Issue 56 (2017)

Aleksei Mizgirev: The Duelist (Dueliant, 2016)

reviewed by Eva Binder © 2017

duelistAleksei Mizgirev’s fourth feature-length film, The Duelist, differs significantly from what the director’s rather cineaste audience has seen before. Set in St Petersburg in 1860, the film is a contemporary version of a historical drama and costume film, with an action-driven plot and abundant cinematic effects. Although the IMAX spectacle is intended as up-to-date genre cinema made in Russia, it nevertheless adumbrates the auteur style of directing that Mizgirev pursued in his previous films, Hard-Hearted (Kremen’, 2007), Buben, Baraban (2009) and The Convoy (Konvoi, 2012). First, The Duelist echoes the gloomy urban landscapes characteristic for Mizgirev’s films about contemporary Russia; and second, the nineteenth-century characters are plunged into questions and problems which seem to matter still today. Whether auteur style or genre cinema—Mizgirev’s films reflect the director’s general interest in human behavior, in questions concerning personality and social environment, in honor and dignity as central moments of individual identity.

duelistThe story revolves around the professional duelist Iakovlev, who is hired by a mercenary German baron in order to stand in for others in duels. The practice of dueling, in nineteenth-century Russia an illegal but prevalent way to settle disputes and slights against honor between noblemen, was regulated by strict rules. One of them, as we are told right at the beginning of the film, stipulated the possibility of a substitute. In this role the protagonist, a handsome but glowering young man, wins duel after duel. This draws the nobility’s attention to the mysterious duelist, who has recently returned to St Petersburg and whose identity is revealed bit by bit as the story unfolds. Soon Iakovlev finds out that all duels, for which he was hired, were arranged by the cold-hearted, nefarious Count Beklemishev in order to get rid of his creditors. At the same time Iakovlev himself becomes entangled in an intrigue initiated by Beklemishev, involving the idealistic young Prince Tuchkov and his beautiful sister, Princess Marfa. When Iakovlev takes sides with the Tuchkovs, it becomes clear that—apart from feeling attracted by the blonde Princess Marfa himself—Iakovlev has an agenda of his own.

Iakovlev’s identity is revealed in several flashbacks. Running ashore on the Aleutian Islands as an ordinary soldier of the Tsarist army, he was rescued and cured by an Aleutian shaman who foretold him immortality. An offspring of the old noble Kolychev family, he fell victim to one of Beklemishev’s intrigues five years ago. As a young lieutenant he was provoked and offended by Beklemishev in front of St Petersburg’s nobility. The young man’s sense of honor suffered severe consequences. Beklemishev initiated Kolychev’s suspension from the Tsarist army as well as his deprivation of peerage, which drove Kolychev’s mother to commit suicide. After being flogged, he was sent to the Aleutian Islands as an ordinary soldier. There he took the identity of the late nobleman Iakovlev in order to be allowed to duel the man responsible for his misfortune, which would, besides taking revenge, enable him to restore his honor.

duelistThe intrigue initiated by Beklemishev against Pavel Tuchkov should be the villain’s last malefaction. When the naïve prince tries to defend his sister’s virtuousness against Beklemishev’s concupiscence, Tuchkov is designated to duel next. However, when Iakovlev faces Tuchkov, the professional killer shoots Tuchkov’s second and spares the life of the young prince. At this point the narrative pace accelerates, entailing a growing amount of atrocity, violence and blood on the screen. In the film’s most brutal scene several characters, among them Pavel Tuchkov and the German baron, are slaughtered in the dark, muddy streets of St Petersburg, but the protagonist survives. After a short interlude, which allows the suffering Iakovlev and the self-confident princess Marfa to embark on a sexual love-hate relationship, the plot reaches its climax: the direct confrontation of Beklemishev and Iakovlev in front of the nobility congregation. And again, Iakovlev-Kolychev survives the duel and finally achieves the noble princess’ esteem as her peer.

