Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50
Petr Buslov: The Bimmer (Bumer 2003)
reviewed by Julian Graffy© 2015
When two tough young men dressed in black approached a smart foreign car in a Moscow back street at the beginning of Petr Buslov’s debut feature The Bimmer, early twentieth-century Russian viewers may have felt that they were on familiar territory. This was the world mapped out by Aleksandr Atanesian in 24 Hours (24 chasa, 2000), by Egor Konchalovskii in [Anti]killer (2002), by Aleksei Sidorov in the super-hit TV serial The Brigade (Brigada 2002) and by many others. But what then unfurled before them was one of the most thoughtful cinematic analyses of contemporary Russia and its woes, an assessment which has lost none of its relevance today.
From the start of the film everything is botched. Dimon/Oshparennyi (Andrei Merzlikin, all four of film’s gang of heroes are addressed both by their diminutive and by their nickname [klichka]) and Petia/Rama (Sergei Gorobchenko) manage to set off the alarm of the Latvian-registered BMW they are stealing and are forced to skulk in a doorway till it’s safe to continue. Then, when they confront a group of men they have crossed in a restaurant, Lekha/Killa, the most volatile and hyperactive of them (Maksim Konovalov) stupidly shoots a guy who turns out to be from the FSB, so they have to leave town before the changes to the stolen vehicle can be properly completed. In a later flashback we discover that the reason for the restaurant meeting was Dimon’s picking an unnecessary fight with powerful enemies by damaging their Lexus while speeding and lane-hopping along the Moscow embankment in his flashy white Mercedes.
Throughout Soviet cinema Moscow was a place of political and personal aspiration, a journey’s end for eager provincials. In many post-Soviet films it purported to be a glamorous modern metropolis, with shimmering new office blocks, dynamic clubs and elegant restaurants frequented by the confident and moneyed new class. But in The Bimmer it is a town of rain-swept backstreets, dodgy car repair workshops and a restaurant whose laughable idea of chic is to cover its walls with plates and cutlery. This Moscow, radically, is a place to leave, whether for Paris, as Nastia, the girlfriend of the last of this quartet, Kostian/Kot (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) now intends, despairing of his ability to disengage himself from his feral friends and wishing to bring him neither prison parcels nor flowers for his grave; or into the unfamiliar Russian countryside, as the four heroes are forced to flee from their angry and vengeful enemies. Six minutes into The Bimmer Moscow is abandoned and they are on the road.
Now we are in a different genre of film, a road-movie, but their journey does not change these young men—they remain violent and stupid, never even thinking to dispose of the car which may betray them, unable even to find a lost phone, picking fights with men and exploiting women along the way. Too incompetent to plan their actions or to take along enough money, they are forced to trade the car’s Kenwood music-system for petrol at a sleazy filling station. Gradually it emerges that they have no emotional, familial or social context: only Kot has a girlfriend and she knows that his sense of duty to Killa and Ospharennyi, and his need for their respect is stronger than her own hold on him. What could he do in Paris, he retorts, only wash cars or be a janitor, since the only French he knows is “grand merci.” There is a baseball bat on the bed as they talk and he takes it with him when he goes off to join his friends. In one of the film’s several comic moments, Killa tells the young lad they meet at a filling station that he grew up without a father “but I made something of myself” [da v liudi vybilsia] and we realize that, with their childish nicknames, their childish arguments and passing of blame, their adolescent showing off, Rama and Killa, Kot and Oshparennyi are all historical orphans, literally on the road to nowhere. They have absolutely no interest in the countryside through which they are travelling—the birch forests so lovingly evoked in an earlier Russian “road-movie,” Grigorii Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, 1959), the fields, villages and small towns all flash past their car unnoticed. So when Dimon is badly wounded and they have to hole up with a village healer, and exchange their black clothes for the greens and khakis of country dwellers, their talk of staying there and starting a new life is, as they themselves acknowledge, absurd. At the film’s end the violence that has marked both their actions and their language from the start and the fissures in the loyalty that they have repeatedly proclaimed but not always displayed explode into an orgy of blood and gunfire in a botched raid on a computer store which leaves two, maybe three of them dead.
