Issue 62 (2018)

Kseniia Baskakova: The Bird (Ptitsa, 2016)

reviewed by Аrlene Forman © 2018

A Feather in her Cap

ptitsaAfter its August 2016 premiere at the Window to Europe Festival in Vyborg (Russia), the musical comic melodrama Bird took flight: featured in numerous festivals nationally (Blagoveshchensk, Eisk, Kazan’, Lipetsk, Moscow, St Petersburg, Smolensk, Sochi, Tula, Yakutsk) and internationally (Afula, Alacante, Bordeaux, Delhi, Helsinki, London, Mumbai, New York City, Oklahoma, Rosarito, San Diego, Shanghai, Sidney, Tokyo, Venice) well into 2017, the film gathered numerous awards for best film, director, male and female actors, camerawork and composition—a rather atypical and impressive debut for a fledgling director such as Kseniia Baskakova.

Baskakova first came to public attention in 2008, playing third-year medical student Vika Al’kovich on the STS series “I Fly.” While continuing to act on television and in film, Baskakova decided to pursue a degree in directing and in 2016 graduated from the State Film Institute (VGIK), having studied with Aleksandr Borodianskii and Iurii Kara. Much in the manner of her teachers, Baskakova both directed and co-wrote the film’s screenplay, the latter along with Andrei Rumiantsev and young playwright Iaroslava Pulinovich, whose screen credits include The Fourth Dimension (Chetvertoe izmerenie, 2012), I Won’t Return (Ia ne vernus’, 2014) and Yolki 5 (2016).

From the outset Bird presents viewers with chromatically orchestrated scenes: three nurses wearing crisp, white, form-fitting, low-cut uniforms glide along medical corridors to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” the tiny white pills they proffer serving as modern dragées. From this arch perspective we venture further into an imposing private clinic with vaulted ceilings and bright, roomy wards (in actuality St Petersburg’s D.O. Ott Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology). The immaculate grounds flaunt flower beds abloom with red and white floral patterns, leaving the patients inside to cope with the blues. This consciously selected and selective use of color emphasizes the unreality of this on-screen world, where villains wear black and the unfaithful trophy wife dresses in scarlet. Even a child can distinguish the goodies from the baddies, which may well have been the director’s goal, for she fashioned Bird as a fairy tale for young and old alike.

ptitsaIn some respects, she has succeeded: Bird explores the relationship between the hard-drinking punk musician Oleg Ptitsin (Birdy) and the troubled tween Katia. The controversial actor, screenwriter and director Ivan Okhlobystin plays an ailing and aging rocker who reluctantly succumbs to a sick, neglected youngster’s persistent, insistent requests that they become friends. Their exploits lead them out of confinement to gallivant around Peter’s burg. Their first romp involves requisite shots of the historic cityscape (the Bronze Horseman, St Isaac’s Cathedral, the canals), that immediately bring to mind Danila’s canonical entrance into the city in Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997). Almost two decades later, these sites are no longer thanatopic, they have been treated to face lifts, brought back from near oblivion. If in Brother the sole space for fraternity and human communication was the Lutheran Cemetery onVasil’evskii Island, now the Island is alive with young people, who delight in interacting with the duo at the Strelka strip. In contrast to Balabanov’s landscape of urban decay and squalid living conditions, Baskakova takes us to and through recently constructed high-priced private cottages which boast panoramic views of the Gulf of Finland. As our odd couple speed down the M-11 motorway, the lone travelers on this modern highway connecting St. Petersburg to Moscow, we even enjoy a view of things to come, the spot where the Lakhta Center would soon rise to dizzying heights. This celebration of the city focuses unabashedly on its beauty, be it the consistently warm and sunny weather throughout the film, the unexpected aerial shots of a drone on Palace Square at night, or the contemporary art exhibit atop the Velikan Park Theater, where Oleg provides Katia with a bird’s eye view of the Petrograd Side with the spire of the Peter Paul fortress gleaming in the darkness. Clearly this is the Petersburg of fairy tales.

