Issue 58 (2017)

Renat Davletiarov: Pure Art (Chistoe iskusstvo, 2016)

reviewed by Eve Ivanilova© 2017

From the mid-2000-s the situation with Russian entertainment movies is ambiguous. The projects of Timur Bekmambetov were distributed abroad and brought Russian filmmakers closer to the international market. One can see improvements in Russian industry as well. There is a glut of decent TV shows on TNT and TV3 channels, and there are separate attempts of influential directors (for example, Aleksei Uchitel' and Fedor Bondarchuk) to make strong genre works, revealing an upgrade in the quality of the entertainment segment of Russian cinema and television. The logical consequence of this tendency is the public actualization of two questions (old and well-known for European industries and for Hollywood): one of genre cinema’s aesthetic independence, and of the producer’s function in filmmaking process. Both were discussed in film magazines, and the second issue has been addressed by Aleksandr Rodnianskii in book form.

At the same time, viewers who are not professionally involved in the film industry often demonstrate their discontent with Russian Hollywood-style movies. A possible reason lies in the context of viewing: Hollywood films are loved world-wide because audiences (including Russian) generally trust universal stories and characters when the social context is different from their own. Hollywood films always tell about a potential version of life in a better economic situation. Russian movies, even if they copy the pattern of successful Hollywood flicks, often lack contextualization—with possible exceptions, such as Zhora Kryzhovnikov’s Kiss Them All! (Gor’ko!, 2013) and Fedor Bondarchuk`s Attraction (Pritiazhenie, 2017)—, and therefore rarely find satisfied viewers among cinemagoers.

Renat Davletiarov, head of the Producers’ Guild of Russia, debuted as director in 2011. In 2012 his second project—the crime thriller Steel Butterfly (Sta’lnaia babochka)—was the closing film at Kinotavr Film Festival. Davletiarov succeeded in combining producer’s and director’s skills, focusing on a Hollywood-like business system and conception; as he said: “Cinema is 90 per cent production and 10 per cent art” (Tsulaia 2012). He often draws attention to his contacts with Hollywood as important status attainments.

Davletiarov’s fifth film, the mystery thriller Pure Art, can literally be seen as a contemporary Hollywood movie. It has panorama shots of the metropolis at night, multiple high-angle zooms on characters, and even a runaway scene along the fire escape through the blue steam of gateways (a movie cliché that artificially stylizes Moscow courtyards). All these are digitally colored in intensified blue and yellow. Even the first phrase is said in perfect English.

pure artAt an auction of landscape painting in Europe, a Russian buys up most of the lots. After the event the gray-haired hosts go out onto a luxurious stone balcony and sneer at “pieces of crap” that the customer bought, and at the typical Russian barbarism that he represents in their view. Meanwhile, the customer goes down the stairs and gives a report by phone, using typical Russian idiom: “I’ve done them all in” (otstrelialsia—literally, I’ve returned fire, I’ve fired back). The hierarchical characters’ position (the Europeans stay on the top, while the Russian is shot from high angle walking down the stairs) remind of the literal militant meaning of the phrase. This short exposition triggers the main conflict.

The setting changes to a nocturnal Moscow. A young girl, Dasha, is in a cab and wakes up from the poorly dressed driver’s loud grumping. On the radio, the host talks about the meeting of the Russian and US presidents in the Kremlin, where the Russian leader presented to his American counterpart a landscape painting by Ivan Shishkin worth a million dollars. The taxi drives up to the house of Dasha’s boyfriend, almost colliding with a huge black Mercedes G-Wagen, an iconic gangster car from Russia’s mythology of the 1990s. Dasha gets out of the cab and meets the Mercedes’ driver’s cold gaze. Then she enters the apartment of her boyfriend Andrei (a successful young artist) and finds his dead body among countless paintings and figurines.

