Issue 43 (2014)

Gennadii Sidorov: A Romance with Cocaine (Roman s kokainom, 2013)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2014

roman s kokainomWith his sudden death in the summer of 2011, Gennadii Sidorov’s promising career as an actor, screenwriter, producer, and director came to an abrupt and unexpected end. Originally from Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg), where he graduated from the Theatrical Institute, Sidorov moved to Moscow in the 1980s and completed degrees in Acting and Directing at VGIK, studying with Sergei Gerasimov and Petr Todorovskii. He married a fellow VGIK student, Larisa Sadilova, with whom he worked closely as an actor, co-screenwriter and producer in several of her early movies until they separated in the early 2000s, when his own career as a director started in earnest. His reputation was firmly established with his brilliant debut film, Little Old Ladies (Starukhi, 2003), which won numerous prizes at Russian and International Film Festivals in 2003. In the years since Old Little Ladies, he struggled to continue on the same high plane: although he directed 9 out of 12 episodes of the well-received television series Apostle (Apostol, 2008), he removed his name from the credits because of creative disputes with the producers (Stepanov 2009). At the time of his death he was working on what would be his final film, A Romance with Cocaine. According to news reports, Sidorov was working on the film’s sound in St. Petersburg when he took ill and returned to Moscow where he died a few days later. The cause of his death remains obscure, although his health had been in decline since a car accident several years earlier. It took members of his film crew almost two years to complete the film, which debuted at the Kinotavr Festival in Sochi in June 2013, and reprised at the Moscow Film Festival later the same month.

roman s kokainomSidorov’s final movie is an adaptation of A Romance with Cocaine, the cult novel published in Paris in the 1930s by “M. Ageev,” the pseudonym for Mark Lazarevich Levi (1898-1973). Presented as the diary of Vadim Maslennikov, a student at a Gymnasium and later at Moscow University. The novel A Romance with Cocaine tells the troubled story of Vadim’s family life, school friends, love affairs, and, eventually, his addiction to cocaine. Its epilog is told by а doctor who describes the diarist’s death by suicide, thus explaining how the diary came into his hands. The novel has obvious similarities with several of Bulgakov’s stories of drug addiction from Notebook of a Young Doctor, especially “Morphine” (1927), which was made into a memorable movie by Aleksei Balabanov in 2008. Nevertheless, A Romance with Cocaine is perhaps better understood in connection with the Nietzschean tradition in Russian prose of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vadim is an amoralist, a man for whom the basic ethical and moral truths mean absolutely nothing, and whose only law is his own happiness. The philosophical kernel of the novel consists of the question that Vadim obsessively poses in his diary: if happiness is actually a feeling, rather than an objective state of being (e.g., a good job, money, love, family), and that feeling can be more reliably produced by a drug, why work to achieve merely the outward signs of happiness? The novel’s theme of egoism, its psychological focus, and quasi-philosophical language remind the reader of Lermontov, Dostoevskii, Artsybashev, and Kuzmin, if not Nabokov, on almost every page.

roman s kokainomFirst published in Russia in 1989, the novel has been reprinted several times and its cult status, no doubt, influenced Sidorov’s decision to adapt it for the cinema. Although structured as a series of flashbacks that compress several years of Vadim’s life, the movie basically follows the novel. Both versions end with Vadim’s suicide, after his plea for help has been turned down by his former school friend Vasia Burkevits, an important communist in the novel who has become an Orthodox monk in the movie.  Sidorov’s unusual decision to cast Kseniia Sobchak and Igor’ Trif, two of the most recognizable personalities in contemporary Russia, neither of whom is a professional actor, in the main roles guaranteed the film a significant amount of pre-release buzz. The decision also added much needed credibility to the project of translating a quintessentially fin-de-siècle story to today’s Moscow. Following the tragic death of the director, A Romance with Cocaine became perhaps the most anticipated Russian movies of the year. Now it is one of the most disappointing as well.

roman s kokainomDespite some very good performances, the acting overall is uneven. Kseniia Sobchak (Sonia) and Igor’ Trif (Vadim) not only look great but also turn in credible performances, at least until they are done in by an often preposterous script.  While Sobchak is convincing, if strictly one-dimensional, as a glamorous femme fatale, the more the movie tries to explain her, the less convincing she becomes. Trif’s debut performance is more impressive: he moves effortlessly from charm and arrogance to hopelessness and despair, at least until he is asked to impersonate Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle in front of a mirror! Kirill Pletnev is bombastic and hysterical as the socially conscious Vasia Burkevits, while Vladimir Iaglych and Ianis Politov play the rich and superficial Egorov and Shtein as broad parodies of contemporary Moscow’s young and rich elite. Finally, Sonia’s gangster husband (an over-the-top performance by Sergei Koltakov), whose dark past is meant, I assume, to make us think of Dostoevskii’s Stavrogin, is a lurid and fantastic presence with no real role in the plot.

roman s kokainomYet the film’s problems go deeper. When Sidorov attempts to follow the central plot lines of the novel, he completely fails to establish the reality of the characters’ world: the scenes set at Moscow State University (MGU), for example, are incoherent and fake, and the decadent parties where Vadim and his friends spend their evenings look like television commercials for a new brand of vodka. If casual sex, recreational drug use, and the rejection of religious morality were shocking 100 years ago, they have since become part of the culture. Instead of finding modern equivalents for the actions, the psychological complexes, and the literary and philosophical atmosphere of the novel, Sidorov uses well worn clichés (e.g., fancy clothes, fast cars, fast women, loud music, trips to Bali when life gets boring, etc.) to represent the aimless life of Moscow’s rich and idle youth. A rich novelistic exploration of the complex intersection between literary and philosophical culture and behavior in the fin-de-siècle era has become yet another predictable critique of the empty hedonism of rich and shameless Muscovites. One can’t help wondering if, had the director lived longer, the film would have been better.

Anthony Anemone
The New School

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Works Cited

Stepanov, Anton. ‘Gennadii Sidorov,’ Cinemateka, 13 June  2009.

 


Romance with Cocaine, Russia, 2013
Color, 120 minutes.
Director: Gennadii Sidorov
Screenplay: Gennadii Sidorov, based on the novel by “M. Ageev”
DoP: Sergei Kulishenko
Production Design: Iurii Grigorovich
Editors: Sergei Ivanov, Ol’ga Petrusevich
Producer: Igor’ Trif
Cast: Igor’ Trif, Kseniia Sobchak, Natal’ia Koliakanova, Kirill Pletnev, Vladimir Iaglych, Ianis Politov, Galina Zviagintseva.
Production: Alti Films

Gennadii Sidorov: A Romance with Cocaine (Roman s kokainom, 2013)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2014

Updated: 06 Jan 14