The gang’s encounters along the way, with other groups of feral young men, with policemen, with truck drivers and peasants, provide a devastating reading both of contemporary Russian masculinity and of the brutal abandonment of the Russian countryside. The traffic police on the edge of Moscow have to be bought off with a bribe. The filling station where they stop to get petrol is presided over by a witless lad who is listening to rap. A sign reports that the attendants are on a ‘break’, but it looks as if it has not been used in years, a symptom of the post-Soviet collapse (the most famous filling station in Soviet cinema, in Aleksei Mishurin and Nikolai Litus’s Queen of the Petrol Station [Koroleva benzokolonki, 1962], was a site of joy and gaiety). Yet it turns out to be “owned” by another group of tough young men and “protected” by yet another (the men in The Bimmer hunt in packs), who, though not as ‘cool’ as the men in the Moscow restaurant and on the Embankment, noisily assert their rights. Further along the way, in a forlorn village restaurant, the gang will try to exploit a group of truck drivers, inarticulate and suspicious, curt and charmless, and clash with the local hoodlums, protection racketeers who control this section of the road.
Events conspire to force the men to drive further and further into the Russian hinterland. If, conventionally, in Russian culture as in that of other countries, a journey to the country could bring healing or contentment, the countryside in The Bimmer is itself in need of healing, a wild, dangerous territory penetrated by the new criminal gangs, a place of despair, lawlessness and dereliction. A group of country patrol cops, resentful of smug Muscovite tough guys, look to exploit them. They plant drugs in the boot of their car and demand an on-the-spot fine. Certain that they are above the law, they conceal them in a copy of the newspaper Sel’skaia zhizn’ (Village Life), to which Rama earnestly insists that he does not subscribe. A local hospital has closed and, in one of the film’s several unostentatiously deployed metaphors, its ambulance has become a vehicle for transporting cabbages. The village where they are forced to pause has fallen into decay. And everyone drinks to excess. The policeman who tried to bribe them buys vodka in a drab village shop but in his befuddlement drops a fake two-dollar bill that he has confiscated and catches his hand in an animal trap when bending over to pick it up. The lorry drivers drink and get into vicious fights. The village tractor driver, who tows their broken-down car and who describes them as “angry townees” [Zlye vy kakie-to gorodskie], doesn’t want too much money for his help since “I’ll have to get pissed” [pridetsia nazhrat’sia]. Pashka, one of only two young people left in the village, is utterly befuddled by drink. He tells heroic tall tales about his military service, “shedding blood for the motherland,” but, as his grandfather reproaches him, in fact he only served as a cook. The young women whom Killa and Rama pick up in the forlorn regional centre (raitsentr) get so drunk that they let slip the information that a computer store is about to take a delivery, thus setting in motion the film’s bloody dénouement.
The deeper the men move into this world, the greater their sense of lostness. When they first abandon the car and walk in search of the house of Sobachikha, who, they have been told, can cure the wounded Dimon, Kot asks Rama “Where are you going?” [Kuda ty poshel?]. Following in their wake, Killa shouts “Where are you going? We’re going in the wrong direction.” [Kuda vy poshli? My ne tuda idem]. Even nature is against them. By now the snows have set in, snows which, as Gerald McCausland noted in his review for KinoKultura (McCausland 2003), have always defeated and destroyed alien invaders of the Russian hinterland.
