Issue 54 (2016)
Dmitrii D’iachenko, The Super Bobrovs (SuperBobrovy, 2016)
reviewed by Muireann Maguire© 2016
The director Dmitrii D’iachenko has built a successful career by hitching folksy characters and everyman heroes to globally successful formulae. He has russianized the road movie—What Men Talk About (O chem govoriat muzhchiny, 2010); the sitcom—The Kitchen (Kukhnia,2012–13) and Mums (Mamochki,2015–); and now the superhero movie—Super Bobrovs (SuperBobrovy, 2016). D’iachenko’s scenarios often derive from productions by his theatre group, Quartet I (Kvartet I), and several of his most successful films have been made on challengingly low budgets (on a budget of less than $2 million, What Men Talk About generated over $12 million in income). Since his breakthrough movie, Radio Day (Den’ radio, 2008), his films have mined the theme of ordinary Russians transforming disaster (usually caused by their own staggering incompetence) into success of sorts, with piled-on melodrama and slapstick. D’iachenko has essentially re-branded Rogozhkin’s iconic Peculiarities of the National Hunt (Osobennosti natsional’noi okhoty,1995), adding high-tech special effects and more glamorous female leads to entertain the more cynical generation of Russians who have grown up since Putin’s first premiership.His films’ popularity shows that he understands this audience, although his international appeal is limited. This may be intentional: the provincial Russian setting and New Year-centered plot of his other 2016 release, Wonderland (Strana chudes) suggests D’iachenko has no imminent plans to change his approach, or his fan base.
Superheroes, as Maria Lisitsa points out, are not a native Russian archetype (Lisitsa 2016). Despite Voinitskii and Kiselev’s Black Lightning (Chernaia molniia, 2009) and Artem Aksenenko’s The Uncatchables (Neulovymye, 2015), which are both Robin Hood-inspired urban fables rather than true superhero narratives, Russians still prefer Ilya Muromets to Clark Kent. Super Bobrovs challenges this national prejudice by exploring what might happen if an (extraordinarily) ordinary Russian family were to contract magic powers following a meteorite strike on their house. The plot’s supernatural aspects are superficially explained and subsequently taken for granted by all the characters. The characters’ immediate focus is pragmatic: the pecuniary emergency experienced by Oleg (Pavel Derevianko), and vicariously by his fiancée’s family. When we first meet Oleg, he is unloading a crate of smuggled goods from a black marketeer’s ship; minutes later, the precious consignment sinks. Oleg is left with a terrifying debt and an unfeasibly gorgeous girlfriend, bank teller Sveta (Oksana Akin’shina). Oleg lingers at her bank mouthing romantic platitudes, but it is unclear whether he is salivating over Sveta, or the remote prospect that she might approve yet another loan—or even just agree to steal the money. (“What do you want from me, Oleg?”—“I want you to love me.”—“I want you to pay off your mortgage”). The first shot of the couple together is framed by a thick sheaf of banknotes being counted by Sveta. Oleg and Sveta go to her home, hoping that her father, corpulent paterfamilias Boris Alekseevich (Roman Madianov), might just mortgage the family property for cash. When this hope is inevitably quashed, Oleg finds himself at the mercy of Sveta’s eccentric relatives, including her grandfather (Vladimir Tolokonnikov), who tries to confiscate his passport; her brother Tolik (Daniil Vakrushchev), whose ambition to become an army dog-handler is repeatedly dashed by his asthma; elder sister Rita (Irina Pegova), a dumpy skivvy who dreams of being a cabaret dancer; and younger sister Sasha (Sof’ia Mitskevich), aged ten at the time of filming, who pursues a precocious and persistent passion for her brother-in-law-to-be. None of these vividly acted characters can save Oleg from his creditors.
In Super Bobrovs’ opening scenes, the camera repeatedly switches between the characters and a meteorite singeing ominously through space towards our planet. This is a hackneyed device; and Slava Sexton’s visual effects do not redeem it. The space scenes reminded me of a similar set piece in Peter Sohn’s 2015 Pixar shlockbuster The Good Dinosaur, whose selling point is that the meteorite misses the Earth, allowing dinosaurs to evolve into rational, highly intelligent creatures; in Super Bobrovs, the meteorite impacts the Bobrovs’ house but absolutely nowhere else, burrowing into their cellar. We see the rest of the meteorite shower plunging into the bay—apparently unobserved by anyone but the Bobrovs. After their initial panic, some of the family start digging up the meteorite—which soon dissolves into unidentifiable sludge. But overnight, the Bobrovs acquire superpowers. These are not random: each gift fits the recipient’s greatest vulnerability, not necessarily benevolently. Even if the gift is temporarily useful, or liberating, it still exposes their most pathetic inadequacies. Boris Alekseevich teleports when he farts. The friendless Tolik can speak and understand canine language. The cantankerous, cane-wielding, Stalin-worshipping grandfather, killed by the shock of the crash, comes back to life. And keeps coming back to life (rather like Stalin or the Communist party), or like a GIF animation of Boris Karloff levitating out of his coffin. Unfortunately, constant resurrection is the last thing he wants: as he bellows at his family, “I was already on my way to see Granny! Why did you resurrect me? Filthy wretches!”
