Issue 45 (2014)
Ekaterina Telegina: The Habit of Breaking Up (Privychka rasstavat’sia, 2013)
reviewed by Holly Myers© 2014
The Habit of Breaking Up is Ekaterina Telegina’s debut feature-length film after recently graduating from the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK). Her short film Gust of Wind (Poryv vetra, 2009) received the People’s Choice Award at the ARTkino Russian Festival of Art Films and was included in the program of Interfest Short Film Festival (Berlin). In fact, the opening scene of The Habit of Breaking Up uses one of the final frames from Gust of Wind: a child stands in a field, facing the wind. To this frame text with the motivational message “follow your dream” has been added. At first glance, Telegina’s short film, which is a dark depiction of how children and adults face disappointment and crisis, seems to have little in common with her first feature-length film, a light-hearted romantic comedy that ends abruptly in a happy and far-fetched resolution. And yet, we find a frame from Gust of Wind recycled in the cheesy inspirational poster that the heroine of The Habit of Breaking Up finds meaningful, perhaps even symbolic of her message. Although the two films approach the message in different ways, the message is essentially the same: you are responsible for your own happiness; follow your dream.
Telegina’s subtle reference in the opening scene is the first in a pattern of keen directorial decisions that enrich what might otherwise be just another romantic comedy. The story’s plotline is commonplace enough: boy meets girl; boy loves girl; girl wants something more. And so, she moves from boy to boy, searching for that one true perfect love, unable to understand why it continues to elude her—until, finally, suddenly, the girl meets the right boy. Everything is immediately resolved, and they live happily ever after. The charm of this film, however, lies in a delightful sheen of artistic and thoughtful details involving shot angles and frames, props, and music. At times challenging the established tropes of the genre, The Habit of Breaking Up is more than the simple and naïve romantic comedy that it may seem.
Eva (Alena Konstantinova) graduates from high school, finds a good job working as a translator (later in the film, she is translating Pride and Prejudice into Russian), and—as “fate” decrees—finally agrees to date a long-time admirer, who will become her first serious boyfriend. In the beginning, Eva and Denis (Aleksandr Petrov) have a picture-perfect relationship, as demonstrated by the amber-tinted montage of stereotypical “young-couple-in-love” moments: moving in together, fixing up the dilapidated apartment, painting the walls, rooms filled with soft candle light, breakfast in bed, laughing, playing, dancing. Their romance is set in their apartment and a park that seems to be just outside their home; we never see them together beyond this domestic sphere. Everything around them is in soft shades of blues and greens: the walls, the bedding, objects in the apartment, their bicycles, the lush greenery of the park, and even their clothes.
But Eva is unhappy. She is afraid that everything in her life has already happened, and she can clearly see the entire trajectory of the rest of her life: marry Denis, bear children, and die. So, just like that, she breaks up with her first boyfriend and tries to change her life by changing her appearance and behavior. Our sweet, brunette heroine with the safe, bland good-guy boyfriend becomes a blonde and, after a drunken night at a club, wakes up in bed with the exciting bad boy cliché: a rock musician.
She describes her relationship with Yaroslav (Aleksei Filimonov) thus: “Our life was like a music video: everything was very fast and very bright.” The shots of this period in her life support this interpretation. The colors of their apartment and clothing are mostly black and white, accompanied by the occasional primary color, which comes across as very harsh after the soft shades of her relationship with Denis. She and Yaroslav are often shown in passionate embraces or passionate fighting, with a very thin line between the two. Whereas Eva with Denis was engaged in creating a beautiful home, Eva with Yaroslav destroys that idyll by throwing dishes during a fight. She breaks up with him out of jealousy over another girl.
Eva’s next relationship is with Maksim (Petr Rykov), the successful businessman. The scenes of their relationship are shot with close-ups of body parts: smoldering eyes, sensual lips as Eva drinks red wine and Maksim drinks whiskey, the ends of Eva’s carefully styled blonde hair being blown off her bare shoulder by a gust of breeze. Rather than thematic color schemes, the scenes involving Eva and Maksim are characterized by the music of Mozart and Bach. Maksim ends their relationship in a letter, citing Eva’s inability to cook as one reason for the break-up.
Eva’s next boyfriend, therefore, is a chef: the Italian stallion Fabio, who always had to be right. Telegina’s thematic use of color and other visual configurations returns in these scenes. For example, we see Eva wears a striped shirt when Fabio (Carlo Lavana) wears a striped shirt. She also becomes a redhead, wearing bright yellows and reds that match the yellows of the olive oil and the red of the vinegar and wine in the kitchen. In fact, the only setting in which we ever see Fabio and Eva is the kitchen—a fact that is underscored when the kitchen magically transforms into their bedroom, so that even at night Fabio cannot escape the basic defining feature of his character. The set is cluttered with cooking supplies and utensils, and often further cluttered by animations depicting Fabio’s endless speech. He speaks Russian with a thick Italian accent, talks about their future “bambini,” and, at the end of the day, he simply reverts to Italian, with Russian animated subtitles further cluttering the middle of the screen. Eva’s previous three boyfriends had been barely more than caricatures of the good guy, the bad boy, and the businessman stereotypes, and Fabio’s character is even more so. One day, Eva forgets to buy onions; when Fabio insists that they cannot cook without them, rather than argue with him, Eva leaves to buy onions and simply never goes back.
