Issue 67 (2020)

Tigran Saakian: Break (Otryv, 2019)

reviewed by Andrew Chapman © 2020

otryvBreak is a vertigo-inducing thriller, the debut feature-length film by director Tigran Saakian. The film takes places at an unnamed Russian ski resort, where four friends board a gondola to celebrate New Year’s Eve atop the mountain, but become stranded when a mishap occurs at the lift station that kills the gondola operator, unbeknownst to others at the resort. Over the film’s 80 minutes, chaos ensues that sees one of the friends, Roman, become the film’s villain, as the group attempts to escape the suspended gondola.  

Reviews of Break often immediately point out that the film is a rip off of a low-budget, but well-received American film, Frozen (dir. Adam Green, 2010), which featured three actors stuck atop a chairlift at a New England ski resort. Indeed, Break copies numerous plot elements of Frozen, but in a fancier package. Frozen’s simple chairlift, hanging some thirty feet off the ground, is exchanged for Saakian’s gondola, which soars over an awe-inspiring Caucasus panorama. Computer generated shots place the viewer directly over the abyss, at times hanging off of the gondola with roaring avalanches below. The CG visual effects of the film are of good quality for Break’s budget and they are employed to monumuentalize the characters’ daring attempts to escape. At the same time, however, it was Frozen’s simplicity and plausibility on a small scale, —and so close to rescue—, that made the film so unnerving and so cruel. 

otryvBreak creates drama between the characters both through action sequences and romantic subplots. Denis and Vika make up one of the couples, joined by Katia and Kirill, and Roman. Katia, who is played by former Miss Russia (2010) Irina Antonenko, plans to tell Kirill that she is pregnant. Kirill plans to use the New Year’s celebration for a romantic marriage proposal atop the mountain. Before the gondola’s departure, Kirill misplaces his bag, which contains the engagement ring. He decides not to board, asking Katia to come with him, but Katia instead stays with the group and they depart. This act of betrayal initiates the drama between all of the characters. Kirill leaves the resort and plans to break up with Katia, Katia contemplates her decision with some regret, and Roman begins to have designs on Katia.  

While the film avoids any significant social commentary, remaining firmly rooted in the suspense of the thriller genre, there are some larger themes that emerge. For one, Saakian depicts a narcissistic, thrill-seeking twenty-something generation. From the opening of the film, we see the dangers of being obsessed with yourself through the lens of your cellphone. The five friends pose in the snow to take a selfie, which causes them to be late for the gondola, and almost ruins their plans. They argue and swear at the operator, eventually bribing him to board. This scene appears to be suggesting that the younger generation does not respect the older one. This notion is reinforced in a related scene. Before the group boards the gondola, they deface a plaque to Soviet mountaineers, stealing a carabiner that is clipped onto the marker. It seems like Saakian misses a chance to create a more sinister plot driven by generational conflict. The trailer of the film actually points to the possibility that the operator deliberately stops the gondola mid-mountain, stranding the victims because of the prior argument. However, in the film, this scene of the operator pushing a button, instead shows him restarting the gondola after the first power failure.

Even after the gondola breaks down and the direness of the situation has set in, the characters film themselves celebrating and getting drunk to ring in the New Year. When characters film themselves, Saakian incorporates visual effects that remediates the phone’s video recorder on the film screen. The audience sees the phone’s record icon visible, as if they are the camera operator. While filming is at first a playful distraction, the camera becomes a way to document the disaster, a testament for others to find. Katia records messages about her pregnancy that will later reach Krill, while Denis’ GoPro camera records the events leading up to his death at the hands of Roman, a detail that is hinted during the film’s closing credits. By the end of the film, when only Katia is left alive and alone in the gondola, her phone’s dying battery signifies her impending death.

