Issue 41 (2013)
Boris Khlebnikov: Till Night Do Us Part (Poka noch’ ne razluchit, 2012)
reviewed by José Alaniz © 2013
My Dinner with Andrei, and Sergei, and Vera … or, Eat the Rich
As for the perch au naturel, that was nothing, my dear Amvrosy! What about the sterlet, the sterlet in a silver pan, the sterlet filets layered with crayfish and fresh caviar? And the eggs en cocotte with mushroom puree? And didn’t you like the filet of thrush? With truffles? The quail à la genoise? Ten rubles fifty! (Bulgakov: 47).
With a script based on an article in Bol’shoi Gorod  cobbled together by diverse hands from overheard conversations at a chic Moscow restaurant, its lines delivered by Russian stars of stage, screen and celebrity-dom in brisk vignettes, Boris Khlebnikov’s comedy Till Night Do Us Part serves up a mélange of ingredients definitively not to everyone’s taste.
Billed as a biting satire on Russia’s rich and well-fed, shot mostly in a single location with documentary techniques to enhance a sense of eavesdropping on private dialogues, the 70-minute film resists plot, but builds to a gratuitous outpouring of slapstick violence. By then, most viewers will have long made up their minds as to how much they have enjoyed spending time with these thinly-sketched characters (types, really). Of greater interest, perhaps, is the film’s view into the behind-the-scenes workings of the restaurant itself, especially its kitchen, and the ways in which Khlebnikov’s work comments on an evolving post-Soviet food culture.
Food in 21st-Century Russia
Driven in part by the rise of the Slow Food Movement, debates over genetically-modified crops, and anxieties over urban modernity’s effect on “conscious” eating and health, Western European and North American Food Studies has made significant inroads into the Humanities over the last three decades, and more recently into the popular media as well—witness such best-sellers as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001). Sobering documentaries such as King Corn (dir. Aaron Wolf, USA, 2007) and Food, Inc. (dir. Robert Kenner, USA, 2008) have spread even more broadly the notion of food as barometer for economic, social, physiological and environmental well-being.
The “food feature” has in its turn become an international staple, as evidenced by tomes devoted to its study such as Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film (2004), edited by Anne Bower, and Cuisine and Symbolic Capital: Food in Film and Literature (2010), edited by Cheleen Mahar. Chief representatives of this cinema sub-genre include Tampopo (dir. Juzo Itami, Japan, 1985); Babette’s Feast (dir. Gabriel Axel, Denmark, 1987); Like Water for Chocolate (dir. Alfonso Arau, Mexico, 1992); Eat Drink Man Woman (dir. Ang Lee, Taiwan, 1994); Big Night (dir. Campbell Scott and Stanly Tucci, USA, 1996); A Chef in Love (dir. Nana Djordjadze, Georgia/France, 1996); Chocolat (dir. Lasse Hallström, USA, 2000); and Julia & Julia (dir. Nora Ephron, USA, 2009). Its emergence in Russia has proven more fitful, though several significant post-Soviet films feature food (or its lack) quite prominently: A Drum Epic (dir. Sergei Ovcharov, 1993); Peculiarities of the National Hunt (dir. Aleksandr Rogozhkin, 1995); 4 (dir. Il’ia Khrzhanovskii, 2005); and Mermaid (dir. Anna Melikian, 2007), to name but a few.
Russian food culture itself has received increasing attention from Slavists, starting with a 1993 conference at Harvard University which led to an anthology, Food in Russian History and Culture (1997) edited by Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre. Popular interest magazines such as the New Yorker have also delved into the topic (see Ioffe), while events like “Food for Thought: Culture and Cuisine in Russia and Eastern Europe” (another major conference slated for February, 2014 at the University of Texas, Austin) promise to maintain an interdisciplinary focus on this most multi-faceted aspect of the region.
Commenting on the Moscow Youth Culinary Championship (started in 2002), Stas Schectman notes that food
plays the role of both cultural product and social process. It is at once the tangible evidence of the larger material and discursive practices shaping Russia’s contemporary culinary landscape and a site where social actors struggle over and transform the meanings of food’s relation to self, identity, nation and world (156).