And everywhere there are signs that the Soviet legacy lingers on: in their fear of the consequences of tangling with the organs of power and in the visual remnants of the Soviet world—a large carved hammer and sickle in the regional center, a forgotten perestroika banner in the village club where Petia makes love to the local beauty, and a broken down combine harvester abandoned in a field, and now serving only as a marker when giving directions. There is a monstrous abandoned hammer and sickle in the Krasnovodsk of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse (Dni zatmeniia, 1988), and by it a concrete star which Maiia Turovskaia has described as ‘an ancient graven image, a sphinx for future generations’ (Turovskaia 2006: 101). Here, fifteen years later, though the material aspects of the Soviet legacy may now pass unnoticed, it remains powerfully present in people’s heads. When Killa gives the boy at the petrol station career advice he tells him that he “could go on to a building site, or to a factory,” ubiquitous Soviet careers that suffered most damagingly in the post-Soviet economic collapse. Indeed, in the view of Viktoriia Levitova (not a great fan of the film), what The Bimmer does most successfully is to convey the still potent presence of an even more pervasive past:
But what emerges most successfully, what, you might say, climbs into the frame, brazenly shoving aside its superficial formal order [vystroenost’] is “old” reality. Of course I’m not talking about the snatch of a Party slogan […] hanging in the village club […]. The “old” reality is much deeper, more ambiguous than these added on rarities and is absolutely not limited to the Soviet time, it’s in our psychophysical essence [psikhofizika], our mentality, if you wish, and it waves to us from there through the poisonous yellow of the bus stop with the so familiar scratched “IRA+PETIA”, the borshch in the village restaurant as the only acceptable version of a main course, with the peeling wallpaper in Kostian’s flat […]. Reality is not the cabbage heads […] which pour out of the ambulance doors, but the ambulance itself […] in which, with a single glance, a “sixth sense”, or maybe through logic you sense that no patients have been carried for a long time. (Levitova 2003: 19)
Even though it presents them, unlike the men, as individuals rather than in groups, The Bimmer is at its weakest in its treatment of its women characters. Fixated on its analysis of contemporary Russian masculinity, it reduces its female protagonists to conventional, peripheral or instrumental roles. A loud-mouthed prostitute hangs out with the drivers at a truck-stop. Provincial young women are easily seduced by the smooth-talking Muscovites. A mother rushes off with her child, shouting “don’t shoot!,” when the fighting breaks out. Kot’s girlfriend Nastia, the most articulate and aspiring character in the film, is given just a few short scenes, most of them in flashback. Her realization of the impotence of her feelings against the homosocial bonds that bind Kot to his buddies and her consequent departure are reminiscent of Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (Tret’ia Meshchanskaia, 1927), but it is a measure of The Bimmer’s pessimism that she leaves not for the heart of Russia (now, as we have seen, contaminated) but for Western Europe (and that the men she abandons die a violent death).
The two most substantial female roles are those of the village women, Kat’ka and Sobachikha. Both of them are cast as “healers.” Kat’ka has returned to the village to care for her paralyzed mother and is unimpressed by the attentions of the drunken Pashka. In the laziest sequence of the film she is seduced by handsome Petia, but his promise to return to her, already cast into doubt by his later dalliance with the local beauties, is rendered unfulfillable by his bloody demise. Far more interesting is Sobachikha, a wise-woman out of a folktale, the person to whom the whole village turns now that the local hospital has been closed. The one satisfyingly enigmatic character in the film, the single member of an older generation given a more than episodic role, she is the only developed female figure and the one fully articulated representative of the Russian hinterland. When first encountered she is lying profoundly asleep and is taken for dead by the four young men. After she rises from her bed to heal Dimon’s wound she is sardonic and contemptuous of them, of their metropolitan ways, of their stupidity and of their big black car. She warns them to leave [uezzhat’ vam nado] and prophesies their pointless demise [poubivaiut vas vsekh kogda-nibud’ ni za chto]. The men are intrigued by her and by her enigmatic (sur-?)name, which (like that of Gogol’s Bashmachkin) has an improbable feminine root. After they have gone she resumes her recumbent silence, closing the episode and formalizing their incapacity to change. Sobachikha, it seems, represents a different world, a soon-to-be-lost past that now despairs of its capacity to influence Russia’s future development.
