Issue 58 (2017)

Johnny O'Reilly: Moscow Never Sleeps (Moskva nikogda ne spit, 2015)

reviewed by Sergey Toymentsev© 2017

moscow never sleepsMoscow Never Sleeps is an Irish-Russian coproduction celebrating the vibrant life of Europe’s biggest metropolis. As a rare cinematic hybrid, it is written and directed by the Irishman Johnny O’Reilly, cast  exclusively with Russian actors, post-produced entirely in Windmill Lane Pictures in Ireland, funded by the Irish Film Board, Eurimages, Al Film as well as private donations from Moscow-based investors. After proving to be a box office flop in the domestic market, the movie regained its marketing power in the US by attracting audiences with equally international, or hybrid, backgrounds, such as Russian diaspora or experts in foreign affairs. Moscow's hybrid setup undoubtedly stems from the director's personality itself, whose professional career seems out of the ordinary. After graduating from Dublin's Trinity College with BA in Russian, O'Reilly came to Moscow in the early 1990s to report on Russia's political events for foreign newspapers. In the 2000s he proved himself a devout Russophile by making Moscow his adopted home for about twelve years. In 2010 he made his first feature The Weather Station (Priachsia!), a minimalistic thriller set at an arctic meteorological outpost with a classic “whodunit” plot. Although O’Reilly’s follow-up Moscow Never Sleeps offers a more personal take on Russian culture, there we may still see the same Western-style professional characteristics which might well distinguish him from his colleagues in the Russian film industry: a carefully written script, the utmost attention to detail and genre constraints, sharp editing, and an almost all-star cast.

Set in contemporary Moscow, the film is structured as a multi-narrative following the lives of five characters within twenty four hours: an entrepreneur (starring Leviathan’s Aleksei Serebriakov), whose real estate business is taken off by corrupt government officials; his young trophy wife (Evgeniia Brik), who aspires to be a pop singer and tries to get over her charismatic ex-boyfriend (Oleg Dolin); a famous comedian on his death bed (Iurii Stoianov) abducted by goofy Russian hoodlums; a teenage girl from a working-class family (Anastasiia Shalonko) hoping to reunite with her estranged biological father; and a young man (Sergei Belov) conflicted about sending his grandmother (Tamara Spiricheva) to a nursing home. All stories are woven together with a dynamic parallel montage, following the rapid pulse of the city life, and interspersed with beautiful aerial shots of the majestic urban landscape. All critics were quick to notice that Moscow Never Sleeps adopts the same multi-narrative structure as we see it in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), and Paul Haggis’ Crush (2004). O’Reilly, however, argues that neither Short Cuts nor Crush could serve as the narrative prototypes for his film: the former's storylines are far too remote and separate with minimal overlapping between characters, while the latter’s narratives are all tightly interlinked by a common theme of racism and xenophobia. By putting his film between these two extremes, O’Reilly likens it to Magnolia instead. As he comments, “I probably was more influenced by Paul Thomas Anderson... I liked ‘Boogie Nights’ and ‘Magnolia’ very much partly because the storylines of both films were clustered around family units or groups of characters. And that helped with [‘Moscow Never Sleeps’] with its intention to portray Moscow as a singular ‘character’ and idea” (Althoff 2017).

moscow never sleepsThe multi-narrative design, therefore, enables the director to encompass Moscow's socioeconomic polyvalence with an encyclopedic ambition. The film parades a whole gallery of social types inhabiting any regular large city in Russia, not just Moscow: corrupt bureaucrats, oligarchs, celebrities, their mistresses, young people hanging out in night clubs, seniors placed into derelict nursing homes, immigrants, typical Russian thugs or gopniks, hipsters, video game addicts, alcoholic husbands, overly submissive wives, working class families living in budget multistoried apartment blocks on the outskirts of the city, as well as middle class families from nicer neighborhoods. Despite squeezing such a kaleidoscopic variety of Moscow into the film’s runtime of 100 minutes, O’Reilly still manages to peer into the depths of his characters’ inner lives. As he comments, “I tried to give as wide a picture of the city as possible in the film: with quite a few characters of different features and different socioeconomic backdrops, some insights into how the government works and how things are working on the macro-level as well as in the personal details of people’s lives” (Toymentsev 2017). 