The trail of boyfriends is not over yet. Next, Eva takes up with an artist, Ivan (Petr Fedorov), who gives her a ride home one night. In the beginning, she tells him that she is not ready for a serious relationship. After dyeing her hair black to match his black artist’s attire, she tells her friends that she is ready to get married and starts talking to Ivan about their future children. When he does not react enthusiastically, she breaks up with him and leaves. Her next boyfriend, Anton (Artur Smol’ianinov), is “love at first sight” but their relationship lasts barely a minute of the film before he has to leave for Australia.
After Anton, Eva gives up. She finds out that Denis is still waiting for her to come back, and he promises her that he will continue waiting for one more year. She calls him a year later to say that she wants to get back together; however, he tells her that he is unable to fulfill his promise to wait for her: in fact, he is getting married the very next day. Devastated by the realization that she has lost Denis forever, Eva jumps off of a bridge into the water below. We do not see her body resurface before the screen goes black.
Off screen, she is pulled out of the water by a passing motorist, Vadim (Danila Kozlovskii). The audience, however, is left to surmise that later. After she jumps off the bridge, Eva’s voiceover resumes, the music of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” starts playing, and suddenly we see Eva, soaking wet, mascara streaking below her eyes, walking into Denis’ wedding reception. She presents a white carnation to the bride and congratulates both bride and groom, then turns to leave. Vadim, who had given her a ride to the wedding, is still there, waiting outside, and he gives her a ride home—still without having uttered a single word on screen. He does not speak during the car ride, or when she gets out of the car. Another night, he suddenly appears in order to give her a ride home after a drunken night of clubbing, still without saying a single word—even though he sits in the parked car with her until morning, waiting for her to wake up. Some time later, she finds him waiting outside her apartment. In his first line in the film, he finally speaks to tells Eva that he is leaving for Antarctica, which just happens to be one of her dream trips, and he invites her to join him. Too tired of breaking up to risk another relationship, Eva declines his offer.
Soon after that, of course, she realizes that Vadim is her destiny, and that everything—all the past failed relationships—happened so that she would jump off of the bridge, so that Vadim would be there to pull her out. She rushes to the airport and eventually catches up with him in Antarctica, where he speaks two more lines (first, to ask her what she is doing there; and second, to say that the penguins are sleeping). At the end of the film, again off screen, we hear Vadim tell Eva that they are late, and she shouts back, “I’m coming!” Thus ends the film, in the triviality of domestic bliss, which Eva had so feared at the beginning of her story.
Although none of Eva’s boyfriends are portrayed with much depth of character, Vadim is exceptionally one-dimensional and passive to an almost absurd extreme. He has four lines in the entire film; we do not know anything about him, except that he seems like a decent person. Most of his time seems to be spent waiting for Eva, coming to her rescue. Most significantly, the meeting scene—an all-important element of any romantic comedy—occurs off camera. The coincidence of this meeting, that he happens to be driving by (with a boat) at the exact moment that she jumps off a bridge on her ex-boyfriend’s wedding day, is the crux of Eva’s faith that Vadim is her one true love. And yet, this important moment is not shown in the film, challenging audiences to accept Eva’s happy ending without the emotional and voyeuristic satisfaction of witnessing that turning point. After all, what is a romantic comedy without the meet-cute scene, that most celebrated convention of the genre?
Throughout the film, however, women—friends and strangers alike—relate to Eva and her experiences. While Eva is waiting for her flight to board at the airport, she sees a woman crying. She sits down with her and quickly guesses that she has recently broken up with her boyfriend. To help, Eva tells the woman about all of her failed relationships that, nevertheless, led to a happy ending. This is the premise of the film, almost all of which is a flashback as Eva recounts her relationships to the woman in the airport. The woman stops crying and finds hope in Eva’s story.
After her break-up with Anton, her last relationship before Vadim, Eva started a blog on LiveJournal, writing about relationships and love à la Sex in the City (or Sex in the Big City, as it is translated into Russian). Her blog quickly grows in popularity, and one of her own friends reads it in relation to her own life. The many shots of women (and men) reading her blog at the end of the film suggest that Eva’s friend is not alone in this reception, that, in fact, many of her readers relate very closely to the sentiments, questions, doubts, and hopes Eva expresses in her blog. Eva becomes everywoman, just as her silent Vadim can become everyman for these readers as well as film’s audiences. In a twist on the conventional romantic comedy, however, almost all the details of her happy ending are kept private. The last frame in the film focuses on the desktop of her laptop computer, which is a picture of Eva and Vadim in Antarctica, laughing, happy, surrounded by penguins. We never see this far into their relationship, and we—her friends, readers of her blog, and the audience watching the film—are left with questions even as we are ready to believe in the fairy tale.
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The Habit of Breaking Up, Russia 2013
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Ekaterina Telegina
Scriptwriter: Vasilii Rovenskii
Cinematographer: Ivan Lebedev
Cast: Alena Konstantinova, Danila Kozlovskii, Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Polina Filonenko, Aleksandra Tiuftei, Aleksandr Petrov, Aleksei Filimonov, Petr Rykov, Carlo Lavana, Petr Fedorov, Artur Smol’ianinov, Rodion Galiuchenko, Vera Strokova
Music: Maksim Golovin
Producers: Vasilii Rovenskii, Anastasiia Akopian, Ekaterina Kabak
Ekaterina Telegina: The Habit of Breaking Up (Privychka rasstavat’sia, 2013)
reviewed by Holly Myers© 2014