Oleg arguably receives the most risible super power of all: water flows out of his fingertips (although even this comes in useful during a police chase, when their escape vehicle’s windscreen gets obscured by squashed fruit). But the women fare worst: precocious Sasha receives the comically unfeminine power of bending iron bars and pushing trucks around with her bare hands; Rita can fly, which would guarantee her onstage success if she didn’t get such bad nerves that she soars out of the building; and Svetlana, the only character with no obvious personal shortcomings, can become invisible. The camera has already fetishized her fashion-model perfection; now this (like her personality) is erased. These superpowers guarantee easy laughs, but not justice. Most importantly for the plot, the superpowers only function when the entire family, including Oleg, is physically close together; if one wanders out of range, Grandfather dies, Rita plummets to the ground, Svetlana becomes visible and Sasha stops bending pipes. ‘Together we are strong’ is the film’s tagline; as Boris Alekseevich muses, “This meteorite flew past billions of planets and homes to us […] Do you think it flew here by accident? There are no accidents! It happened because we’re the Bobrovs… because we’re a family.” The idea of the “family,” united together, is as close as this film gets to an ethical position.
Contrast, for example, Josh Trank’s 2012 science-fiction movie Chronicle, where three high-school boys all develop supernatural abilities (telekinesis and flight) after encountering a mysterious underground object. Trank’s film examines the ethical and psychological consequences for the youths, as one boy’s use of his powers becomes increasingly aggressive. This kind of moral arc does not occur in Super Bobrovs. There certainly is a moral issue at the film’s heart: to rob or not to rob the bank. Oleg almost immediately sees the Bobrovs’ superpowers as ‘a resource, to be used correctly’; his euphemism for monetization. That early visual tagging of Sveta and Oleg’s relationship with a pile of high-denomination currency was not wasted: Oleg makes no decisions unrelated to money. Much later, we will see him literally wearing it: he straps so many stolen notes to his body that a few protrude from under his trouser-cuffs. He initially supports digging up the meteorite because he hopes to sell it; next, he imagines flogging the family’s story as a media exclusive. Finally, he realizes that their gifts provide a perfect opportunity to rob the bank where Sveta works: Sveta can enter the bank (necessarily nude—her clothes do not disappear when she becomes invisible) while the rest of the family wait outside within a safe range; Sveta will watch a colleague enter the code for the safe, then return later to empty it.
This episode introduces one of the film’s most noxiously voyeuristic scenes. Normally Sveta, when invisible, is also unseen by the audience; but as she sashays into the bank on her fiancé’s arm, the audience follows her nude rear view. Later, a tantalizing head-and-shoulders shot shows her bending over a male colleague as he manipulates the dial on the safe. Naturally, given D’iachenko’s love of human and especially Russian fallibility, this plan goes wrong. To escape the sun, Boris Alekseevich moves the family car from the safe parking spot advised by Oleg. His choice of parking space sparks a confrontation with security staff which escalates into a caution from the police. Inevitably, the family move out of range, Sveta is (briefly but mortifyingly) exposed to bystanders in the bank, and the plan has to be abandoned. Later, taking pity on Oleg’s despair, the Bobrovs decide to rob the bank again, this time using all their superpowers: Sasha breaks down the wall and seals off the area by pushing trucks across the exits; Tolik tells local stray dogs to attack the police when they arrive; and everyone deploys their superpower to maximize confusion (even Grandfather, effectively immortal as long as the family stays united, diverts suspicion onto a group of alcoholics by quaffing neat petrol with them during the robbery). At no point do the Bobrovs mount a consistent moral objection to Oleg’s proposal. Their initial reluctance is countered by bargaining: they all agree to help with the robbery in return for one granted wish (leading to numerous comic or sentimental set pieces; Sasha’s wish is dinner tête-à-tête with Oleg, Grandfather’s is to be allowed to die, and so on). Their later decision to return the money is equally quixotic (and unstable, since they still become fugitives). In Trank’s Chronicle, the most troubled of the three gifted boys also uses his powers to commits robbery, because he needs money for his dying mother’s treatment. No such altruistic motive exists in D’iachenko’s film. The overriding reason for robbery is to save Oleg’s skin (or rather, his internal organs); the black-market traffickers have threatened to sell his insides to Chinese dealers unless he pays them what’s owed for his capsized cargo. Moreover, in the car chase that enlivens the film’s final section, the Bobrovs display gleeful disregard for police lives.