otryvWhile the phone is able to document events, it is not a savior. There is no signal in the gondola, so none of the group’s selfies, playful videos, or contemplative testaments will ever reach social media, nor will their calls for help. In another scene that features digital technology, we see Kirill leaving the ski resort in a taxi, playing music from his phone, with a single cordless Apple earbud visible. In this scene, a remediated screenshot of Kirill’s music playlist is shown, displaying the Canadian artist Marc Robillard and his song “Everstop.” While in previous scenes, the filming phone camera mediated the audience’s field of vision, this overlay of the digital phone interface is done very clumsily. It leads us to question why the director even wants to show us the device or if there is an ulterior motive to prominently feature the artist.

otryvAnother explanation for the inclusion of technology in this scene is that it further characterizes Kirill.  He is the film’s soft-spoken romantic who listens to sentimental music. This places him in opposition to the villain, Roman, whose garish machismo is shown through the large illuminated wireless speaker that he brings on the trip that blasts party music. Regardless of your interpretation, the film undeniably devotes a large amount of screen time to the role of digital technology, recognizing its ubiquitous presence in the lives of the main characters. This emphasis drives home the characters’ isolation and doomed fates when technology is cut out from their lives.  

Interestingly, Break has not been discussed much as a New Year’s Film, a quintessential genre in Russian and Soviet film traditions. Alyssa DeBlasio identifies the genre through six aesthetic and narrative elements: “the on-screen representation of the New Year; release and screening dates that coincide with the New Year; time imagery representing the transition from one stage of life to the next; the presence of fairy-tale motifs; the preference of television and private viewing over public release; and the emphasis on private rather than public space” (43). Break does indeed follow many of these conventions, starting with its New Year-ish February release. It depicts the New Year’s celebration as it occurs on the gondola, back on the ground at the ski resort, and through FaceTime conversations with relatives who call in to wish Kirill a happy New Year. Thematically, the catastrophe on the gondola signifies the transition of Katia’s and Kirill’s social life as twenty somethings into family life as mature adults. Their friends, a representation of their adventure-seeking and youthful lifestyle, are all killed off by the film’s end, leaving the expecting couple to transition to a new life. Similar to how Die Hard (1988) is an action movie that is often labeled (with admiration) as a Christmas movie, Break can be seen as a similar variation on the Russian New Year’s Film tradition.

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Reading Break as a New Year’s Film would allow critics to see it as an original contribution to Russian cinema. The film’s legacy, however, remains connected to comparisons to Frozen. In comment sections of film reviews online, fans measure Break against its American predecessor, often finding it inferior. This is not just because Saakian has lifted the premise of the movie from Frozen, but because he has also slavishly copied the film in some prominent examples, shot by shot. Break ends in the same exact fashion as Frozen, with the heroine rescued and loaded into a vehicle to be taken to the hospital. Each film ends with a close up shot of the heroine, who after being reassured that help is near, closes her eyes. In an age where it is a common and successful practice for studios to purchase the rights to foreign films and television shows and remake them for domestic audiences, Break shows us how unoriginal borrowings with little cross-cultural adaptation can ring hollow with film audiences. 

Andrew Chapman
University of Texas at San Antonio

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Works Cited

DeBlasio, Alyssa. 2008. “The New-Year film as a genre of post-war Russian cinema.” Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 2.1: 43-61.


Break, Russia, 2019
Color, 80 minutes
Director: Tigran Saakian
Screenplay: Ol’ga Rud’, Tigran Saakian, Denis Kosiakov
Composer: Aleksei Chintsov
DoP: Sergei Dyshuk
Editing: Aleksandr Karpov
Cast: Irina Antonenko, Denis Kosiakov, Ingrid Olerinskaia, Mikhail Fillipov, Andrei Nasimov
Producers: Artur Astvatsatrian, Sergei Sel’ianov, Oleg Iakovlev, Tigran Saakian
Production: CTB Film Company

Tigran Saakian: Break (Otryv, 2019)

reviewed by Andrew Chapman © 2020

Updated: 2020