moscow never sleepsAs for the unfolding dramas of selected characters, Moscow Never Sleeps would indeed make much more sense if we look at it in terms of two overlapping family clusters initially divided by social class disparity: the upper class is represented by Valery's family, while the lower class by Lera’s one. The two families are narratively bridged by gopniks who kidnap Valery in the first half of the film (when he sneaks out from the hospital to have a drink after he learns he has only few weeks to live) and attempt to rape Lera and her stepsister Ksenia in the second half (when they meet each other at a nightclub). Most dramas of each character are existentially intense and structurally similar: confronted with a dilemma, they all have to make a decision which would morally resonate with their own ideas of what is good. For example, terminally ill Valery decides to no longer lie to his wife (Elena Safonova) about his long-term mistress (Elena Babenko) and finally introduces them to each other. Valery’s son Ilya keeps stalking Katya, who is now with the oligarch Anton, and thus presents her with a dilemma forcing her to choose either of the two. She chooses Anton over reckless and passionate Ilya and with that she chooses comfort and stability over her true feelings. While resisting to bribe government officials for his real estate contract, Anton puts his entire business at risk and has to make a choice between his moral credo and giving in to Russia's corruption. By having his office invaded by the federal tax police, Anton decides to leave Moscow for New York so that he could legally fight for his truth from there. Lera’s choice is either to keep living in her stepfather's dysfunctional family, while being constantly abused by her malicious stepsister, or reunite with her biological father who has never known her. After she discovers that the latter is openly reluctant to accept her back, she decides to stay where she is, yet she has more courage to stand up for herself. Her mother equally endures abuses from Vladimir (Mikhail Efremov), Lera’s alcoholic stepfather, yet no resolution is achieved in this sub-story, except that the latter does ask for forgiveness for his actions towards the end of the film, but such a change of heart is most likely due to his hangover rather than genuine call of conscience. Another parallel coming-of-age drama is developed through Vladimir's nephew, Stepan, who sends her grandmother to a nursing home under the pressure of his girlfriend. Whereas at the beginning we see him as rather passive and apathetic, always immersed in his video gaming, towards the end he visibly matures by decisively bringing her back home; nevertheless, she passes away next morning. This drama is somewhat complicated by scattered details about the family history filled with grief and trauma. In their last conversation Stepan asks his grandmother about the circumstances of his mother's death, namely, why she drank herself to death after his father died and nobody could help her. The film doesn't clarify much on this sub-story yet it does point to how pandemic the problem of alcoholism is in Russia, for both men and women. Despite the gloomy ambience produced by the traumatic undercurrents of each narrative, all the action takes place during Moscow’s annual City Day celebration culminating with lavish fireworks at night, which probably symbolizes how common this uneasy combination of joy and grief is for Muscovites. 

moscow never sleepsAs the movie powerfully demonstrates, O’Reilly is as much in love with Russia’s capital as he is with the Russian character itself. As he comments, Moscow Never Sleeps is intended as a movie “for international audiences that will show people a more nuanced view of Russian people and showcase the city that I’ve come to know so much” (Toymentsev 2017). Such a nuanced view is supposed to counter “the filter of geopolitics” (Trinity College Dublin) through which “the actions of the Russian government get conflated with the idea of the Russian character” (Toymentsev 2017). For O’Reilly, Russians are quite different from Westerners:

In the West people have stability in their lives, they are not worried for their future, [while Russians] live in the moment. That means there is more drama and suffering in the lives of Russians. But with more life and more humanity. I kind of feel Russians live with a greater amplitude of humanity than people in the West. And that’s very inspiring for any writer or dramatist or filmmaker (Toymentsev 2017).

That is to say, what inspires O’Reilly the most is the Russians’ “greater amplitude of humanity,” which enables them to push their lived experience to the limit, regardless of its positive or negative content.  Most characters’ actions swiftly swing from one end of the emotional spectrum to another. For example, gopniks claim to be Valery’s fans and invite him to visit their ghetto-like housing project at gunpoint. But when Valery can no longer take their treatment, he himself puts their pistol to his head and pulls the trigger. The gun misfires and all of them sit at the table to celebrate their meeting. In another episode, Ilya sneaks into Anton’s apartment where he makes love with Katya, who later nevertheless flies to New York with Anton. In O’Reilly’s rendition, easy betrayals, love at gunpoint, Russian roulette or  drinking oneself to death seem to colorfully exemplify the Russian carpe diem spirit.