Such sociocultural polysemy explains the “food turn” in Slavic Studies, all the more so given the severe disruptions (in various senses) of the first decade after Soviet power, and the ongoing reconsolidation (in just as many senses) under Putin. It is all reflected in what Russians put on their plates—if they have them. Musya Glants’ observation regarding the late USSR applies no less today: “The motifs of everyday life—food in particular—became even more pronounced as an assertion of continuity and stability amid the chaos of existence” (228). Onto this stage strides Till Night Do Us Part.
“She’s Pissing Me Off”
Since his auspicious debut with Aleksei Popogrebskii, Roads to Koktebel (Koktebel, 2003), Khlebnikov has built a reputation as a director of “nuanced psychological dramas about provincial life with a particular contemplative, melancholy humor” (Ryzhova). Eyebrows raised upon seeing him assay a metropolitan satire of the moneyed, inspired by his reading of the Bol’shoi Gorod piece in 2005. That work of wry stenography, “Tasty Conversations,” had been assembled by several reporters (including Masha Gessen and Ekaterina Kronhaus) who surreptitiously listened in on diners at the capital’s high Petrine-style Café Pushkin, described by Glenn R. Mack and Asele Surina as “built along Las Vegas or Disney lines […] relying more on imagination and desire than historical accuracy,” all the better for transporting the visitor to a nostalgic past of imperial splendor (147).
Casting a gimlet eye on his subject, Khlebnikov gently (too gently) contrasts the elegant surroundings—with their unctuous waiters and expensive cuisine—to the cupidity, sordidness and vulgarity of the diners, for a sort of watered-down Bulgakov effect. (Certainly at no point does the film approach our epigraph’s delicious, lacerating sarcasm.)
Through at times precipitate intercutting (some vignettes last less than a minute), the film quickly shifts its attention from table to table, depicting a cross-section of the privileged who use the hall as their “head office” (Gessen et al): a Russian businessman gets two French women drunk on vodka to grease the wheels of commerce; a man in a loud shirt, over the course of several sit-downs, grows increasingly vexed with the restaurant’s live music performance—“See that harpist? She’s pissing me off.”—owing to alcoholic withdrawal; a table of young film producers seek to cast a project (“Are you fucked?”); two young women marveling at the restaurant’s high-class furnishings briefly discuss its toilets; two other women in dark glasses slowly emerge from their stiff hangovers, and so on.
Khlebnikov and his screenwriter Aleksandr Rodionov do alter the “Tasty Conversations” texts, often smoothing their edges. One of the first vignettes features a young woman and her mother—with two children at the table—scheming ways to milk men. In Bol’shoi Gorod’s original, the mother advises: “You know I’ve never liked Maksim, but he does have a stable income. If I were you I’d put him on ice, and use up that Vadim for all he’s worth. Otherwise you’ll wind up out on your bare ass [s goloi zhopoi].”
The film somewhat softens this exchange, but all the same, as the critic Polina Ryzhova rightly points out, much of Till Night Do Us Part can be described as “lots of nice people elegantly using bad language.” In other words, the dialogue and characterizations come off as banal as one would expect, given their source.
This means that for much of the running time the viewer must turn to the non-diegetic to find much of interest; as in a Robert Altman ensemble piece, the casting makes Khlebnikov’s work a bemusing game of “spot the celebrity.” The long list of performers and cultural luminaries—in some cases cast against type—includes Anna Mikhalkova (daughter of Nikita); ballet dancer Alisa Khazanova; television sports commentator Vasilii Utkin; music producer Dmitrii Groisman and cult musician and actor Sergei Shnurov as the alcoholic in the loud shirt.
But, though fun, such star-gazing makes for rather thin dramatic gruel. The film has surprisingly little to say about these people as people, or the world they inhabit; nothing surprises. As Ryzhova complains in her review (and I cannot improve upon her verdict):
[A]ll these moments, in essence, provide nothing other than the thrill of recognition; at least, they don’t make for an amusing sketch in the style of a Griboedov-like comedy of morals, or an author’s statement about the zeitgeist […] In sum, an article about idle talk in the Pushkin becomes nothing other than a film about idle talk in the Pushkin—without that breadth and scope which a story usually acquires on its way from page to screen.
“My Ass is Warmer Than Your Fish!”
