Issue 53 (2016)

Sergei Puskepalis: Clinch (Klinch, 2015)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone© 2016

clinchBased on a 1991 two-act play with the same title by Aleksei Slapovskii, who collaborated with the director on the screenplay, Sergei Puskepalis’ film debut expands its theatrical source by adding a new frame narrative, new characters, new locations, more back-story, and a very different ending. Although it uses the basic characters and situation of the play, and much of the original dialogue, the film needs to be approached as a new work. The result is a suspenseful, ambitious, and provocative film even it if doesn’t deliver on its many promises. That the film has been seen by fewer than 1500 viewers in Russia and has generated only slightly more than 300,000 rubles in domestic box office (over 200,000 of which were generated during the film’s first weekend!) in the year since its release in July 2015, tells us less about the movie’s quality than about the continuing crisis in distribution of Russian movies at home.

Clinch starts with a familiar story:  a middle-aged high school teacher, husband, and father is suddenly and violently confronted with the failure of his professional and family life. We first meet Vitalii Ivanovich Fedorov (Aleksei Serebriakov) towards the end of a very difficult day at school: 8 classes, a parents’ meeting, students having sex in the staff bathroom, and an officious school principal more comfortable with administration than pedagogy. No wonder that, instead of going straight home to celebrate his shiftless son’s 18th birthday at their apartment that is in the process of remont, he purchases a small bottle of vodka and drinks it on the street. When he finally gets up and starts walking home, a beautiful and mysterious young woman (Asia Domskaia) starts following him, and the movie takes a turn away from a realistic social drama of the “little man” (melkii chelovek) in contemporary Russia and towards the fantastic, the absurd, and the murderous.

clinchAccusing Vitalii Ivanovich of responsibility for the death of a schoolgirl friend, who committed suicide when he did not reciprocate her love, the mysterious young woman, a former student, demands that he apologize. When he refuses, she threatens to have her gangster boyfriend kill him and his entire family. Afraid that if he leaves her, she may make good on her threat, Vitalii Ivanovich ties her up and carries her to the family apartment. Like boxers in a clinch, the characters will spend the rest of the film entangled in verbal argument, unable either to separate or to end the struggle with a knockout blow. Vita’s original accusation turns out to be a bit of a red herring, as the film becomes more interested in examining the collapse of the conventions, values, and even the identity of middle class life in contemporary Russia—family, culture, and professional life (in this case, teaching)—than one teacher’s ethical responsibilities and failures.

clinchOnce in the apartment, Vita immediately puts the nuclear family on the defensive as she alternately charms and threatens them, questions their motives, and gets them to reveal who they really are by acting out various imaginary scenarios: she becomes an adopted daughter, the son’s wife, the father’s mistress, the victim of a murderous attack.  Unable to understand or respond to this incomprehensible intrusion in their normal routine, the family is pummeled by the irrepressible torrent of Vita’s words and fantasies. Utterly sure of herself even as she tries on new identities and new angles of attack on the family, Vita is unpredictable, perhaps insane, but always fascinating, while the frustrated, passive, (and only superficially rational) family members slowly but surely reveal who they really are. Chipping away at the surface of a happy family, Vita succeeds in revealing not only the emptiness of the professional and family lives of the striving class, but the murderous and desperate longings that lurk just beneath the surface of a happy family. Pointless jobs, a loveless marriage, parents and children held together by dependency rather than mutual love and affection, hollow traditional cultural values, no future, this world is held together by nothing more than convention and inertia and, perhaps, the fear of acting upon real desires. 

clinchWhile traces of the film’s origins on the stage are visible in the direction and filming—most of which takes place within the confines of a small apartment—the best parts of the film are, without question, the brilliant ensemble acting and the brisk, funny, often absurd dialogue. The great Aleksei Serebriakov brilliantly conveys the pent-up frustration of a middle-aged man alienated from both work and family, conveying a remarkable range of emotions, from distraction, despondency, anger, frustration, violence, despair, to bravado.  The veteran stage actress Agripinna Steklova is equally wonderful in the less showy role of the conventional wife whose values and beliefs crumble before her eyes in one evening. Viacheslav Evlant’ev is quite amusing as the callow son, all too willing to sell his parents down the river for a night with the beautiful but dangerous stranger. And newcomer Asia Domskaia makes a remarkable debut in the film as Vita. Matching Serebriakov in emotional range and intensity, she combines sexual magnetism, mystery, charm, and danger and commands the screen.

Still the film is hardly without flaws: in expanding the film beyond the confines of the original play, the filmmakers have created holes in the plot, unnecessary characters (the inclusion of a phone hacker, for example) and scenes (a search of Vita’s mother’s apartment), scenes that go nowhere (one involving gangsters at school), and sentimental interludes (a poetry-writing former student now working as night security for a 24-hour grocery).  Sometimes the direction and camera work seem gratuitous:  filming from the point of view of the boyfriend and head gangster Baraban (Maksim Lagashkin) is unmotivated and ultimately anti-climactic. In addition, the gangster characters and theme, originally created at the very beginning of the post-Soviet period, seem somewhat anachronistic in 2015.
clinchWestern viewers may be reminded of films such as Jonathan Demme’s 1986 Something Wild, in which Melanie Griffith played the “free-spirited” young beauty who introduced the uptight Wall Street Jeff Daniels to the attractions and the dangers of freedom.  Despite the obvious visual similarities with Griffith’s character (i.e., jet black bangs, black miniskirt, black sunglasses), Vita is more mysterious than freedom-loving, and her relationship to the teacher is more about guilt than desire (indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of Clinch is the almost total absence of overt eroticism.)  But where Demme’s film went for the obvious laughs, Puskepalis is more serious about the criticism of “middle class” life and values, at least until the very end, where the film makes a turn in a completely different, although hardly surprising, direction. Indeed, some viewers may see the ending as flawed by the unresolved clash between the “real world” and the conventional world of the theater. 

Anthony Anemone
The New School

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Clinch, Russia, 2015
Color, 98 min.
Director: Sergei Puskepalis
Screenplay: Aleksei Slapovskii, Sergei Puskepalis
DoP: Sviatoslav Bulakovskii
Design:  Sergei Filenko, Tat’iana Platonova
Music: B-2, Mikhail Karasev
Editor: Ol’ga Proshkina
Cast:  Aleksei Serebriakov, Asia Domskaia, Agrippina Steklova, Viacheslav Evlant’ev.
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Elena Denisevich, Dmitrii Golubnichii, Anna Sobinevskaia
Studio:  Mars Media Entertainment.

Sergei Puskepalis: Clinch (Klinch, 2015)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone© 2016