Clearly, ‘the family’ is not a coherent, or even sustainable, moral value. Grandfather, ostensibly the patriarch, doesn’t seem to like them very much; and they can’t even agree on what to do with their ill-gotten gains. If ‘the family’ ideal harks back to the metaphorical Soviet family, it is equally centrifugal. The girls want to travel, Grandfather wants to die, and Boris Alekseeich wants to build a new house big enough for all the family to live together for ever. The boundaries of ‘the family’ are unclear: Oleg, temporarily choosing wealth over Sveta and her relatives, may bitterly say goodbye to the ‘Comrades Bobrov’, but we know he can’t stay away. Nostalgia is another important value in this film: Boris Alekseevich is happiest when singing old-fashioned ballads at the family dinner table. His maudlin paternal act oddly echoes another recent role for which this actor, Roman Madianov, is much better-known: as the local mayor, family man, and hypocritical gangster in Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviathan (Leviafan, 2014). The similarity reminds us that any morality weighted in favor of ‘family’ may be frankly immoral in the larger community. The men make most of the decisions in Super Bobrovy, somehow remaining lovable in spite of their hectoring, bullying, and physical unloveliness. D’iachenko’s direction doesn’t seem to have changed since David McVey wrote of the male characters in What Else Men Talk About that, despite their “boorish behavior and attitudes, the women are endlessly devoted” (McVey 2012). Similarly, Lena Doubivko decided that the message of the 2010 What Men Talk About was ‘to go easy on the generation of males who grew up under the Soviet system […and…] its unease about women and masculinity’ (Doubivko 2010). Such unreflecting sexism does no favors for the actors: Oksana Akin’shina, a very talented actress known for her roles in Sergei Bodrov Jr’s Sisters (Sestry, 2001) and Lukas Moodysson’s Lilia 4-ever (2002), is frankly wasted as Oleg’s comforter-in-chief. All the cast, deprived of meaningful dialogue, do their best with nuanced delivery and physical comedy.
Unlike What Men Talk About, a relatively sedate account of four friends travelling to a rock concert, Super Bobrovs provides hectic action sequences (notably the police chase) and a few almost lyrical set pieces, including the family’s first post-augmentation outing to a local lake, the grandfather’s cliff-top death scene, and Oleg’s later confrontation with the mortuary director. But the film lacks consistent momentum: immediately after the early climax of the meteorite crash, the pace lags as the bank raid plan is negotiated; and the dramatic reversals of the finale are too predictable to be entertaining (we might not expect the Bobrovs to turn themselves in, but we know that once they do, even Oleg isn’t mercenary enough to abandon them). As we watch the fugitive family scramble inside a shipping container bound for Thailand, courtesy of the now-appeased black marketeers, they are warned not to eat each other on the way. But this entire film is an exemplar of Russian self-consumption. The plot dynamics undoubtedly owe something to American family comedy like Little Miss Sunshine (2006, dir. Dayton and Faris) and Meet the Parents (2000, dir. Roach), but Super Bobrovs’ chief source material is internal. It exploits the Russian national perception of self as unique, if inadequate, and vitally imaginative, if irrational.
University of Exeter
|Comment on this article on Facebook|
Doubivko, Lena. 2010. “Dmitrii D’iachenko: What men talk about (2010).” Kinokultura 29.
Lisitsa, Maria. 2016. “SuperBobrovy: Rossia po D’iachenko.” Chita.ru. March 16.
McVey, David. 2012. “Dmitrii D’iachenko: What else men talk about (2011).” Kinokultura 36.
Super Bobrovs, Russia, 2016
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Dmitrii D’iachenko
Scriptwriter: Mikhail Mestetskii, Aleksei Kazakov
Cast: Pavel Derevianko, Oksana Akin’shina, Roman Madianov, Vladimir Tolokonnikov, Irina Pegova, Daniil Vakrushev, Sof’ia Mitskevich
Producers: Eduard Iloian, Vitalii Shliappo, Aleksei Troshchok, Denis Zhalinskii
Production: KeyStone Production, Studiia Palameda and Filmy navsegda
Dmitrii D’iachenko, The Super Bobrovs (SuperBobrovy, 2016)
reviewed by Muireann Maguire© 2016