Issue 43 (2014)
Maria Saakyan: Entropy (Entropiia, 2012)
reviewed by Sergey Toymentsev © 2014
Entropy is an experimental film by the Armenian-born director Maria Saakyan about the company of five young people isolated in a deserted country mansion before the coming end of the world. The film’s genre is disruptively eclectic and one may delineate five major genre components involved. Thematically, the film manifests itself as a parody of the apocalypse film genre, since the event of some global catastrophe projected into a near future is what temporally regulates the film’s unfolding action. Technically, it follows the standard tropes of a reality TV show: shot in the format of a video log, the camera seems to objectively record all the scripted and improvised situations as they happen to the participants. Aesthetically, the film’s dramaturgy is shaped in the form of performance art thanks to the contribution of the well-known costume designer and performance artist Andrei Bartenev, who actively participated in the casting. Intended to produce a Futurist effect of “a slap in the face of public taste,” the film deliberately involves notorious media personalities supposed to play no one but themselves: the acclaimed director Valeriia Gai-Germanika is presented as the successful film director Gera, dressed like a Goth and accompanied by a Chinese crested dog; the well-known TV journalist and socialite Kseniia Sobchak is the alpha-female producer Pasha dressed up in a male suit; the androgynous fashion model Danila Poliakov is the unsuccessful independent film director Il’ia running nearly naked most of the film; and the beautiful Diana Dell is the mysterious and anemic actress Dasha. Evgenii Tsyganov is the only professional actor involved in the film, which makes him an outsider to these media practitioners of performance art. His part of the local redneck and simple-minded patriot Veggie equally presents him as an outsider in relation to the bohemian visitors whose carnivalesque buffoonery he observes with contempt and heavy expletives. As a performance event, the film lacks any plot development and focuses exclusively on how all these archetypal, yet realistic characters variously collide with each other and agonize in their own way. By its personal message, Entropy is an auteur manifesto which critiques the independent film industry and its fake romanticism: the phrase “auteur cinema is shit” is recycled by the characters as a leitmotif for the entire film. Philosophically and politically, the film is an uncompromising social satire on the utter imbecility of the current Russian media culture and the moral and ideological crisis as a whole, unequivocally tied to Putin’s regime. Although critics were quick to notice the novelty and complexity of Saakyan’s experimental project, e.g. by praising it as the “ideal auteur cinema pushed to an utter absurdity” (Ol’khovoi), most of them harshly dismissed it as “simply a bad movie despite being a comedy of the absurd, a manifesto, a parody, a social drama or whatever they may say” (Belik); or as “an ambitious idea which, multiplied by zero, turned into nothing” (Kartsev). Despite its controversial reception, Entropy, nevertheless, won the Savva Kulish Prize “For Creative Search” at the 20th Russian Film Festival Window to Europe in Vyborg in 2012.
Although Entropy is advertised as an avant-garde farce on the theme of the apocalypse (“Apocalypse, Wow!” is the film’s slogan on the poster), it is rather unclear how and when the characters begin to expect the end of the world, since no news about either a gigantic asteroid approaching earth or a global calamity is announced in the film. The four friends come to a huge country house simply to shoot a movie, and virtually nothing threatens the safety of the world during the first twenty minutes of the film, until the idea of the apocalypse is casually introduced as a joke in Pasha’s diatribe against independent cinema and all those who support it. As a result of this support, she proclaims, “entropy increases… everyone looks like everyone else and they all turn into stupid morons like our Ilya.” Right after her critique of entropy-increasing independent cinema, she refers to hikikomori, people in Japan who “sit in their basements and welcome the end of the world. They don’t talk to anyone, no contact with the outside world… They just sit around and wait for the end of the world.” She doesn’t quite manage to fully elaborate her comparison with the Japanese hikikomori (the social and psychological phenomenon of withdrawal from the outside world) since her drinking buddies interrupt her with enthusiastic suggestions: “cool… I like it… Let’s drown our phones and burn the car… I want it to be like hikimori.” From this moment on, the protagonists all of a sudden act as if the end of the world were indeed a high possibility: they fantasize about global destruction, confess their mortal sins, hope for redemption, drink and dance.
Entropy’s end of the world, therefore, does not manifest itself as an actual occurrence; it is nothing more than an effort of the imagination, an entirely make-believe event, a mental experiment or a game which the characters decide to play simply out of boredom. The only real event in the film is Dasha’s accidental death: wholeheartedly embodying the apocalyptic scenario, she commits suicide under obscure circumstances. Nevertheless, Dasha’s death still seems hardly believable, since right after her suicide the redneck Veggie dresses her up, confesses his love and proposes to her while dreaming out loud about their future together. Meanwhile, Il’ia hangs himself from the roof while masturbating and demonstratively ejaculates on the upper-floor window, behind which at the same time Pasha, disgusted by this view, vomits in unison. Before smashing the window into pieces, the camera gives a quick savoring close-up of sperm and vomit spattered on both sides of the glass, which is probably the central apocalyptic image of the film. In the closing scene Veggie, holding Dasha’s corpse in one arm and the dead fetus in another (an object previously found in the house), stands against the expanding disc of the setting sun as if it were exploding: a straightforward citation from the final sequence of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.