The introduction may appear to have a political implication that links class problems with foreign policy. However, this would be an erroneous observation. The presidents’ meeting is mentioned for the same reason why prim European auctioneers‎ make jokes about Russians—these elements refer not to actual politics (in 2016, Russian TV-news almost did not talk about anything else), but to the narrative clichés of Hollywood mainstream cinema. As well as many “Mister Presidents” from Hollywood movies, the off-screen heads of state of the US and Russia are used in Pure Art as conventional figures to emphasize the significance of the mystery genre. In the same fashion, the European auctioneers’ joke about Russian barbarism triggers in the viewer’s memory not merely the image of European Russophobia, but also the mass cultural image of the “bad Russian.” The presidents, the jokes about Russians, and a threat of an international scandal that Dasha discovers in the course of the plot are associated with global cinema rather than international politics. No wonder that, when Dasha comes to Andrei’s apartment, we see the projection of a silent movie on the wall opposite his body. Dasha approaches Andrei, whose body is seated; she stands in the projector light, looking from inside of the old amusement flick at his corpse. From this scene, which equalizes cinema with reality, Pure Art moves on as a classical mystery film.

pure art Before the police arrive at the crime scene, there is a flashback showing the first meeting of Andrei and Dasha. It launches the romantic line within the general mystery intrigue—how the girl ended up near the corpse of the man whose advances she initially rejected. In the finale, all three lines—Dasha’s and Andrei’s love story, the art fraud, and the murder mystery—will line up in a sequence of interrelated events, where the victim defeats the hunter.

After a tense conversation with detective Volkov, Dasha recognizes among the policemen the man from the black G-Wagen (later we learn his name, Mashkov). She realizes that she should run away immediately, but escape does not provide her safety. Another mysterious man with a gun comes up to her flat. Before the second escape, Dasha manages to print the last of Andrei’s e-mails—with a photo of an abstract painting, on which he worked a day before his death.

Another flashback shows Dasha’s acquaintance with Andrei’s two close friends and colleagues. The first is the waggish and lustful Zuev; the second is the attractive and self-confident Misha. In the present time, Dasha meets Misha at the railway station and asks for help. He helps her indeed—in the moment before the police arrive, he drags Dasha into an express train to the airport. At this point, the mystery intrigue is already very tense, since Dasha—who did nothing besides finding her boyfriend’s corpse—is followed by both the police and unknown killers. Another mystery arises when the characters travel on the airport express. Misha tells her the story of Andrei’s success. Together with Zuev, the three were classmates at art school. Andrei was the most talented of the three, and soon he became the favorite of some famous gallerist, who made Andrei a fashionable artist for “the Rublevka wives.” But then “something went wrong,” as Misha says.

pure artAnswers begin to appear in that part of the film. An assistant reports to Detective Mashkov about Dasha. It turns out that, before Dasha became a freelance photographer, she had been an investigative journalist. Her last investigation ended with a scandal around a businessman, who had been standing for elections as deputy. Dasha refused to hush up discrediting facts and write a positive article. The detective’s assistant draws the conclusion: “One thing is clear, this girl is not simple.” In the next scene Dasha confirms this judgment by turning into a detective.

She figures out that the abstract picture that Andrei had emailed her was actually a QR-code. It stands for a folder with reproductions of landscapes—bought by the Russian dealer in the first scene of the film. Using some help from her former university professor, Dasha finds out that these are not famous and not really expensive Dutch or German landscapes from the 19th century. With this information Dasha goes to her former colleague Tamara, who is the least likely person where people will look for her. Professionally successful, Tamara complains about being without a man, while Dasha weeps for her killed lover. The melodramatic scene of female revelations pairs with a flashback: Dasha wakes up in Andrei’s apartment and hears his conversation with Zuev, who tells him about sex with a prostitute. From talking about sex for money they shift to the theme of commercial art, and Andrei claims in an edifying manner that he never copied or imitated, even for money. All that “charming” sexism is quickly interrupted by a revealing shot—on Andrei’s easel we see one of the European landscapes.

Dasha rushes to Zuev. In the few minutes before being jugulated by the man in the G-Wagen, he tells Dasha that he and Andrei were making pure art, as he calls their restoration business under the instruction of Professor Fedosenko. Dasha finds a website where the landscape painting is marked as bought, and another flashback shows Dasha’s acquaintance with Fedosenko. In the present time, he appears as the third male corpse that Dasha finds. And while Volkov’s investigation stalls, the girl discloses the fraud that caused Andrei’s, Zuev’s, and their professor’s murders.