duelistRussian film critics welcomed The Duelist as a felicitous piece of genre cinema (Maliukova 2016; Trofimenkov 2016). Indeed, Mizgirev, who wrote the script himself, has developed a nearly timeless set of characters. First, there is the mysterious, utterly manly main protagonist (played by Petr Fedorov): a romantic, lonesome hero dressed in black who, according to Mizgirev, as a nineteenth-century Russian character has to suffer (Maliukova 2016), and as avenger definitely recalls Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. The figure of the noble killer is well balanced between a positive hero and morally doubtful character. Second, there is his antagonist Beklemishov (Vladimir Mashkov), a true, reckless villain, but not less manly and attractive.

duelistFurthermore, there is the avaricious German baron (played by the German actor Martin Wuttke) with his porcelain teeth, the blonde Russian beauty and the red-haired femme fatale, the latter representing Grand Duchess Aleksandra Iosifovna (played by the German actress Franziska Petri). Since Mizgirev’s obvious aim was to make a markedly Russian genre film, his protagonists—Iakovlev as well as Beklemishev—ostentatiously demonstrate their disinterest in money. The first collects the money he earns by killing people in order to redeem his peerage; the latter wastes his money on his liaisons. While all the Russian noblemen talk about honor, the only one concerned about materialistic matters appears to be the German trickster. National stereotypes obviously prevail.

duelistAnother important attribute to genre cinema is the film’s setting. Mizgirev’s gloomy, muddy, rainy urban landscape of St Petersburg not only echoes the director’s earlier films about contemporary Russia, but—much more important—takes up the noir-style sceneries prevalent in US blockbusters, such as Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) or Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009). The latter is directly addressed at the computer-generated building site of a gigantic bridge leading over the Neva river. However, with his neo-noir portrayal of the imperial Russian capital, Mizgirev pursues yet another intention directed primarily at his Russian spectators and long established viewing patterns: “I absolutely didn’t want to make a cut and dried costume drama about the 19th century—a beautiful film about beautiful feelings” (Maliukova 2016). Consequently, Mizgirev’s approach is also present in the appearance, physiognomy and language of the male representatives, particularly in minor roles, who much resemble more gangsters and mobsters in mafia films than nineteenth-century Russian noblemen.

duelistThe Duelist seems to be an excessively masculine film, which addresses typically masculine behavior (dueling, volition and action, heavy drinking), masculine topics (power, elitism, blood), masculine feelings (honor, offense, revenge), masculine fantasies (weapons, beautiful women), and masculine traumas. Besides Russia, where the film was quite successful at the box office—gathering a total number of 1.4 million viewers—, it was also released in the post-Soviet territories of Belarus and Kazakhstan.

duelistAt the Toronto Film Festival, where it premiered in September 2009, however, it caused rather incomprehension and disapproval among Western film critics. In his review for Variety Dennis Harvey even labels the film a “megaplex macho-action spectacle,” resembling “Vladimir Putin’s fantasy of Imperial Russia, in which men endlessly talk about honor while staring daggers and aiming firearms at each other” (Harvey 2016). Viewed from a culturally more sensible perspective, though, Mizgirev’s film tells much more about contemporary Russian society than it may seem at first sight. The Duelist reveals a political elite, which pretends to stick to ideals, but the more often these notions are verbalized with such serious words like “honor”, “blood” or “shame” in the dialogue, the more redundant and void they become—even for those who pronounce them.

Eva Binder
Innsbruck University

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Works Cited

Harvey, Dennis. 2016. “Film review: ‘The Duelist’”, Variety, 19 Sept.

Maliukova, Larisa. 2016. “Aleksei Mizgirev: ‘Chest’ – poniatie lishnee?’”, Novaia gazeta, 19 Sept.

Trofimenkov, Mikhail. 2016. “Naemnik chesti”, Kommersant, 30 Sept.

 


The Duelist, Russia, 2016
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Aleksei Mizgirev
Script: Aleksei Mizgirev
Cinematography: Maksim Osadchii
Music: Igor’ Vdovin
Cast: Petr Fedorov, Vladimir Mashkov, Iuliia Khlynina, Franziska Petri, Martin Wuttke, Sergei Garmash, Pavel Tabakov, Iurii Kolokol’nikov, Aleksandr Iatsenko, Iurii Kuznetsov
Producer: Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Sergei Mel’kumov
Production: Non-Stop Production, with the support of the Cinema Foundation of Russia

Aleksei Mizgirev: The Duelist (Dueliant, 2016)

reviewed by Eva Binder © 2017

Updated: 08 Apr 17