Issue 48 (2015)
Stanislav Govorukhin, Weekend (2013)
reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic © 2015
Oh, for the return of a cinema of effervescence, and for an update of the nihilistic playfulness of the French New Wave! With its portrait of generally well-heeled, photogenic and impeccably dressed narcissists stumbling through their misadventures like characters in a Feydeau farce, Stanislav Govorukhin’s latest film Weekend seems to fit the bill for a generous serving of screen candy, finished off with a dollop of amoral froth. Certainly, the possibilities of a post-war European cinematographic sensibility in Soviet film were fleetingly explored in the expansive and vertiginous opening scene of Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957),with its lovers skipping along the embankment of a Seine-like river Moskva dappled in sunlight, and to the jaunty rhythms of a score by Mоisei Vainberg that suggested a cross between 1920s’ Soviet Jazz and the film music of Michel Legrand. Govorukhin’s Weekend,filmed in a luxuriant black-and-white reminiscent of the velvety texture of a Henri Cartier-Bresson gelatin print, is full of shrewd misdirections, feints and skewed cinematic references that come full circle, ultimately drawing attention to the mechanics of a new Gilded Age. The action takes place in a limpidly sunlit Odessa—that proverbially most Mediterranean of cities from the former Soviet empire. The fact that the cast of characters is largely Russian, in a place located outside the borders of the Russian Federation, only serves to throw into sharper relief the occasional entrance of non-Russian (and, for that matter, non-Ukrainian) individuals into accident-driven unfurling of the film’s action.
We’ll have more to say later about the strategic foreign presence within the film, both in terms of characters and cinematic influences. First, let’s take factual note of the film’s source material, which is Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud,1958),an adaptation of Noël Calef’s novel of the same title. The basic plotlines of Govorukhin’s film coincide with Malle’s and Calef’s story of a businessman, who kills a colleague out of self-interest, and whose escape and eventual entrapment occur as the result of random events. Like the protagonist Julien Tavernier of Malle’s film, in Govorukhin’s Weekend the businessman Igor’ Lebedev tells his secretary not to disturb him in his office and perilously climbs out of his window with murder on his mind. With his alibi in place, he shimmies along the external ledge and re-enters the building through another office. Once inside the building again, he makes his way to the office of the company auditor, who intends to launch an investigation into the embezzlement of corporate funds by both Lebedev and his brother-in-law. Lebedev confronts the accountant, an elderly and avowedly incorruptible man who contemptuously rejects Lebedev’s attempt to bribe him. Lebedev uses the auditor’s own pistol to murder him, makes off with the incriminating documents, and re-enters his own office. Sitting in his car at the end of the day, and after committing what seems to be the perfect murder, he realizes that he left some of the documents in the building. As in Malle’s film, his attempt to retrieve the damning evidence after the building closes results in him being trapped in a deactivated elevator for the rest of the night. In the meantime, Lebedev’s convertible is stolen by a joy-riding hooligan called Maksim, who picks up his girlfriend and uses Lebedev’s ID to book them into a posh hotel on the Black Sea. Maksim’s botched attempt to steal money from a kind Russian-Swedish couple on the beach quickly escalates into shooting them with the gun that Lebedev already used. In the end, Lebedev is arrested and convicted on the basis of tightly circumstantial evidence surrounding the murder of the couple. Brought to his wit’s end by being rapidly abandoned by his wife and her unscrupulous, social-climbing brother Ivan (who is also the Prefect of Police in the city), Lebedev breaks down and takes full responsibility for the two murders he didn’t commit, and the one he did commit.
