Issue 43 (2014)

Boris Khlebnikov: A Long and Happy Life (Dolgaia, schastlivaia zhizn, 2013)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2014

dolgaya zhiznA Long and Happy Life is the fourth feature-length film by Boris Khlebnikov since Road to Koktebel (Koktebel', 2003), his prize-winning debut directed together with Aleksei Popogrebskii.[1] Khlebnikov’s most recent film takes its name not from Gennadii Shpalikov’s 1966 production of the same name, but from a song by Egor Letov and his group, Grazhdanskaia oborona. Trained as a film critic at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK), Khlebnikov’s films have, for the most part, firmly found themselves within the camp of “art-house cinema.” And like many art-house films, while A Long and Happy Life was included in the competition program of the 63rd Berlinale, it did not see wide distribution at the box office. The film earned just over 700,000 rubles in its opening weekend and 1.2 million rubles in ticket sales since its Russian premiere on April 11, 2013.

A Long and Happy Life was filmed in the Murmansk region of Russia’s far north, on the White Sea shore. The protagonist, Sasha, has recently purchased a farm and is managing a small potato business, along with a dozen or so laborers. When he is notified by the local authorities that his land is set to be confiscated, he and his girlfriend make plans to buy an apartment in town with the compensation money he has been promised. However, when Sasha informs his workers that they must prepare to leave, they convince him to fight for the farm. “Are you the master of this land or what?” Sasha is naïve and passive, and therefore easily swayed by the unexpected passion the move has stirred in his farmhands. Then, one by one, Sasha’s laborers abandon the farm, taking equipment and money with them until only the unassembled poultry coops remain. “Why did you listen to us? We’re morons. All of us.” When the authorities arrive to repossess the farm, Sasha alone fights for the land he did not want in the first place. The violence he enacts against the police is as naïve and impulsive as the rousing, yet short-lived, idealism of his workers. 

dolgaya zhiznWith the exception of Till Night Do Us Part (Poka noch’ ne razluchit, 2012), a critique of Moscow’s rich and beautiful, Khlebnikov has earned a reputation for filming provincial expanses and urban desolation—whether in Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006), Help Gone Mad (Sumashchedshaia pomoshch’, 2009) or the road movie Koktebel. Yet, the setting of A Long and Happy Life is not desolate, but offers a romanticized, even pastoral, vision of the provinces. The film is set in late fall, at the beginning of the final harvest before winter. Potatoes are ripe for digging, truckloads of berries are available at local markets, and the river is flush with water. When Khlebnikov and seasoned screenwriter and playwright Aleksandr Rodionov took a trip to Murmansk in search of a location for their new film, along the way they met farmers struggling with both the realities of their vocations and the local authorities (Anon. 2013). In fact, when Khlebnikov returned to the region for filming, he cast local farmers in several minor roles. Thus, what began as a Russian Western in the key of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1953) thereby morphed into an allegory about the decline of the farming industry, as well as the flawed “back to the earth” narrative that Sasha, an absolute newcomer to farming, is performing through his entrepreneurial enterprise.

dolgaya zhiznMuch of the film’s nostalgia for a pre-industrialized vision of the provinces is represented in the symbol of the river, which becomes the cinematic centerpiece of the film. The opening and closing shots capture a postcard-ready tableau of the river flowing through a picturesque, rickety wooden village. Sasha’s quaint wooden home teeters directly on its shore. We either see or hear (often both) the river when he is at home, when he is at work, and while he is entertaining his girlfriend, Ania. When the water floods the local road, Sasha carries Ania, a sartorial caricature of “city” life, over the puddles in her high-heeled boots and short skirt. Her lime green car stands out against the wind-weathered wood shingles. Sound (and the absence of it) takes on an important role in the film’s representation of the countryside. There is no music or non-diegetic sound of any kind in A Long and Happy Life. The soundtrack is made up only of the noises of farm life: the sounds of rumbling motors, creaky floorboards, drills piercing wood, the crackling of fire, and the occasional incoming text message. In the soundtrack, the pastoral meets the present. But above all there is the ever-present rush of water that dominates the sound of the film. The most apparent lack in the arena of sound is Sasha’s own silence, both in speech and action. He says and does nothing when his workers rebel against the authorities and is easily convinced to fight for the farm; he displays no outward reaction when, only days later, they begin to leave with his equipment and money. After the last of them have taken leave, Sasha does not say another word for the remainder of the film. When the police arrive he greets them in silence, lashes out in silence, and then climbs into bed with his girlfriend without a word, with only the sound of the river rushing behind him.