moscow never sleepsUnfortunately, almost no Russian reviewer gave any credit to the film’s attempted study of the national character. For most of them, Moscow Never Sleeps represents Moscow as the “hellish den of the most degenerate people, the rotten abscess on the country’s body where day and night are equally disgusting” (Ukhov 2015), while the film itself “lacks drive” and is flawed with “empty and shallow stories” (Milian 2015), “superficial dramaturgy,” “stereotypical characters,” “illogical montage,” and “pseudo-philosophy” offering “nothing more” than “emptiness” (Savenkov 2015). For Western reviewers, on the contrary, the film seemed more like a “stress-filled tribute,” an “ambivalent love letter” (Hereford 2017), “a sincere but flawed love letter to the Russian capital” (Zilberman 2017) “uncompromised by any political agendas” (Clarke 2016). As O’Reilly explains, most Russian reviewers simply didn’t know how to market the film since the Russian Ministry of Culture refused to fund it, even though most of the film’s European funding was already in base, and “Kinotavr,” the Sochi Open Russian Film Festival, rejected it. Another explanation for such a negative domestic reception of the film, despite its Special Jury Prize at the “Window to Europe” Film Festival in Vyborg in 2015, could also be the increased level of anti-Western sentiments and pro-Putin self-censorship in contemporary Russia.

moscow never sleepsThe only criticism that could be addressed to O’Reilly’s film is that by moving away from geopolitical stereotypes in his representation of Moscow’s metropolitan spirit he gets trapped in geocultural archetypes instead, according to which Russia has always been perceived as Europe’s Other or, rather, Europe’s outer  limit. As he characterizes Moscow, “It’s the biggest city in Europe and is the nearest thing we have to an Asian-style megapolis” (Althoff 2017). Furthermore, “no one ever visits it” (Trinity College Dublin).  In this regard, O’Reilly’s “ambivalent love letter” to the city could be compared to a travelogue composed by an educated European sharing his observations about less civilized Russia with similarly educated “international audience.” Russia was and continues to be a frequent destination for such semi-orientalist travelers whose perception of the country could range from bewildered demonization to exalted exoticization. Marquis de Custine’s La Russie en 1839 is the most notorious example in this genre, while Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014) is the most recent one. The latter, in fact, shares a striking similarity with O’Reilly multi-narrative structure by showcasing the socio-cultural climate of Putin’s Russia through the mosaic of the intimate lives of regular citizens. What Moscow Never Sleeps truly celebrates is not the city per se but the Russian existentialist authenticity of lived experience no longer available to Europeans bored with their stability and civilized order. And yet, O’Reilly romantic fetishization of life-and-death situations randomly happening here and there in Moscow on a regular basis, the predominance of bare physics over abstract ethics in characters’ often animalistic actions as well as their superhuman ability to endure unbearable sufferings may not be such a bad image for Russia compared to its current Hollywood Cold War representation as a serious threat to Western democracy. 

Sergey Toymentsev
Polish Institute for Advanced Studies, Warsaw

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Works Cited

Althoff, Eric. 2017. “Life of Russian urbanites explored in Irish filmmaker’s ‘Moscow Never Sleeps.’” The Washington Times June 28.

Clarke, Donald. 2016. “Moscow Never Sleeps review: portrait of city buzzes with sombre intelligence.” The Irish Times November 10.

Hereford, André. 2017. “Film Review: Moscow Never Sleeps” Filmjournal June 7.

Milian, Maks. 2015. “‘Moskva nikogda ne spit’: gorod—eto zlaia sila.” September 1.

Savenkov, Aleksandr. 2015. “Poverkhnost’ pustoty” Kinomuvi September 9.

Toymentsev, Sergey. 2017. “The Pulse of Russian City Life: An Interview with Johnny O’Reilly on Moscow Never Sleeps.” September 7.

Trinity College Dublin. “Alumni Interviews: Johnny O’Reilly B.A. (1994) Russian.”

Ukhov, Evgenii. 2015. “Moskva nikogda ne spit:Moskovskikh okon negasimyi svet.” September 3.

Zilberman, Alan. 2017. “‘Moscow Never Sleeps’ is a sincere but flawed love letter to the Russian capital.” The Washington Post June 29.

Moscow Never Sleeps, Ireland/Russia, 2015
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Johnny O’Reilly
Script: Johnny O’Reilly
Cinematography: Fedor Liass
Music: Roman Litvinov
Editing: Dermot Diskin, Nico Leunen
Production Design: Ekaterina Zaletaeva
Cast: Anastasiia Shalonko, Iurii Stoianov, Aleksei Serebriakov, Liubov’ Aksenova, Evgeniia Brik, Mikhail Efremov, Rustam Akhmadeev, Tamara Spiricheva, Oleg Dolin, Viktor Verzhbitskii, Elena Safonova, Elena Babenko, Sergei Belov, Pavel Khrulov, Anna Nevskaia
Producers: Len Blavatnik, Katie Holly, Johnny O’Reilly

Johnny O'Reilly: Moscow Never Sleeps (Moskva nikogda ne spit, 2015)

reviewed by Sergey Toymentsev© 2017

Updated: 2017