If the film’s heroes largely ignore the advice of the women they meet, it is because they are preoccupied by machines. But the technological objects of their desire consistently betray them. It is while he is speeding along the embankment while on the phone that Dimon gets into a dangerous crash. Later, when they realize that phones can be used to track their movements, the gang’s phones metamorphose from markers of their status and of their “connection” to the modern world into objects of fear and the decision is taken to chuck them away. Their loss renders them unable to keep track of the dangers that face them. Kot’s phone, hidden somewhere under a car seat, mockingly rings only after the car has been abandoned. The computer store in the regional centre is a drab dump which turns into a site of death. The smart white Merc that Dimon drives in Moscow runs out of control and causes them to have to quit town. The flash red car that Kot lovingly spies in the regional centre has been confiscated from his friend in settlement of his debts. But it is above all the titular black BMW that continually lets them down. Its alarm goes off when they first try to steal it. The garage mechanic doesn’t complete his work on it. It runs out of petrol. Its seductive foreign beauty makes it far too conspicuous and it cannot cope with the poor country roads. Its tires are slashed by the truckers. It imprisons them in its coffin—Sobachikha finds it terrifying and compares it to a hearse—and prevents them from seeing the Russian world. When Dimon tries to use it as a getaway car after the robbery, it refuses to start, making it possible for the police to shoot his friends. At the end, when it succumbs to the winter snows and a fallen tree, Dimon is ignominiously forced to wait at a filthy, graffitied (“Ira + Petia”) country bus stop and to board the bus to nowhere. The film’s last image is of the car’s lights finally going out. All these technological wonders are associated with treachery and death.
Boris Khlebnikov once expressed his envy of Buslov by contending that whereas the temperature in his own films is 36.6 degrees, the temperature in Buslov’s is 42 (Kas’ianova 2015). Much of the pleasure in watching The Bimmer comes from the recognition of its formal confidence and energy. The script, by Buslov and Denis Rodimin, combines authenticity and humor with subtly deployed symbolism. The red and white on black of the credits establishes the film’s dominant palette. The symbolic black of the hearse car is echoed in guns and in the men’s clothes. The red recurs in Moscow neon and car lights, in the car that Kot’s friend has surrendered, in bloodied bodies and blood-stained clothes, most ominously in the blood on Killa’s tee-shirt that alerts the country police that the computer store is under attack. The treacherous white of Dimon’s car on the embankment is taken up in the white of the restaurant walls and the snows that cover the village paths and fields. Overhead shots diminish the characters, losing them in the broad expanses, while the repeated sequences of the countryside speeding past unnoticed only underline our sense of their entrapment. (The dynamic and inventive cinematography is by Daniel’ Gurevich, who, like Buslov, was working on his first feature film, but who was one of six members of The Bimmer’s crew who perished in the Karmadon Ravine avalanche in September 2002, while working on their next project, Sergei Bodrov Jr’s film The Messenger (Sviaznoi), as a note in the film’s end credits reminds us.) The sense of confinement is adumbrated by the clever use of Sergei Shnurov’s pulsating, intoxicating but inhuman music, which remains unchangingly indifferent as their fates darken, and which is contrasted to the intense emotionality of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, briefly heard but curtailed by Petia’s insistence that ‘that garbage’ [eta khernia] be silenced. (Chaliapin’s music is similarly profaned when one of their Moscow buddies uses it on a radio request program to facilitate his folklore-inspired message, “do not go there, you know where…,” that their itinerary is being tracked). Perhaps the film’s most original and cleverly deployed formal device is the use of extensive flash forwards to indicate the fates (sometime well into the future) of the people they meet on the way. The baseball bat first seen on Kot’s bed is given by Dimon to the young rap-fan at the filling station. After the men have left he uses it to beat up a young man out walking with his girlfriend, an act he records on camera, and then to attack an old man who tries to stop him stealing from his car. Siplyi, the halfwit truck driver who wounds Dimon with a screwdriver, later uses it to hold the cab of his truck precariously open while he does some repairs. It collapses and he ends up paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, mocked by his wife when she brings home a lover. Kat’ka, abandoned by Petia, is first seen heavily pregnant, and then, years later, as the single mother of a young daughter, still courted by the feckless Pashka. All the flash forwards show the contamination or suffering that follow encounters with the gang. Taken together they offer little optimism about Russia’s immediate future.
