies on endless images of and references to death, to break the circle of simulations.
1] In an interview with Konstantin Shavlovskii (1 August 2012), Balabanov said that he believes in the end of the world, that he believes in God, and that there will be another ice age: “We all have to die, it is normal.”
3] In an audience interview for the journal Seans, Balabanov (2013) claimed that he has never watched Stalker, and that, out of all Tarkovskii’s films, he only likes Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev.
U of Pittsburgh
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Balabanov, Aleksei, “Aleksei Balabanov v ‘poriadke Slov’,” Seans 11 February 2013.
Baudrillard, Jean, Symbolic Exchange and Death, Trans. Mike Hamilton Green (London: Sage, 1993)
Chechot, Aglaia, “Pozovi menia, nebo,” Seans (blog) 15 March 2012.
Condee, Nancy, “Aleksei Balabanov: Stoker,” Kinokultura 32 (2011).
Epstein, Mikhail, “On the Problem of Postmodernism in Postmodernity,” in Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture, eds. Mikhail , Alexander Genis, and Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover (New York: Berghahn Books, 1999) pp.456-68.
ITAR-TASS, “Moe kino – eto novyi zhanr, fantasticheskii realizm,” Video interview with Aleksei Balabanov, ITAR-TASS TV (10 September 2012).
Kartsev, Nikita, “Mne blizhe bandity,” Interview with Aleksei Balabanov, Moskovskii Komsomolets 11 December 2012.
Majumdar, Neepa, “Aleksei Balabanov, The River,” Kinokultura 7 (2005).
Shavlovskii, Konstantin, “My vse dolzhny umeret’,” Interview with Aleksei Balabanov, Seans 1 August 2012.
Shavlovskii, Konstantin, “Menia besit vsia eta epopeia pro poslednee kino Balabanova,” Interview with Aleksandr Simonov, Seans 13 December 2012.
Me Too, Russia, 2012)
Color, 89 minutes
Director and screenwriter: Aleksei Balabanov
Cast: Aleksandr Mosin, Iurii Matveev, Oleg Garkusha, Alisa Shitikova, Viktor Gorbunov, Petr Balabanov.
Director of photography: Aleksandr Simonov
Production designer: Anastasiia Karimulina
Music: Leonid Fedorov
Editor: Tat’iana Kuzmicheva
Producer: Sergei Selianov
Production company: CTB Film Company
Aleksei Balabanov: Me Too (Ia tozhe khochu, 2012)
reviewed by Irina Anisimova © 2013