The gallery owner Kovalev had bought up cheap paintings by little-known European painters, while Andrei and Zuev were “restoring” them as works of the Russian Wanderers (peredvizhniki). Fedosenko gave them to his old colleague, a specialist at the Tretyakov Gallery, for expertise, and the latter signed the papers without looking, fully trusting Fedosenko. The cheap purchases came back to Kovalev’s gallery as premium objects. Everything would have continued without problems, if only Kovalev had not sold a fake Shishkin to the Kremlin.

pure art Dasha goes to the railway station again with Misha, but this time the police are not too late to catch them. However, this is a good turn not only for Volkov, but for Dasha as well. The police save Dasha from the killer’s bullet, and she finally introduces the police to the case. After the Kremlin had bought the fake painting in Kovalev’s gallery and it was presented to the president of the US, one of the swindlers decided to kill everyone involved in the fake in order not to be involved in an international scandal. The perpetrator is neither Andrei, Zuev or Fedosenko, who are all killed; nor is it Kovalev, who becomes the fifth victim, after the murder of Tamara, who had hidden Dasha from the killer. After Dasha’s interrogation, Volkov sends her home with security guards and calls the officer Mashkov (the G-Wagen driver) to ask a question that sounds ambiguous in the context of what is happening: “Do they have everything according to plan?”

In the next scene Mashkov breaks into Dasha’s apartment, and this time she cannot get out. She defends herself and smashes a boiling kettle onto Mashkov’s head. Scalded and furious, the officer drops his gun and Dasha manages to seize it; she shoots the villain. Suddenly, out of nowhere, appears Misha and hugs the anxious girl. It looks like the final point of a happy end, but it isn’t: Misha turns out to be the head of a criminal art business, and he was the ne behind every murder. Since Dasha “hasn’t left him a choice,” he will kill her. But in the meantime officer Volkov has understood that nothing goes according to his plan, so he comes to help Dasha at the most precarious moment.

pure artThe most important thing in every film, as Davletiarov claimed in an interview, is an entertaining narrative, since that is the only way to make sure that “the person you are talking to is listening” (Vasil'eva 2016). In the same interview, he said that, when he works as a director, he thinks not about viewers’ preferences, but only of being satisfied himself professionally. However, he moves on to a broader statement, suggesting that any film has to speak to its viewer. Pure Art is based on Hollywood rules: a well-designed and intriguing plot, supported by simple visual grammar. The question is whether a universal conventional plot that is far from being realistic helps to earn the viewer’s trust. I suppose that the reason for Davletiarov’s discursive controversy is the combination of rudimentary Soviet idealism with a bellicose producer’s views on cinema. Both Misha (in the final scene) and Andrei (in one of the flashbacks) define themselves as adepts of the “real sense of beauty,” building a hierarchical opposition against consumerism. Meanwhile, Davletiarov’s mise-en-scenes visually define “pure art” in a utilitarian way: as both beautiful shots and material art objects. In the last flashback, even the powerful Dasha becomes part of the décor, turning into a naked Galatea cuddled by Andrei (Pygmalion), and thus perfectly fitting into the final shot.

Eve Ivanilova
Moscow State University

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Works Cited

Tsulaia, Dariko. 2012. “Renat Davletiarov: Zritel’ ne khochet travm, on khochet kheppi-enda.” KinoPoisk 31 October

Vasil'eva, Elena. 2016. “Renat Davletiarov: Ia nenavizhu russkii artkhaus.” KinoPoisk 14 June


PureArt, Russia, 2016
Color, 93 minutes
Director: Renat Davletiarov
Screenplay: Mark Franchetti, Iurii Korotkov, Artem Vitkin
Cinematography: Semen Iakovlev
Production Design: Artem Kuzmin
Music: Denis Surov
Editing: Matvei Epanchintsev
Cast: Anna Chipovskaia, Petr Fedorov, Konstantin Iushkevich, Il’ia Liubimov, Dmitrii Brauer, Aleksandr Iatsenko, Aleksei Barabash, Leonid Mozgovoi, Liudmila Chursina, Anatolii Belyi, Evgeniia Malakhova
Producers: Renat Davletiarov, Maksim Potashnikov, Grigorii Podzemelnyi, Mikhail Kolodiazhnyi

Renat Davletiarov: Pure Art (Chistoe iskusstvo, 2016)

reviewed by Eve Ivanilova© 2017

Updated: 2017