In her thoughtful and wide-ranging review of the film, Irina Liubarskaia has found both American “roots” for The Bimmer, in the work of Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino, but also “native roots;” she makes particular reference to Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat 1997) (Liubarskaia 2003: 36). The connections between the The Bimmer and Brother, made six years earlier by the CTB Company which co-produced Buslov’s film, certainly repay close attention. The trope of fatherlessness, used of Danila Bagrov in Brother with symbolic implication for a deracinated generation, is extended in The Bimmer, explicitly to Killa but also by implication to his three friends. The adjective “krutoi” (tough), used of Danila by Sveta near the end of Brother, when, with bitter irony, she invites him to ‘kill us all’, is sarcastically applied by the fat cop in the country patrol to the whole group of “tough Muscovites” [krutye moskvichi]. Pashka, the recently demobbed man, is also a reversed double of Danila. While Pashka’s tales of heroic military exploits are a fantasy to disguise the fact that he worked as a cook and he proves incompetent with a rifle, Danila, who shyly insisted that he served as a clerk at HQ, can wield a gun and prepare a home-made bomb. While Pashka clings to his military uniform, Danila has discarded his. The disapproval of their criminal behavior expressed by a commentator-figure from an older generation, Sobachikha, echoes the reaction of her coeval Gofman to Danila’s descent into violence. Brother ended with its “killer,” “bandit” hero, who had begun his journey in the provinces, en route for Moscow, where the action of its sequel Brother 2 (Brat 2, 2000) begins. Six years later, four young ‘killers’ and ‘bandits’ reverse his trajectory. Brother was the most popular and influential Russian film of the 1990s and perhaps the most thoughtful and analytical of the post-Soviet gangster films. The Bimmer, by entering into discourse with it, and by replicating both its subtle deployment of metaphor and its distanced stance from its protagonists, pushes the examination of contemporary society into a new century.
The Bimmer made “tough guy” stars of three of its main actors, Andrei Merzlikin, who has played a central role in Buslov’s new film Motherland (Rodina, 2015); Vladimir Vdovichenkov, whose smooth Muscovite lawyer in Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviathan (Leviafan, 2014) reprises some of the character traits of Kot; and Sergei Gorobchenko, perhaps most memorable in Andrei Proshkin’s Minnesota (2009). (Only Maksim Konovalov, while never out of work, has never had a role to rival his Killa in The Bimmer). Buslov himself returned twice to the world of The Bimmer. In the first, Anti-Bimmer (Antibumer 2004), he collaborated with Dmitrii Puchkov (“Goblin”) in a mockingly ironical reworking of the first film’s narrative (see Rulyova 2005). Perhaps its most amusing conceit was to give the boy at the petrol station a black father, facilitating the quotation of von Kneischitz’s outraged remark at the end of Grigorii Aleksandrov’s The Circus (Tsirk, 1936), “A white woman has a black child” [U beloi zhenshchiny chernyi rebenok]. The second, The Bimmer 2 (Bumer 2, 2006), reviewed for KinoKultura by Stephen Hutchings (2006), follows the further adventures of Kot, who has rather improbably recovered from the wounds he suffered at the end of The Bimmer. Buslov’s biggest popular hit so far has been the lugubrious Vysotskii. Thank God I’m Alive (Vysotskii. Spasibo, chto zhivoi, 2011), reviewed for KinoKultura by Vladimir Martynov (2012) and further discussed on the site by Polly McMichael (2013).
But The Bimmer remains Buslov’s most original and ambitious film to date. A collection of extracts from Russian reviews of the film reprinted in Seans in 2006 in connection with the release of The Bimmer 2 is almost uniformly positive. Larisa Iusipova calls it “real cinema” [nastoiashchee kino] (Iusipova 2003), while Irina Liubarskaia praises its “real directorial thought” [nastoiashchee rezhisserskoe myshlenie] and its functioning on several planes (Liubarskaia 2003: 37). Igor’ Mantsov calls it “a chef d’oeuvre which is absolutely essential for the country” (Mantsov 2005: 185), while Natal’ia Sirivlia praises its “renunciation of any ennobling illusions and flourishes” (Sirivlia 2004: 195). Roman Volobuev acknowledges and celebrates the film’s ambition in these words:
The most joyous thing of all is that the director displays an ability, which we have not seen since the time of the first Brother and which seemed to have been completely lost, to balance between metaphor and life, mysticism and reality and applies his own exceptional cinematic culture [nasmotrennost’] to good purpose, without, moreover, sinking to the level of insistent winks in the direction of the viewer. From the multifarious generation of followers of Tarantino, who have proliferated all around the world beyond any measure, Buslov has turned out to be almost the only one who has understood that the main thing about Tarantino is not the jokes, not the bad language and not even the red blood on white shirts, but the sense of this strange geometry of fate, in the light of which it transpires that everyone is guilty and no one is to be pitied. (Volobuev 2003)
Of course The Bimmer is not flawless, not “the best Russian film” of the last twenty five years (which was the rubric under which this celebration of KinoKultura’s half century—and of Birgit Beumers’s unparalleled contribution to the study of recent Russian cinema—was proposed to me), but it is certainly one of the most thoughtful and, in English-language criticism, one of the most underrated. It is in this context that I suggest that it would repay a further look.
