Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50

Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s Peculiarities of the National Hunt (Osobennosti natsional’noi okhoty, 1995)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2015

Celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, Rogozhkin’s film is both a typical product of the 1990s and an unusual one. Like many other films of the era, it plunges headlong into identity debates (are we still Soviet? are we Russian? what does this mean? what is our relationship with the West? with the East?), declaring this quest in its cumbersome title. The sought identity is almost exclusively collective, which makes Peculiarities similar to many other films of the late 1980s-mid 1990s that use masks and archetypes, not full-fledged characters. Unlike its brethren, however, Peculiarities is a comedy, and a successful one at that. It does not look like a conceptualist installation or an outright chernukha film, and manages to follow in the footsteps of Leonid Gaidai and Iurii Mamin in integrating contemporary material with comic gags. In short, Peculiarities and its sequels[1] provided a model for new Russian comedy, propelling its cast to stardom[2] and, with its title (“Peculiarities of National…”), supplying journalists and filmmakers with a serio-comic idiom for describing incongruous aspects of post-Soviet Russia.

oxotaRogozhkin’s film was also one of the first and most successful examples of “cinema for the people” (narodnoe kino),[3] following the debates over the sad state of the Russian film industry in the mid-1990s. This might explain the series of prestigious awards Peculiarities receivedat Russian film festivals, as well as the attention of Russian critics, who were often dismissive of comedies. Peculiarities won the NIKA award of the Russian Academy of Film Art and the Grand Prix at the Kinotavr film festival (notably, the famous satirist Vladimir Voinovich was chairman of the Jury that year). As for Russian audiences, they could not help but fall in love with the film. In the mid-1990s, movie theaters in Russia were in complete disarray, and the film’s distribution was primarily on video, finally giving the video pirating industry a native hit from which to profit (Savel’ev 2004). Peculiarities also immediately found a home on Russian television where it often played simultaneously on several channels, especially around the New Year,[4] thus joining such Soviet classics as El’dar Riazanov’s Irony of Fate (Ironiia sud’by, 1976) as a feel-good movie par excellence.

In the tradition of slapstick comedy, Peculiarities uses its episodic narrative as motivation to deploy visual gags and verbal jokes. The narrative “excuse” is a hunting trip to the border between Russia and Finland, undertaken by an all-male group of randomly assembled characters: a general (aka Mikhalych), a police investigator, a businessman, an interpreter, and Raivo—a Finnish student of Russian literature and culture. At the lodge, ranger Kuz’mich and a local policeman join them. But this retelling is misleading. As the outing’s ultimate goal, the hunt only exists in the imagination of the enthusiastic Russophile Raivo who expects the trip to match literary descriptions of majestic Russian hunts of the imperial era. Everybody else in the hunting party sets off for the hinterlands in search of good old bonding and merrymaking. Until very late into the film we don’t even see hunting gear; but we do witness epic supplies of vodka procured for the “hunt.” Vodka travels in boxes in the car trunk, crosses into a secure border area by motorboat, and is delivered by a military helicopter. Vodka is alpha and omega, the bonding glue and the narrative engine, a blessing and a curse, and “a national tradition,” as Zhenia, the interpreter, tells Raivo.

oxotaAnybody looking to be offended by stereotypes of “fun but wild” Russia will find any and all of them in Rogozhkin’s film. Drunken antics involve a steam bath (bania), a bear, a drunken bear in a steam bath, a cow, cow dung, a Тu-22M3 bomber, the cow and cow dung in the bomb bay of the Tu-22M3 bomber, and so forth. Meanwhile, Raivo’s story begins and ends the film with scenes of the aristocratic hunt and invites us to compare French-speaking, wolf-hunting nobility to profane contemporaneity. The trick is that there are two interpretive frameworks in Peculiarities. The film provides a double lens through which one may choose to look at Russia—an insider’s eye and a sympathetic Western one (which belongs to a native from a former subject of the Russian empire). But if we assume that the “demeaning” stereotypes of the Russian national character (vodka, steam baths, and bears) belong to the Westerner, we also have to admit that the flattering ones (the majestic imperial hunt) are, likewise, the Western imaginings of “old” Russia. Rogozhkin suggests as much by never translating the aristocratic French from Raivo’s dreams.

