Issue 58 (2017)

Aleksandr Proshkin: The Guards (Okhrana, 2015)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone© 2017

okhranaOn its surface, Aleksandr Proshkin’s latest collaboration with scriptwriter Iurii Arabov looks like a cute but quirky romantic comedy, one of the most popular and commercially successful genres of contemporary Russian cinema. The movie adheres to the basic rom-com genre conventions: boy meets girl, girl wants commitment for which boy is not ready. Over the course of the film, after various conflicts and comic misadventures, boy comes around and accepts love and family. Happy-end. In Proshkin and Arabov’s version, a handsome petty crook, Vitia (Anton Shagin) meets Klava (Mariia Korovina), a cute security guard, during a robbery. When she sees through his banter and tries to detain him, they struggle briefly: pinning her against the wall, he kisses her on the lips. Her response—this is a rom-com after all—is to faint dead away. After he makes sure that she is ok, he escapes. We then see Klava’s life over the next few months: at home with her step-father (Viktor Sukhorukov), drinking with fellow female security guards after work, playing mom to a young boy neglected by his mother, and at a police line-up, reluctantly identifying Vitia as the thief. We learn that Klava isn’t interested in a lover—she wants a child. And although she has never had sex with a man, over the next few months it becomes clear, last of all to her, that she is pregnant. At Vitia’s trial, she recants her original testimony and declares that he is the father of her child. Vitia is set free, thus setting up the movie’s “happy end” when he returns, meets her stepfather, and accepts the prospects of life with wife and children. But to focus on the film’s conventional narrative arc and gently comic surface tone would be a disservice to the movie’s darker, and more interesting, side.

okhranaIf its structure, characters, and conversational banter are all typical of the romantic comedy, The Guards effectively turns the genre upside down. While dreams of love and romance have always been at the center of the romantic comedy, whose motto could be “sometimes dreams do come true,” Proshkin and Arabov take a radically different approach. More than simply a way of escaping a bleak reality or a vision of a better life, the dreams in The Guards undercut the conventional distinction between the real or plausible and the fantastic or miraculous. Klava, for example, wants what should be simple: to have a child. And yet in the world of the film there simply are no potential fathers or husbands—the young men are either criminals, drunks, or prigs—making her dream look fantastic and in need of a miracle. Perhaps the funniest version of the film’s reversal of the plausible and implausible occurs when a Russian pop celebrity comes to town for a concert. Klava contrives to spend a day showing him around town but cannot convince him to help her conceive a child. In another, sadder, episode, she befriends Sidor (Vsevolod Spasibo), a  young boy regularly left alone in a squalid apartment by his irresponsible mother. She cooks, cleans, talks to him, until one day the mother returns drunk and, scandalized, throws her out of the apartment: in the world of the film, a grown woman who would befriend a lonely child without ulterior motive is an impossibility. The individual scenes are funny, but the overall effect is not. If the audience of a traditional rom-com enjoys the momentary escape from reality offered by the film, The Guards refuses the consolations of escapism, constantly pointing its viewers towards the very real pain beneath the film’s frothy surface.

okhranaInstead of dreaming about dream lovers, the characters of The Guards—most of whom are orphans of one sort or another—dream about missing fathers: Klava was adopted and raised by a stepfather and spends the movie searching for a father of her child; her best friend Valencia (Irina Vilkova) dreams of a Spanish father who disappeared when the local Spanish-Russian factory went bankrupt; Sidor doesn’t even bother to respond when Klava asks him about his father: Vitia has no family at all. Some dreams are ordinary—Masha, one of the security guards, dreams of becoming a pop singer. Saddest of all is Sidor’s dream to own an audio player. Without exception, each of these dreams points beyond the world of the film, and the genre of romantic comedy, towards deep-rooted dysfunctions in contemporary life in the Russian provinces: the crisis of broken families, lack of economic opportunity, and pervasive cultural and spiritual deprivation.

okhranaThe film shows real sympathy for the lives of its mostly female characters. Stuck in boring, dead-end jobs, in an ugly world with little hope of finding a partner, building a family, or making a better life, their only comfort is their friendship. Still, the film’s central conceit—the heroine’s desire for a child—even if understood metaphorically, will rub many viewers, and not only women, the wrong way. Indeed, what are we to make of a film which idealizes motherhood while also showing the very real difficulties of raising a child and the terrible effects of inadequate childcare? By the film’s end the friends appear about to go their own ways: one will return to school, another home to help her ailing mother and child, a third is off to a singing competition in Moscow, and Klava will soon give birth. And yet, the film ends on a confusing note: as the credits roll, the seven women in their uniforms walk with absolutely no expression on their faces through an industrial wasteland. Are the filmmakers suggesting that nothing has changed for these women? Has the entire film been a fantasy? These questions are left unanswered.

Much like Proshkin and Arabov’s last collaboration, The Miracle (Chudo, 2009), The Guards tries to imagine a modern miracle. The story told in The Miracle of the Soviet government’s cover up of an apparently supernatural occurrence in the early 1960s was fascinating and provocative. One can easily see why the filmmakers would have been interested in the response of today’s overwhelmingly religious society to the possibility of a virgin birth. And yet, unfortunately, the treatment of this theme in The Guards is disappointing and superficial. The ironies of orthodox priests who can’t imagine a miracle, doctors and psychiatrists who won’t try to understand their patient, and naïve Orthodox parishioners who will believe anything seem pat and obvious. Perhaps the real problem is that Proshkin’s very concrete visual imagination is simply not well suited to illuminate the mysterious and the miraculous: for these qualities, one looks to the films of Tarkovsky, Zviagintsev, and Sokurov. 

Anthony Anemone
The New School New York

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The Guards, Russia, 2015
Color, 116 minutes.
Director: Aleksandr Proshkin
Screenplay: Iurii Arabov, Aleksandr Proshkin
Producer: Dmitrii Pirkulov
Cinematographer: Dmitrii Mishin
Cast: Mariia Korovina, Viktor Sukhorukov, Anton Shagin, Irina Vilkova, Vsevolod Spasibo
Music: Iurii Poteenko
Production: Amkart

Aleksandr Proshkin: The Guards (Okhrana, 2015)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone© 2017

Updated: 2017