Govorukhin somewhat obscures the highly stylized references to Malle’s film by omitting any reference to the film or Calef’s novel in the sparse opening credits of the film. The film begins with a list of the actors’ names that ascends an elevator shaft, and a shot of the word ‘weekend’ materializing inside an open elevator in both English and Cyrillic, and disappearing as the doors slide shut. The title naturally recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s film of the same title (1967). The highly kinetic manipulation of the opening credits also brings to mind certain formalist aspects of Godard, who has expressed admiration for the inventively distorted or reversed listing of credits in American noir films such as Robert Aldrich’s gleefully anarchistic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). While the plot and occasional frame shot of Govorukhin’s film clearly draw on narrative details and visual tableaux from Malle’s, the preoccupation with the corrosive effect of embourgeoisement and the toxic confluence of new and old money—and the ways in which the combination of such factors brings about mortal violence, social breakdown, and general chaos—is distinctly of a piece with Godard’s Weekend. Here, however, the breakdown has already taken place and is not, as in Godard’s film, actualized and made allegorically dramatic over the course of an obnoxious, bourgeois couple’s car trip. Here, there is no enactment of that Godardian spectacle of the cinematically unspooling marriage. When he finds 120,000 Euros missing from his safe, Lebedev’s brother-in-law Ivan makes the immediate assumption that his wife took it. Later, while looking at his wife across the ballroom floor during a gauchely sumptuous birthday celebration for himself, he tells his sister that he has no doubt that his “dearest trusted spouse [blagovernaia] is responsible.” The Darwinian world of Govorukhin’s film is one in which bourgeois pieties about marriage, family and trust among those of the same estate have been fatally compromised, and in which one’s word has quite literally ceased to be one’s bond. Unlike Godard’s Weekend,what we are witnessing in Govorukhin’s film is not the unfolding of a moral cataclysm, but its aftermath.
Govorukhin leaves tantalizingly open the question of culpability for that breakdown. As viewers, our first reflexive response might be that foreigners, or excessive Russian reliance on foreign business interests and cultural values, is to blame. The film’s first words are spoken by Lebedev’s secretary in a very strong Baltic accent, in an office filled with calendars, framed diplomas and certificates printed in the Roman alphabet. The holding company where Lebedev works as a mid-level executive has an unexplained non-Cyrillic acronym, and all of the business transactions in the film (both legitimate and sub rosa) are conducted in Euros. Distinctly Russian cultural realia appear only in relation to Maksim’s girlfriend Sonya who, with her singing of a beautifully keening folk song on the beach, draws the ultimately fatal attention of a Russian expatriate woman and her Swedish photographer husband. But Sonya herself emerges as a tragic figure, an aspiring musician who was unable to gain admission to a conservatory and who is abused and abandoned by Maksim after she surmises that he was responsible for the couple’s murder. Her final gesture, after she turns up the gas in the oven of her mother’s house, is to blow out the oil candle in front of an icon of Christ Pantocrator.
In contrast to the fate of the thieving young couple in Malle’s film, who recover from their attempt at suicide, here only the young woman attempts to kill herself, and she succeeds. The final scene of the film has a newly dapper Maksim sauntering carefree on a street teeming with signs in a mix of Cyrillic and Roman print, some of them advertisements for non-Russian franchises such as Wendy’s, others notices in Russian for pawn-broking services (skupka). With a lushly updated version of Yves Montand’s interpretation of “C’est si bon” swelling on the soundtrack, Maksim removes his designer sunglasses to wink at the camera—a direct gaze of Godardian empowerment that no one else engages in over the course of the film, but which here (in contrast with Godard’s use of the gesture as a vehicle for democratization) emerges as a diabolical assertion of might makes right. It would seem that both morality and Russian economic sovereignty are under siege by the West, or that the values of the West transform certain Russians into monstrous vectors of corruption. Certainly Govorukhin’s own public statements—in support of the war with Ukraine, and against the predatory neoliberal aspirations of what the Eurasianist propagandist Aleksandr Dugin terms the “Atlanticist” or “thalassocratic” powers of the NATO alliance—coalesce quite easily with the film’s portrait of a poised, if spiritually vacuous, Western-gazing business elite.