Although the film abounds in visual gags and verbal jokes, its humor and its the general feel are peaceful, almost meditative. Rogozhkin once referred to his film as “a course in non-scientific communism” which, unlike the elusive scientific one, always existed in everyday life: “When one does not have to think about the daily bread, when one has a sea of vodka and no problems—that’s what ‘non-scientific communism is’” (See Rogozhkin 1995). And indeed in Rogozhkin’s film, classic grotesque (modern military technology and cow waste) and misunderstanding (Raivo thinks that Kuz’mich invites him to have sex with elk) exist in an almost magical world of nature and male bonding. In this idyll anything is possible. Language barriers collapse; the Yeti runs past Raivo; Kuz’mich grows pineapples in his garden; and Earth is visible in the night sky (but as Raivo notes, you cannot see it from Finland).

oxotaRogozhkin’s is a male paradise. The only two women in the film are lubok milkmaids who never say a word. The “hunters” are presided over by a general, a military base is just next-door, and there are enough civilian and military police to form a squad. “You have a big army,”—remarks Raivo to Zhenia. Thankfully, post-Cold War Tu-22M3 bombers and Ka-27 helicopters only transport cows and vodka, and characters make toasts, not war. This entire militaristic, testosterone-driven universe (Soviet? Russian?) is carnivalized again and again. Bullets hit inflatable boats instead of ducks; the airfield commander steps into cow dung and is sprayed with urine; and the policeman Semenov spends his days alternating drinking with a melancholy search for his gun, which he lost as a result of drinking. And it is fitting that the voice-over interpreter, navigating the viewer through this Babel Tower of languages (Russian, English, Finnish, French and German), it is a woman.  

Comedy is a dangerous business: it is either a hit or a miss, either funny or not. Twenty years later, the film still works, and in fact feels like a breath of fresh air.

It invokes eternal Russian questions but dissolves them in a solution of 50 per cent carnival, 50 per cent vodka. “Do you think Russia is finished? Looking for salvation in vodka?”— the criminal investigator Leva sternly inquires. Then he takes a drink. Never sliding into a mocking or parodic tone, Rogozhkin’s film signaled the revival of Russian cinema two years before Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997) brought audiences back to movie theaters. In 1998 Rogozhkin transferred Peculiarities’ episodic structure, anarchic spirit and male brotherhood from northern nature to St. Petersburg, directing the first episode of Streets of Broken Lights (Ulitsy razbitykh fonnarei), the first successful post-Soviet television series.


Notes

1] Operation “Happy New Year!” (Operatsiia “S novym godom”, 1996), Peculiarities of National Fishing (Osobennostri natsional’noi rybalki, 1998), Peculiarities of National Hunt in Winter Season (Osobennostri natsional’noi okhoty v zimnii period, 2000), and Peculiarities of National Politics (Osobennosti natsional’noi politiki, 2003).

2] The film also launched the career of Ville Haapsalo who became a star in Russia before Finland. Since then, he has acted in over a dozen Russian films, often in the role of a (drunken) Finn. In 2002 he played a lead role in Rogozhkin’s award winning WWII drama/comedy Cuckoo (Kukushka).

3] As Elena Stishova notes, the film is only among a handful in post-Soviet cinema that became an instant popular hit “without any promotional campaigns” (bez vsiakoi raskrutki). See Stishova 2013.

4] For example, in 1997 Peculiarities played on 30 December on TV-6 Moscow and on 31 December on the Petersburg channel. See Razlogov 1997.

 

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Works Cited

Razlogov, Kirill. 2003. “Vpered v proshloe.” Iskusstvo kino 3.

Rogozhkin, Aleksandr. 1995. “A Short Course of Non-Scientific Communism” (interview), Iskusstvo kino 12: 80-86; cited in Entsiklopediia otechestvennogo kino.

Savel’ev, Dmitrii. 2004. Noveishaia istoriia otechestvennogo kino, 1986-2000. vol. VI, St. Petersburg: Seans.

Stishova, Elena. 2013. “Ne v den’gakh schast’e. Kruglyi stol,” Iskusstvo kino 11.


Peculiarities of the National Hunt, Russia, 1995
Color, 94 min
Director: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Screenplay: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Cinematography: Andrei Zhegalov
Production Design: Igor’ Timoshenko, Valentina Adikaevskaia
Costume Design: Tat’iana Drozhkina
Music: Vladislav Panchenko
Cast: Ville Haapsalo, Aleksei Buldakov, Viktor Bychkov, Semen Strugachev, Sergei Kupriianov, Sergei Russkin, Sergei Gusinskii, Igor’ Sergeev, Igor’ Dobriakov, Iurii Makusinskii
Producer: Aleksandr Golutva
Production: Lenfilm

Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s Peculiarities of the National Hunt (Osobennosti natsional’noi okhoty, 1995)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2015

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