Issue 51 (2016)
Sergei Ol’denburg-Svintsov: Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes (Sex, kofe, cigarety, 2014)
reviewed by Daria Shembel © 2016
Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes (2014) is the second feature film from director, writer and producer Sergei Ol’denburg-Svintsov, following the release of La Paloma (Golubka, 2009). The film is a collection of ten vignettes set in Moscow coffeehouses and restaurants populated with actors, academics, restaurateurs, models, prostitutes, and drug lords. Though written by several screenwriters, the film has a unified look and recurring visual motifs, including elaborate settings and wardrobe, sexual encounters, an obsession with the abject, and, of course, coffee and cigarettes.
The format of the film is borrowed from Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2004), and the film’s closing credits allude to this claim, pleading “Forgive me, Jarmush.” However, while the film’s choice of setting and its mosaic format could be credibly claimed to pay tribute to the American underground visionary, otherwise the resemblance between the films is slight.
Of course, Jarmusch has spent no small amount of his career experimenting with what makes a film a feature. His Mystery Train (1989)told three stories set in and around a Memphis hotel, while Night on Earth (1991) consisted of five tales about taxi drivers and their passengers (Lally 2004). The scenes in Coffee and Cigarettes were filmed over the course of three decades, many of them on the sets of other Jarmusch films, so its format resonates with Jarmush’s oeuvre. But what is most important about Coffee and Cigarettes in particular is the way its energy and charm derive from the cult figures of the New York and Los Angeles underground scenes playing themselves. Although Ol’denburg-Svintsov does populate Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes with celebrities, all are mainstream, and only two, Lidiia Fedoseeva-Shukshina and Gerard Depardieu, play some variation of themselves.
While Jarmush’s film is shot in black (coffee) and white (cigarettes), with most of the encounters occurring at ramshackle locations, Ol’denburg-Svintsov creates vividly colorful, lavish mise-en-scènes featuring Moscow’s most upscale restaurants (“Sad” and “Café Pushkin” among them), where the city’s gourmet coffee and food addicts enjoy epicurean dishes and espresso. This lavishness climaxes in the last two vignettes, “Two” (Depardieu) and “Sex Coffee and Cigarettes and Louis XIV, the Sun King,” which are rife with the trappings of tsarist Russia and feature spaces with marble floors, crystal chandeliers, gilded staircases, expensive art, and waiters dressed as household servants. It is difficult to imagine Tom Waits in any of these settings.
Whereas Jarmush’s film explores the nature of neurosis and miscommunication, Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes focuses on the libidinal and culinary desires of the Russian upper middle class. Almost every vignette contains explicit or implied references to sexual behavior, with varying degrees of overtness. Although sex is a central theme of the film, the director avoids explicit visual depictions. In this respect, the opening vignette of the film is misleading. A seductive waitress slowly undresses and sways her sensuous body in a restroom, awaiting a sexual advance from her partner, but this is as much sex as the viewer can expect. For the remainder of Sex Coffee, Cigarettes, the viewer must settle for heavy breathing, the occasional kiss, and a few voyeuristic male gazes. But there are many substitutes: tropes, sounds, animated segments, and most of all sexualized discourse. Some episodes include explicit discussion of intercourse, oral sex, and prostitution. For example, an episode of “Diane” is dedicated to a client trying to persuade a former prostitute to have intercourse with him although she has quit the profession. “Father” shows an encounter of a woman with a man who responded to her newspaper ad seeking a partner to inseminate her. Other episodes focus more on the discussion of extramarital relationships, but still use sexual content abundantly. For example, “Two” leads to a woman angrily announcing her departure from a twenty-year affair with the actor (Depardieu): “Don’t ever call me again. Jamais.” And in “Poor Yorick”, an actor reveals the details of his wife’s affair to theater matriarch Lidia Fedoseeva-Shukshina. In “Tico’s Contract,” sexual content is rendered predominantly through the sexualized talk of a drug lord who attempts to intimidate a female competitor with violent sex fantasies over coffee in a posh Moscow-City venue.
One of the most unusual episodes, “La Dolce Vita,” substitutes sex with eroticizing food as a restaurant owner (brilliantly played by Roman Viktiuk) feeds delicacies to a young woman on a diet. Viktiuk’s speech blurs the boundaries between food and sex as he manipulates his client into eating the most extravagant and bountiful items on the dessert menu while helping her imagine making love to Hollywood actor Brad Pitt. A metonymical tour-de-force occurs in the episode “Flora and Fauna,” where a graduate student and his advisor discuss the student’s thesis and find themselves engaged in a prolonged conversation about exceptional cases of insects mating.
The film plays with various sexual attitudes, gender roles and genres, featuring stories of female empowerment (“Care Package,” “Two,” “Tico’s Contract,” “Father”) and perverse and misogynistic treatment of women (“Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes and King Louis XIV”). At least two episodes offer a narrative of the femme fatale: in “Tico’s Contract,” a female protagonist seduces two different male victims she needs to eliminate, while in “Two” the heroine carries the characteristics of both: ruthless agency and sultry seductiveness. In another metonymical action, she picks up a gun and shoots the genitalia of a male marble sculpture.