But something strange happens on the way to the end of this film. Like many of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Govorukhin’s Weekend is very much caught up in its cineaste’s passion for scattershot referencing to other films. In addition to Godard and Malle, Govorukhin’s Weekend is replete with references to scenes from films by Jean-Pierre Melville, Eric Rohmer, Pier-Paolo Pasolini, Alfred Hitchcock (particularly Strangers On a Train and Vertigo), and his own police film for Soviet television The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed (Mesto vstrechi izmenit’ nel’zia, 1979). Also like Tarantino, Govorukhin does not always succeed in finessing the message—whether it be, in the case of the American director, about racism, misogyny or anti-Semitism, or in the Russian’s, about the culturally imperialistic values of the West—with the generous synesthetic medium of what the American critic John Simon has called the most important art form. With its pastiche of elements from the movie soundtracks of Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini and Michel Legrand, Artem Vasil’ev’s musical score (performed with sharpness, lyricism and wit by both the Russian State Orchestra of Cinematography and the Odessa Jazz Orchestra) is exquisitely synchronized to the variations in lighting and camera placement in Iurii Klimenko’s luminous cinematography. The criminal activities of Igor’ Lebedev and Maksim are subjected to a gaze that is critical yet bemused.
The entrance of law enforcement into the action of the movie is dominated by the great character actor Viktor Sukhorukov, famous for his role as a foolishly glib gangster in Aleksei Balabanov's Brother (Brat, 1997). Sukhorukov steals every scene of interrogation that he plays with Maksim Matveev’s Lebedev, and the viewer’s recollection of his earlier noteworthy performance as a thug contributes to a vivid composite impression in this film of the moral ambiguity of law enforcement. Sukhorukov’s casting as a police officer also echoes Govorukhin’s inspired, counter-intuitive choice of Vladimir Vysotsky as a security forces captain in The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed, where an actor famous for roles as a rough outsider plays against the grain and draws attention (through the subtext of his earlier films) to the nasty attitude of churlish unaccountability within some law enforcement organizations. In Weekend, Govorukhin’s open-ended treatment of the self-satisfied ostentation and frivolity of a capitalist elite also seems fitting in light of the involvement of the Russian petroleum behemoth Lukoil, which is listed in the opening credits as the film’s largest corporate sponsor. Govorukhin draws attention to connections and causes, to maladies and their etiologies, only to make light of them, giving us (like the thief Maksim at the end of the film) a wink that says that we shouldn’t take these things—or anything—too seriously. Govorukhin’s Weekend emerges as a relativistic sensorium. What can we do about the parlous fate of Russians outside the Russian Federation, in the potentially blighting shadow of a West eager (as some argue) to consolidate its economic presence in Ukraine? And what about the inevitability of cronyism and malfeasance within a national economy that is propped up by the selling of energy resources? Concerns duly noted, and filed away for future reference. In the meantime—and to paraphrase Susan Sontag—let’s use the rapture of cinema as a solvent for the pesky demands of morality.
1] For a discussion of Govorukhin’s casting of the actor and singer Vysotskii as captain Zheglov in his 1978 film, see Vladimir Novikov’s biography Vysotskii, Moscow: Molodaia Gvardiia, 2005, pp. 295-9.
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Weekend, Russia, 2013 (Theatrical Release: 16 October 2014)
Color, 95 minutes, Dolby Digital 5.1
Director Stanislav Govorukhin
Scriptwriters Stanislav Govorukhin with participation of Kseniia Stepanycheva
Director of Photography Iurii Klimenko
Production Design Valentin Gidulianov
Costume Design Natalia Moneva
Music Artem Vasil’ev
Sound Oleg Urusov
Editing Vera Kruglova
Cast: Maksim Matveev, Ekaterina Guseva, Aleksandr Domogarov, Iuliia Khlynina, Viacheslav Chepurchenko, Viktor Sukhorukov, Iuliia Peresild, Ol’ga Dykhovichnaia, Saulus Balandis, Viktor Sergachev, Aleksandr Dobrovinskii.
Producers Aleksandr Prosianov, Stanislav Govorukhin, Ekaterina Maskina
Production Film Studio Vertical’
Stanislav Govorukhin, Weekend (2013)
reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic © 2015