In fact, Till Night Do Us Part’s most affecting—and mordantly illuminating—sections take place far from the tables. Our first view of food preparation at the restaurant shows, in close-up, a disturbingly infant-like piglet being washed, dried, dressed and placed in the oven. Hand-held shots depict cooks in the kitchen, blandly lit by fluorescents, as they chop, dice, rinse, garnish—and at least in one case, save a diner’s uneaten portion in a plastic container for later. Immediately apparent: the kitchen is made up entirely of non-Russians, mostly poor immigrants from Central Asia.
Lording over these workers is a harried sous-chef from the Caucasus, Malik (Sakhat Dursunov), who rules with an iron fist: “Is this 200 grams?”; “Come on, hurry up!”; “Fuck—nobody wants to work!”; “What were you, keeping this in the freezer? Go warm it up! My ass is warmer than your fish!” Besides verbally abusing his staff, Malik spends most of the movie on the phone, trying to free his chef from police custody; they mean to deport him on an immigration charge. In some of the film’s funniest lines, Malik tries sweet-talk, flattery, threats, and lies (he claims the restaurant is hosting an FSB banquet that day) to save his colleague.
The kitchen scenes, which do not appear in “Tasty Conversations,” were added by Khlebnikov and Rodionov; they make Till Night Do Us Part worth watching. (We need more films about who prepares our food, how they do it, where they’re from, which languages they speak, what they think and the fundamental inequalities that shape their experience.)
If the food preparation sequences shine a welcome documentary light, the other “behind the scenes” portions amount to weak farce. Two waiters (Aleksandr Iatsenko and Evgenii Sytyi) serve the dishes, bear the brunt of the diners’ insolence, and often break away to argue with significant others on their cell phones. We spend long stretches with these servers – both on the floor and in their vestibule—though unlike with the kitchen workers, to no particular pay-off. We do learn, though, that the wait-staff also scavenges leftovers for their meals.
Conclusion: “Burning, Brilliant and Sweet”
At one point, the older waiter (Sytyi) orates an elaborate tale of culinary history: “Don Borgia, grand duke of Pisa, a famous chef of the Renaissance, invented tiramisu on the border between life and death …” before a blank-faced diner. He expounds in hortatory tones how the duke’s mistress thought up the dessert in a supreme gesture of devotion, as her lover was expiring. Setting the dish aflame, the waiter concludes, “the passion of their mutual love, which burst forth in the duke’s heart, was burning, brilliant and sweet—just like this fire.” The story is of course a complete fabrication. But such food theater does represent a very real phenomenon in contemporary Russia: the impulse to access and claim an imagined European past.
Yet that impulse often clashes with another tugging just as mightily at the Russian soul. Throughout the film, both waiters address their clients as sudar’ and sudarynia (“sir” and “madam”), an antiquated title that emerged in the Imperial age. Despite the derision over the term heaped on the staff by diners—who as noted tend more to the scatological, regardless of class origins —its use both mocks and celebrates Putin-era pretensions of super-power glory, of “the Russia that we lost.”
Through such scenes, the film reveals something critical about 21st-century Russian food culture: it is chaotic; split by contradictions of class, history and politics; ceaselessly reinventing itself; caught up in a nostalgic imperialist time warp; lurching to the cosmopolitan and global even as it recoils back to the coziness of nationalist fantasy. Till Night Do Us Part demonstrates in its best moments that food—always a “[site] for struggles over symbolic power” (Schectman: 157)—reifies like nothing else the country’s identity crisis of the last two decades.
University of Washington, Seattle
1] In print since 2002, this popular independent Moscow bi-weekly has borne no shortage of controversy. In April, 2013, its entire staff (including editor-in-chief Ekaterina Kronhaus) resigned or was fired due to financial disputes with owner Alexander Vinokurov.
2] Il’ia Khrzhanovskii’s chernukha-like film (with a script by the food-obsessed writer Vladimir Sorokin) depicts a grotesque bacchanal in which elderly women dismember and devour a whole roast pig; while in Melikian’s work the heroine Alisa, arrived in Moscow, is treated to her first taste of fresh pineapple (an exotic delicacy undreamt of in her provincial town). Such scenes, along with those of the deaf cooks in Sergei Loban’s Chapiteau-Show (Shapito-shou, 2011), serve as markers of sociocultural transformation and transition.
3] The competition is organized by the Moscow Culinary Association (founded 1991), the first of its kind in the post-Soviet era. According to Schectman, it prides itself on “having weathered the storms of post-Soviet transformation and having ‘preserved’ the cultural values and traditions of their craft in the face of tumultuous change” (162).