As a low budget indie, Entropy thus puts the emphasis on the spiritual nature of the apocalypse. The film suggests that the end of the world does not occur externally. In fact, it has already taken place inside our souls, i.e. the souls of young Russian people unable to creatively express themselves in either mainstream or counter culture. Saakyan’s elevation of a parody of the popular reality TV show House 2 (Dom 2) to a philosophical allegory aka Melancholia, albeit a self-critical one,does not, however, seem compelling enough and results in a number of irresolvable dissonances. Had she kept the original working title House 2012 (Dom 2012) and focused just on the satire of the current media culture, her project would have sounded much more organic and coherent, given that the reality show Dom 2 has now become part and parcel of the national media landscape. Apocalyptic movies, on the contrary, do not pertain to the Russian film industry; they are imported from Hollywood. Nor do independent films on the apocalypse constitute a veritable trend in Russia: this remains mostly a domain of European auteur cinema. Therefore, to represent the cultural crisis in Russia through a parody of genre tropes borrowed from another culture is somewhat disorienting, if not pretentious and juvenile. In this regard, Saakyan’s Entropy begs for a comparison with This is the End (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, 2013), an American showbiz parody of the apocalyptic genre which also makes fun of media personalities playing satiric versions of themselves in the face of a global catastrophe and which, unlike the Russian analogue, was a critical and commercial success precisely because it never mixes up the foreign genre traditions and, by consistently sticking to its mode of profanity and self-depreciation, does not pretend to take a judgmental philosophical stance towards its own object of representation.
Furthermore, Saakyan herself is a highly committed independent filmmaker with two features in her portfolio: The Lighthouse (Maiak, 2006), about a young woman returning to home in the Caucasus torn by the war; and I'm Going to Change My Name (Eto ne ia, 2012), a modern variation on the Eurydice myth. Both films are deeply intimate and poetic as they diligently follow all the standard conventions of art-house cinema: long takes, beautiful scenery, extremely rare action, long silences supposedly charged with hidden meaning, classical music for the soundtrack, embedded recitation of poems, etc. Entropy’s motto “auteur cinema is shit” is therefore quite puzzling, to say the least. Nor do Saakyan’s interview confessions clarify much of this puzzlement, since there she admits that this statement is addressed to herself as well: “All my life I lived with the certainty about the artist’s mission. But then you think why anyone should care about your mother, father and sentiments…” Yet the ironic distance to her personal world taken in Entropy sharply contradicts her sincere lyrical intonation in I'm Going to Change My Name, a typical art-house film shot almost in the same year. A more prosaic explanation for Saakyan’s duplicity could be that for the former film she worked with Grigorii Matiukhin, a script reviewer at the pitch contest organized by the Moscow film club “Cine Phantom” who, fed up with mediocre proposals, decided to vent his despair through his own apocalyptic script, while for the latter she wrote the script herself. In other words, Entropy doesn’t quite deliver a unifying directorial perspective which would smoothly integrate and reconcile all the contributions of the film’s crew. In this regard, Entropy produces the effect of being somewhat “undercooked,” in the sense of Levi-Strauss’s “raw/cooked” pair.
Finally, the same dissonance can be heard in the film’s political message. The film opens with a close-up of Kseniia Sobchak speaking to anti-Putin protesters in a rally; it closes with a two-minute documentary footage of Putin’s black cortege speeding through the deserted streets of Moscow on the way to his third Presidential inauguration. Offered in the form of an epilogue, the entire procession is accompanied by Rodion Lubenskii’s song “Apocalypse.” In the atmosphere of total irony, burlesque and vulgar cynicism that the film incessantly propagates, the director unexpectedly wants to disclose her cards and become serious. How should we react to such unequivocally political installations? As Saakyan emphasizes in an interview, “without these images the film would’ve been uninteresting, toothless, just a mere happening. With them, everything got into the right place.” The viewer is thus directly forced to connect the decadent dissipation of creative energy portrayed in the film to Putin’s regime, the apocalyptic nature of which is stressed in the epilogue. Furthermore, Lubenskii’s “Apocalypse,” which “escorts” Putin’s cortege in the epilogue, is played twice in the film: first it is inserted in its entirety about twenty minutes earlier to accompany the collage of clips with the real Sobchak, Gai-Germanika, Poliakov and others as the participants of various reality shows. Needless to say, such a repeated straightforwardness of the film’s social critique strongly diminishes the aesthetic effect of the director’s message, as if she didn’t trust her viewers to figure out this connection on their own.
To sum up, Saakyan’s Entropy is not a “bad movie.” In its genuine search for adequate means to represent the cultural and human condition in contemporary Russia, the film fails to provide a coherent aesthetic product, yet it does so for a “good cause.” Entropy’s inability to reconcile various internal contradictions, such as personal statements and ironic distance, grotesque nihilism and political protest, superficial comedy and philosophical depth, symptomatically designates that the cultural crisis in Russia is real indeed: i.e. the emergence of a new artistic elite eager for glamour and sensational media effects has resulted in nothing more than a hysterical impotence to thrive on its own emptiness. By providing a diagnosis to this unhealthy situation, the film should thus be approached in medical rather than aesthetic terms. In fact, Saakyan herself qualifies it as the “vaccine against emptiness.”
|Comment on this article on Facebook|
Gleb Ol’khovoi (2013), “Kvintessentsiia, katarsis, avtorskoe kino,” Culture Review, 14 February.
Olga Belik (2013), “Film “Entropiia”: plevok v vechnost’,” Viva Victoria!, 14 February.
Nikita Kartsev (2013). “Kak entropiia sozhrala “Entropiiu,” Moskovskii komsomolets, 15 February.
Entropy, Russia, 2012
Color, 75 minutes
Director: Maria Saakyan
Script: Grigorii Matiukhin, Ruslan Paushu
DoP: Mkrtich Malkhasyan
Music: Rodion Lubenskii
Costume Design: Andrei Bartenev
Cast: Diana Dell, Valeriia Gai-Germanika, Danila Poliakov, Kseniia Sobchak, Evgenii Tsyganov
Producers: Grigorii Matiukhin, Iuliia Mishkinene
Production Company: Vita Aktiva
Maria Saakyan: Entropy (Entropiia, 2012)
reviewed by Sergey Toymentsev © 2014