1] On the film as Russian road-movie and on the way it alters the “myth of the journey,” see Vinogradova 2004: 71-72. Two other key films of 2003, Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie) and Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii’s Koktebel (comparison of which to The Bimmer would be particularly suggestive) are structured around the journey of their male characters through Russia.
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Hutchings, Stephen. 2006. “Petr Buslov: Bimmer 2 (Bumer 2, 2006)”, KinoKultura 14.
Iusipova, Larisa. 2003. “Gadaniia o ‘Roze’,” Vedomosti 18 June (Extract: Seans).
Kas’ianova, Ol’ga, 2015. “Kinotavr-2015. ‘Rodina’ Petra Buslova,” Seans blog, 16 June.
Levitova, Viktoriia. 2003. “Perspektivy razvitiia otechestvennogo kinematografa, ili Neosoznannaia real’nost’,” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 65: 6-25.
Liubarskaia, Irina. 2003. “Nesladkaia zhizn’,” Iskusstvo kino 8: 35-38.
Mantsov, Igor’. 2005. “Debiut kak problema,” Seans 19/20: 179-86
Martynov, Vladimir. 2012. “Petr Buslov: Vysotsky. Thank God I’m Alive (Vysotskii. Spasibo, chto zhivoi, 2011),” KinoKultura 37.
McCausland, Gerald. 2003. “Petr Buslov: Boomer (Bumer) (2003),” KinoKultura 2.
McMichael, Polly. 2013. “The Singer at the Microphone: Voice, Body, Traces and the Re-creation of Vladimir Vysotskii,” KinoKultura 42.
Rulyova, Natalya. 2005. “Petr Buslov, Anti-Bimmer [Anti-Bumer] (2004),” KinoKultura 9.
Sirivlia, Natal’ia. 2003. “Biokhimicheskaia ataka,” Iskusstvo kino 8: 38-40.
Sirivlia, Natal’ia. 2004. “Ottsy i deti,” Novyi mir 1: 191-96.
Turovskaia, Maiia. 2006. “Dni zatmeniia, ili mertsaiushchaia aritmiia,” in Sokuro—Kniga 2. Chasti rechi. Sbornik, ed. Liubov’ Arkus, St. Petersburg: Seans, pp. 101-10.
Vinogradova, Elena. 2004. “Metafizika dvizheniia, ili ‘asfal’tovye’ fil’my 2003 goda,” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 68: 71-74.
Volkov, Vadim. 2004. “Ot vymysla k real’nosti. ‘Brat-2’ i ‘Bumer’,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas 6: 106-08.
Volobuev, Roman. 2003. “Nasha marka,” Vedomosti 3 July (Extract: Seans).
The Bimmer, Russia, 2003
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Petr Buslov
Screenplay: Denis Rodimin, Petr Buslov
Director of Photography: Daniel’ Gurevich
Production Design: Ul’iana Riabova
Music: Sergei Shnurov (“Shnur”), gruppa Leningrad, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony
Cast: Sergei Gorobchenko, Andrei Merzlikin, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Maksim Konovalov, Iana Shivkova, Liudmila Poliakova, Anastasiia Sapozhnikova, Vasilii Sedykh
Producer: Sergei Chliants
Production: CTB Company, Pigmalion Production, with the support of the Film Service of the Russian Ministry of Culture
Petr Buslov: The Bimmer (Bumer 2003)
reviewed by Julian Graffy© 2015