5] “Tasty Conversations” launched a fad for “reported conversations” in the Russian press, though such “gossipy” content never really goes out of style, as attested to by the 19th-century feuilleton and, in a later historical moment, the works of Mikhail Zoshchenko.
6] The participation of these celebrities comprised a cost-cutting measure. The film’s producers kept the budget low (only about $100,000) by having the stars forego salaries in favor of a box-office percentage. The film, however, was not a hit.
7] Ryzhova in her fine review notes, “The film has plenty of cutesy (ocharovatel’nykh) winks to the audience – like scenes in which the fashionable opera director Vasily Barkhatov messes with Sergei Shnurov’s mind.”
8] The scene’s showmanship is not an exaggeration. Discussing 1 Red Square, a high-class establishment located in Moscow’s State Historical Museum, Mack and Surina note, “Diners can sample coronation menus, royal banquets, and feasts of the Moscow aristocratic society,” with each course “accompanied by enthralling historic commentary” (146). Such restaurants identify 19th-century Russia as the “golden age” of national culinary/cultural renown, they report.
9] Larisa Iusipova writes: “The author of these lines recalls how in the Pushkin, during a working breakfast, a waiter addressed the producer Sergei Chliiants with the traditional ‘sudar’.'—'I’m not a sudar’,' responded Chliyants. 'Then what are you?'—'“I don’t know.' Bol’shoi Gorod’s correspondents were not present in the hall at that moment, so this dialogue did not enter the annals. But if it had, it could have served, I believe, as the epigraph to Khlebnikov’s film."
10] In part this owes to the severe disruptions of the Soviet era. As argued by Julia Ioffe: “Thanks to decades of inefficient collective farming, vital expertise had been lost, and Russian agriculture has not yet fully recovered. The culinary traditions of the peasants had likewise fallen into obscurity, as had the intricate fusion of Russian and French cuisines favored by the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy” (59).
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Bulgakov, Mikhail, The Master and Margarita, translated by Diana L. Burgin and Katherine T. O’Connor, New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Gessen, Masha, et al., “Vkusnie razgovory,” Bol’shoi Gorod 24 Oct. 2005.
Glants, Musya, “Food as Art: Painting in Late Soviet Russia,” in Food in Russian History and Culture, ed. by Musya Glants and Joyce S. Toomre, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997: pp. 215-237.
Ioffe, Julia, “The Borscht Belt,” New Yorker, 88.9 (2012): 56-63.
Iusipova, Larisa, “V kafe ‘Pushkin’ zapustili proslushku,” Izvestiia 4 June 2012.
Mack, Glenn R. and Asele Surina, Food Culture in Russia and Central Asia, Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2005.
Ryzhova, Polina, “Razgovorchiki za ideiu,” Gazeta.ru 16 Oct. 2012.
Schectman, Stas, “A Celebration of Masterstvo: Professional Cooking, Culinary Art, and Cultural Production in Russia,” in Food & Everyday Life in the Postsocialist World, ed. By Melissa L. Caldwell, Elizabeth C. Dunn, and Marion Nestle, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009: pp. 154-187.
Till Night Do Us Part, Russia, 2012
63 minutes, color
Director Boris Khlebnikov
Scriptwriter Aleksandr Rodionov
Director of photography Pavel Kostomarov
Production design Olga Khlebnikova
Costume design Sveta Mikhailova, Marusia Sevastianova
Music Sergei Shnurov
Sound Maria Ushenina
Editing Iuliia Batalova
Starring Aleksandr Iatsenko, Evgenii Sytyi, Alena Doletskaia, Agniia Kuznetsova, Sergei Shnurov, Aleksandr Rebenok, Anna Mikhalkova, Avdotia Smirnova, Daria Ekamasova, Grigorii Kalinin, Sonatas Grudovich
Producers Elena Stepanischeva, Zaur Bolotaev, Aleksandr Plotnikov, Evgenii Semin, Petr Gudkov, Vlad Ogai
Production First Creative Association, Look Film
Distribution Utopia Pictures
Boris Khlebnikov: Till Night Do Us Part (Poka noch’ ne razluchit, 2012)
reviewed by José Alaniz © 2013