ptitsaAnd then there’s the music, which (once again) showcases the city’s role as the capital of Russian rock. Punk sensation Oleg belts out the Mumii Troll’ hit “Midge” (Moshka, from the band’s 11th album Pirate Copies, 2015) to a riotous response in a bar scene. Elsewhere original recordings abound. Piknik’s “We Are Like Timid Birds” (My kak pereletnye ptitsy) for example, which consuls that release from a stifling environment can be achieved if we “break windows” and “bang on drums,” accompanies Katia on her final escape from the clinic to the shores of the Gulf of Finland where she rejoins her buddy Oleg. The nineties classic “Walking on Water” (Progulki po vode) by Nautilius Pompilius appears in a dream sequence in which rocker, poet, director, TV host, celeb/enfant terrible Garik Sukachev plays a cameo role as an angel). Newer music from composers Andrei Fedechko (leader of the group Solntse-Khmarii) and Aleksandr Pantykin (leader of Urfin Dzhius) provide considerable variety to the soundtrack, which was nominated for both the NIKA and Golden Eagle awards in 2017.

ptitsaGiven the popularity of such period musicals as Valerii Todorovskii’s Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) and Garik Sukachev’s House of the Sun (Dom solntsa, 2009, screenplay by Ivan Okhlobystin), one wonders whether Baskakova’s reliance on rock groups from the eighties and nineties that are still popular today helps integrate the interests of both young and older listeners into her family film, where there’s some music for everyone. The only voice that seems strangely missing for the majority of the movie belongs to the actress playing Katia. By the age of thirteen the musical prodigy Evdokiia Malevskaia had appeared in several operas (singing the shepherd’s aria in “Tosca,” the role of Tsarevich Fyodor in two different productions of “Boris Godunov”) and several St Petersburg musicals, including “Pola Negri”, where she played the stage and film actress as a child. That year, 2015, she was regularly featured on State Channel One as a contestant on Russia’s “The Voice. Children,” where she became a finalist. Those aware of her musical talent found it strange that her voice is not heard until the very end of the film, where it is needed for an unexpected and unconvincing “feel good” denouement.

ptitsaThere is much to commend in Baskakova’s attempt to craft a film for the whole family: the arresting set decorations and costume design, the musical mix, the vivid, ofttimes playful camerawork, even her ability to take on issues of loneliness and betrayal and try to resolve them in a positive, albeit unrealistic, way. Ultimately, it is the scenario that disappoints. As critic Andrei Gorelikov aptly notes, Bird draws heavily on the tradition of the adult-child duos established in such films as Louis Malle’s Zazie in the Metro (1960) or Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973). Viewers familiar with this tradition expect that the unlikely alliance will change the pair for the better. While at film’s end there will be marked changes and Mumii Troll’ will reappear to rock the final scene, these changes are largely superficial and far from satisfying. As Gorelikov declares in his Seans review, Bird’s “happy end is not an ending.”

Eduard Pichugin, the General Director of Lenfilm Studio, also served as this film’s general producer. He heralds Bird as part of the studio’s new initiative to support young directors and to produce more family-oriented films. Only time will tell whether this effort to reestablish the studio’s presence in a cinematic landscape that has largely been dominated by Moscow will prove successful.

Arlene Forman
Oberlin College

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Works Cited

Gorbulina, Ira. 2016. “Rok-n-roll’nyj angel.” Tricolor TV Magazine 20 April.

Gorelikov, Andrei. 2017. “’Ptitsa’: xeppi-end bez kontsa.” Seans 24 May.

Anon. 2017. “Kseniia Baskakova: ‘Ia tantsevala ot radosti, kogda uznala, chto Ivan Obklobystin soglasilsia snimat’sia v ‘Ptitse’”. Proficinema 5 May .

 

 


Bird, Russia, 2016.
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Kseniia Baskakova
Script: Andrei Rumiantsev, Iaroslava Pulinovich, Kseniia Baskakova
Cinematography: Dmitrii Savinov
Producers: Eduard Pichugin, Irina Baskakova, Aleksandr Igudin
Costumes: Alina German
Music: Piknik, Mumii Troll’, Nautilius Pompilius, Andrei Fedechko, Aleksandr Pantykin
Cast: Ivan Obkhlobystin, Anastasiia Mel’nikova, Evdokiia Malevskaia, Kirill Zakharov, Kirill Rubtsov, Inna Gorbikova, Garik Sukachev
Production: Lenfilm Studio

Kseniia Baskakova: The Bird (Ptitsa, 2016)

reviewed by Аrlene Forman © 2018

Updated: 2018