Even more than with cigarettes and coffee, Ol’denburg-Svintsov’s film is preoccupied with toilets, sinks, hand-washing and plumbing. Lavatories are shown as sites of transgression, used by characters to conduct adulterous sexual affairs. The opening sequence portrays a sexual interaction in a lavatory, which posits the viewer as voyeur. “Plumber” depicts a plumber with the unfortunate combination of coffee addiction and a weak heart, who visits his son’s high-end coffee bar and unclogs a toilet blocked by the artifacts of a sexual encounter: underwear, ladies’ shoes, and a condom.
The film contains several scenes of the abject, dwelling on secretion and excrement. In the first segment “The Constant” a character brings feline excrement to the table where his girlfriend enjoys a cup of espresso; he presents the excrement as a precious and rare byproduct of the digestive processes of a cat fed with expensive coffee beans. Various episodes of the film depict the corporeal acts of eating, drinking, and copulating, while “The Constant” also details the biological processes that occur in one’s body after drinking coffee.
The film is marked by excessive theatricality. Its lavish mise-en-scènes are matched with elaborate wardrobes that purport to promote a sensual female image: women in haute-couture cat-walk the interiors, their bodies wrapped in silk, décolletage covered by expensive jewelry, and hair elegantly styled. Aestheticization of spaces and the film’s overall staginess often outweighs any psychological portrait of character. Multiple substitutions for sex acts make the film itself function as a costume drama.
Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes is a tale of self-indulgence, both culinary and sexual. Sexual acts are never portrayed as the result of romantic desire but rather as commodifiable experiences much like drinking espresso. The film’s obsession with lavatories and the abject on the one hand, and elaborate interiors and wardrobe on the other evokes the Bakhtinian concept of the grotesque body. The unruly and secreting oppose the classical and stately, which points to a tension between the structural order (setting, elaborate wardrobe) and its disruption (sex, adultery, excrement) (Stallybrass, White 1986). It is possible to make a connection here between the film’s formal structure and the director’s critique of consumer society.
With ten episodes, naturally there will be more and less successful ones, with some buoyed by strong performances from the cast. The artificiality of the language and dialogues in some episodes could be unsatisfactory, while some vignettes are definitely more about style than substance. The film would also be much better off without the director’s over-familiar address to Jarmusch. These are two essentially different films, but the director’s deliberate decision to associate it with Coffee and Cigarettes places it within the long line of recent Russian productions that revisit iconic works of the past (e.g. The Irony of Fate 2, dir. Bekmambetov, 2007), Office Romance. Our Time (Sluzhebnyi roman. Nashe vremia. dir. Andreasian, 2011), reappropriating them and offering their own take on how to get the story right. While a remake is certainly marked by the sociopolitical and cultural context of the era of its making, the question remains why so many contemporary productions fixate exclusively on the libidinal concerns of a small group of Rublevka inhabitants identified by directors as a new Russian middle class.
San Diego State University
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Lally, Kevin (2004), “Coffee and Cigarettes,” Film Journal International 107.5, p. 37.
Stallybrass Peter and Allon White (1986), The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes, Russia 2014
Color, 85 minutes
Director: Sergei Ol’denburg-Svintsov
Script: Anastasia Arysheva (“Prologue”, “The Constant”, “Father”, “The Plumber”, “Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes and Louis XIV”), Andrei Esaulov ( “Poor Yorick”, “Tico’s Contract”),
Igor’ Ladaniuk (“La Dolce Vita”, “Flora and Fauna”), Dmitrii Lemeshev (“Diane”),
Ol’ga Khirina (“Care Package”)
Cinematography: Andrei Fedotov (“The Constant”, “Poor Yorick”, “Flora and Fauna”, “Father”, “Plumber”, “Tico’s Contract”, “Care Package”; Igor’ Kozhevnikov (“La Dolce Vita”), Sergei Mokritskii (“Diane”),
Maksim Osadchii (“Two”, “Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes and Luis XIV”)
Production Design: Vladimir Gagurin, Anatolii Ulymov, Iurii Zelenov Sergei Ivanov
Animation: Svetlana Andrianova
Costumes: Natasha Sych, Vasilisa Gusarova
Editing: Sergei Ol’denburg-Svintsov
Sound: Vadim Kriglov
Producers: Igor’ Grushelevskii, Aleksandr Perepelitsyn, Evgeniia Linovich, Sergei Ol’denburg-Svintsov
Production: Film No. 1
“The Constant”: Anna Chipovskaia, Anton Shagin, Kirill Kiaro
“La Dolce Vita”: Roman Viktiuk, Anna Starshenbaum, Kirill Gratsinskii
“Poor Yorick”: Igor’ Sergeev, Lidiia Fedoseeva-Shukshina, Aleksandr Bashirov, Aleksandr Peskov
“Flora and Fauna”: Evdokiia Germanova, Aleksei Vertkov
“Father”: Ekaterina Volkova, Mikhail Evlanov
“Plumber”: Sergei Migitsko, Evgeniia Linovich, Konstantin Kriukov
“Tico’s Contract”: Agniia Ditkovskite, Ola Keyru, Dino Dias, Maksim Drozd
“Diane”: Alisa Grebenshchikova, Aleksandr Semchev
“Care Package”: Ekaterina Malikova, Tania Gevorkian, Aleks Merkiuri
“Two” Gerard Depardieu, Polina Agureeva
“Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes and Louis XIV” Daniil Spivakovskii, Lina Mirimskaia, Aristarkh Venes, Sergei Medvedev
Sergei Ol’denburg-Svintsov: Sex, Coffee, Cigarettes (Sex, kofe, cigarety, 2014)
reviewed by Daria Shembel © 2016