dolgaya zhiznThere are several common themes that stretch over most or all of Khlebnikov’s films: allegory, psychological drama, madness, and the use of rural, provincial, or desolate landscapes. While very few critics would be likely to add “social commentary” to that list, Khlebnikov is adamant that he “has always made social films” (Sychev 2013). Aside from the film’s statement on the decline of Russia’s farming industry, perhaps the most obvious social dichotomy played out in A Long Happy Life is the simple opposition of the individual versus the system. Here the link between institutional opposition (lawyers and police officers) and the state is intentionally made overly explicit. As Sasha discusses contracts with lawyers, their two worlds are separated by the image of a Russian flag perched at the center of the desk, dividing struggling entrepreneur from legal enforcer by the most official symbol of the Russian state. “[This village] is a place where the relationship between people and government is more direct,” Khlebnikov noted.[2] Still, even Sasha is sharing a bed with the enemy. Not only did he initially plan to accept the compensation and surrender his farm, but Ania happens to be the secretary at the legal firm involved in the transaction. Unsurprisingly, this relationship becomes troubled as soon as he rescinds his decision and forfeits a monetary reward for his Tolstoyan vision of agricultural and spiritual harmony between master and worker.

dolgaya zhiznWhile A Long and Happy Life is certainly inspired by the “one man against the world” trope of the Western and bears thematic resemblances to High Noon, for Khlebnikov the American Western is impossible in the Russian context. Russian culture lacks “clear villains, clear heroes, and the clear due process of law. [In Russia] these things can become confused in a split second” (Sotnikova 2013). A Long and Happy Life plays precisely on this moral malleability in its final episodes. In the closing vigilante scenes, the sympathetic, land-loving protagonist—an Ivan the Fool of sorts—assumes the brutality, the weapons, and even the vehicle of the crooked local police officers. By this point, it is unclear why he has not left the farm himself: is it out of stubbornness? Does he not want to leave his beloved empty chicken coops? Or does he still hold an idealized vision of the land and his workers, even after they have long abandoned him in search of more profitable work. A Long and Happy Life leaves these questions unanswered, blurring the boundaries between self-seeking farmers and the cold institutionalism of the legal system. The one thing the film does not compromise is its vision of the land itself. The shots of Russia’s northern provinces are striking and forgiving from start to finish, leading us, as viewers, to believe, if only for a moment, that Sasha’s dreams of setting up “farm tourism” in this village were not so far-fetched after all.

Alyssa DeBlasio
Dickinson College


Notes

1] In 2009 Khlebnikov contributed a short segment titled “Shame” (“Pozor”) to the collaborative almanac film Crush: Five Stories about Love (Korotkoe zamykanie, 2009)

2] “A Long and Happy Life,” competition press kit for the 63rd International Berlin Film Festival, Filmpressplus.com.


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Works Cited

Anon. (2013), “Prem’era fil’ma ‘Dolgaia schastlivaia zhizn’’,” Proficinema.ru 10 April.

Sergei Sychev (2013), “Boris Khlebnikov: ‘V druguiu epokhu u nashego geroia byla by dolgaia schastlivaia zhizn’’,” Filmpro.ru, 9 February.

Anna Sotnikova (2013), “‘My videli dva tipa svinokhoziaistv’: Boris Khlebnikov i Aleksandr Rodionov – o fil’me ‘Dolgaia schastlivaia zhizn’’ i problemakh fermerov,” Afisha.ru, 8 February.


A Long and Happy Life, Russia, 2013
Color, 77 minutes
Director: Boris Khlebnikov
Script: Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksandr Rodionov
Cinematography: Pavel Kostomarov
Sound: Maksim Belovolov
Production Design:  Ol’ga Khlebnikova
Editing: Ivan Lebedev
Cast: Aleksandr Iatsenko, Anna Kotova, Evgeniii Sytyi, Inna Sterligova, Vladimir Korobeinikov, Sergei Nasedkin
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Aleksandr Kushaev
Production: Film Company “Koktebel’” with support from the Cinema Fund and the Russian Ministry of Culture

Boris Khlebnikov: A Long and Happy Life (Dolgaia, schastlivaia zhizn, 2013)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2014

Updated: 05 Jan 14