Issue 42 (2013)

Taisia Igumentseva, Bite the Dust (Otdat’ Kontsy, 2013)

reviewed by Emily Hillhouse © 2013

igumentsevaWhen word came out that Bite the Dust was to be the only Russian film in the Cannes Film Festival’s Official Selection in 2013, many critics looked on with a certain amount of eager anticipation. However, despite the critical success of her student short film, The Road to…, which won several awards last year (including the prize of the Cinefondation at Cannes, which guaranteed the director a premiere of her debut film in the official selection at Cannes), Taisia Igumentseva’s first feature length film was doomed to disappoint. Widely panned at the festival, the film has been judged to be alternatively agonizingly slow or frenetic like a hyper-active child. Perhaps Igumentseva’s film was a victim of its own promotional build-up, for while this whimsical black comedy does not deliver the quick-paced, acerbic gallows humor that some critics were anticipating, neither is it deserving of the eviscerating reviews which it seems to have largely garnered.

The film follows the fateful final days of an isolated rural community as they come to terms with the news that the world is going to end the next day due to a cataclysmic magnetic cloud barreling towards the earth—an event, which is projected to annihilate 90 per cent of the world’s population. As the film opens we are introduced to the various quirky members of the community, and it immediately becomes clear that, though they spend all of their days together, they are each as isolated from each other as their small community on the edge of the glassy lake is from the outside world.

bite the dustThere is hardy Misha, husky with a broad black mustache, who dotes on his ethereally beautiful wife, Nastia, and regularly leaves the community to forage and steal gifts for her. Nastia, for her part, accepts his gifts with resignation but little joy, perceiving them as a burden rather than a pleasure. Next door live Semen and Olga. Towheaded Semen is a dreamer, who spends all of his time carving figures out of wood, while his practical wife does all of the work taking care of their two rambunctious sons and running the house. Semen, however, is too intent on watching the beautiful Nastia to appreciate his own wife.

His wandering eyes have not gone unnoticed, however; the sprightly, somewhat Lenin obsessed, Grandma Zina watches him with glowering eyes, and even in one humorous scene gives Olga pointers on how to use pouty lips to seduce her man. Living nearby is Vania, the community’s inventor. He lives in a house built on stilts, surrounded by various whimsical contraptions, and operating a still out of an old samovar, the product of which he shares nightly with Grandpa Vasilich, whose best friend in the whole world is his cow, Candy. Rounding off this little community is the young widow, Nina, who clings to the memory of her late husband by providing one of the village’s only sources of entertainment in the shape of European and American art house films.

When the news comes that the end of the world is nigh, the community attempts to pull together to have one final celebration. Grandma Zina marshals the troops to create pies and fruit compotes, while the men build a table, mend chairs and rig a lamp to hang over the proceedings at the edge of the lake. But fragmentation has already begun. The first to leave is Grandpa Vasilich, who storms off in a huff when Olga threatens to butcher the cow, Candy, for nearly trampling one of her sons to death. Next to go are Nastia and Semen. This was precipitated by the relatively useless Nastia who drops her fruit compote on the ground while trying to place it on the table. Misha laughs indulgently that this is so typical of her. As she struggles to fight back tears, Semen decides that he has had enough, and declares that he loves Nastia and wants to spend his final hours with her. They run off into the tall grasses, leaving their devastated spouses behind.

bite the dustIn the end, only Grandma Zina, Vania, Nina and Misha sit at the overloaded table, barely touching the food. The appointed hour comes. Each person stares at the table, Grandma Zina prays. Back at home, Olga holds her sleeping sons. Nastia and Semen huddle in the grasses, while Grandpa Vasilich hugs his cow. But nothing happens. The end didn’t come, and now the community has to live with the fall-out of this night.

Nastia and Semen move into Nastia’s house, while Misha stays with Olga. Nina, who in the emotional crisis of the moment had slept with Vania, retreats in horror to her home. And it starts to rain. The days pass, and it continues to rain. As the water creeps higher and higher, it becomes clear that it might never stop, that the end of the world was not to be an immediate explosive event, but rather the slow drowning of the earth, as one house and another is swallowed by the rising waters.

Beaten by the constant pressing rain, the new relationships either strengthen or fall apart. Vania rescues Nina from her waterlogged home full of floating DVDs, and brings her out of her self-imposed isolation. On the other hand the bloom is soon off Nastia and Semen’s relationship as they realize that a life in which both partners are basically useless is very hard indeed. It all comes to a head when they have to save Grandma Zina and her dog who are now trapped by the flood in the attic of their home. Working together at last, the tiny group topples over an outhouse which Vania then uses as a boat, even using the toilet seat as a paddle, to save Grandma Zina. All that is left is for Grandpa Vasilich to return with his cow, which he ultimately does, and soon they are all living together in Vania’s house on stilts, which has become a boat itself, floating on the flood. In the final scene they finally achieve the togetherness they had hoped for the night of the apocalypse.

bite the dustUndoubtedly, there are many valid criticisms to be made of the film. It is not uproariously funny nor is it devastatingly melancholy. It is in that whimsical inbetween space which elicits a few mild chuckles, but no real heartburning emotions. Attempting to follow fully the trajectory of so many characters makes it difficult to really connect emotionally with any of them. What emotionally effective scenes there were, however, particularly those connected with Misha and Olga’s devastation after the betrayal of their spouses, made the tidy ending rather unpalatable. For, after watching the robust Misha break down in tears, with no one to hug but his rusty old truck, it is very hard to be entirely pleased when Nastia is welcomed home with very little effort. Indeed, the end point of a community finally healed of its internal isolation would have been so much more satisfying if the characters had reached that point through some kind of emotional and spiritual growth. As it stands, the ending is somewhat forced, the product of convenience rather than development. 

Visually, however, the film attempts to give the characters the depth that they were denied by the narrative. Each character is surrounded by ingenious details which tell us more about who they are as people than mere words alone. In their surroundings we see Olga, with her longing for femininity, Nina’s unbalanced love of her dead husband, Grandma Zina’s nostalgia for the Soviet past. Additionally, the almost post-apocalyptic isolation of the community is beautifully illustrated not only in the various make-shift gadgets which create a rich, lived in backdrop for the drama, but also in the burnt autumnal colors and silvery grasses with vibrant touches of steel blue. Ultimately, however, these artistic touches are not enough to raise this film above the crowd. Although by no means the horror-fest that it has been portrayed by other critics, nor yet does Bite the Dust live up to the promise of Taisia Igumentseva’s earlier work. 

Emily Hillhouse
University of Texas, Austin

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Bite the Dust, Russia, 2013
Color, 101 minutes
Director: Taisia Igumentseva
Script: Aleksandra Golovina
Cinematography: Aleksandr Tananov
Cast: Sergei Abroskin, Maksim Vitorgan, Yola Sanko, Yuris Lautsinsh, Alina Sergeeva, Dmitrii Kulichkov, Anna Rud, Irina Denisova
Producer:Aleksei Uchitel’, Kira Saksaganskaia
Production: Studio Rock

Taisia Igumentseva, Bite the Dust (Otdat’ Kontsy, 2013)

reviewed by Emily Hillhouse © 2013