Issue 67 (2020)

Grigorii Dobrygin: Sheena667 (2019)

reviewed by Christine Engel © 2020


sheenaGrigorii Dobrygin is young (born 1986) and—judging by his studies—in an excellent position for a career in theatre and film. After the State Academy for Choreography of the Bolshoi Theatre, he attended the State Theatre Institute (GITIS) in Moscow, where he studied acting and directing. In film, he has so far mainly worked as an actor, being awarded the Silver Bear at the Berlinale for the leading role (in tie with Sergei Puskepalis) in Aleksei Popogrebskii’s film How I Ended This Summer (Kak ia provel etim letom, 2010). Apart from acting, he has presented two short films as a director—his diploma film An Affair (Izmena, 2013) and Verpaskungen (2014), both of which were awarded prizes at Kinotavr.Shorts in Sochi. After working for four years on Sheena667, he has now completed this first full-length feature film, in which he performs several functions: director, producer and co-scriptwriter.

The first thing that catches the viewer’s eye in Sheena667 is the list of credits, which reads like a who’s who of Russian auteur cinema: cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and production designer Andrei Ponkratov are known from Andrei Zviagintsev’s films; leading actor Vladimir Svirskii and sound designer Vladimir Golovnitskii from Sergei Loznitsa’s films; and co-scriptwriter Aleksandr Rodionov has already worked with Boris Khlebnikov and Valeriia Gai-Germanika. This collaboration has resulted in a film that, on the one hand, has interesting aspects, but, on the other, still has its debut film shortcomings. This is probably one of the reasons why the film did not win a prize in the main categories at either the Rotterdam Film Festival or Kinotavr, and had to make do with the debut prize of the magazine Iskusstvo kino (Film Art).

sheenaSheena667 is about an escape from the everyday life, which is triggered by the all-changing dream of great love impeded in the vastness of the internet. Vadim (Vladimir Svirskii), a thirty-year-old man, runs a small garage located directly on a country road in the Tver’ district, on a stretch of road where cars constantly get off the road, so that Vadim would welcome the purchase of a tow truck. His wife Olia (Iuliia Peresil’d), with whom he leads a happy and sexually fulfilling married life, contributes to making this dream come true.  As a post office clerk, she sometimes puts the scratch cards into the bill validator to discover winning cards in order to facilitate the purchase of the vehicle. When Vadim accidentally encounters a porn-chat site on the internet, he falls head over heels in love with one of the prostitutes and becomes consumed by his desire and longing for "Sheena667" (played by Jordan Rose Frye). He believes naively that Sheena, whom he only knows by her nickname, reciprocates his feelings and he implores her to give up prostitution, an earnest plea which he emphasizes with his willingness to send her money. In order to be able to tell her more than just “you are beautiful” and “I love you” he tries to improve his rudimentary English through an online English course and decides to travel to meet her. He applies for an American visa and books a flight to America. Looking for the hiding place of the money he and Olia have saved, he cuts up half the household and doesn't even stop at Olia's cuddly toy. In the end, Olia, who up to now has kept everyday life and finances stable, finds herself helpless in the middle of this chaos.

The very last pictures of the film (inter-titled “Finale”) show a video clip with Olia and Vadim on a cheerful ride with their quad bike. This finale, which might be interpreted as an unexpected but possible happy ending, should, however, be read primarily on a symbolic level: cars that came off the “road of death”, as the country road is popularly known, and land as wrecks in the ditch can be seen as a parallel to the path of Vadim, who is diverted from the straight path and has to wait for a recovery vehicle which might save him from aberration.

sheenaApart from symbolization, the film also uses intertextuality as a means of giving a deeper meaning to the story. The Russian fairy tale of the Firebird plays a prominent role in this respect. In the fairy tale, the firebird is a magically glowing bird from a faraway land, which is both a blessing and a messenger of doom to its captor. With Sheena, Vadim’s longing to seek happiness in a place other than where he is at the moment takes on a new direction. Originally, Vadim’s longing was orientated towards Europe, which is not only suggested by the logo “Tyrolia” on his woolen cap, but also by the ongoing search for a tow truck in Germany. However, the pragmatic technical device from a pragmatic country like Germany cannot keep up with the siren songs that Sheena evokes. Just as with Vadim, her garments have a signaling effect, especially her feathered jacket, which places her also visually close to the legendary bird. The fact that Vadim’s hunt for his firebird is connected with danger, namely the danger of getting lost in the internet jungle, is indicated by the name of the prostitute, which refers to the comic and film title Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.[1]

The second character from Russian folklore that the film refers to is Ivan the Fool, a simple-minded young man who approaches every task wrongly and clumsily, but who is ultimately lucky—not despite his cluelessness, but because of it. Ivan can be sure of gaining sympathy in the end, and it’s not much different with Vadim. The “tender soul” of the lost son is depicted in the film with great sympathy and sensitivity. Vadim is even the only character in the film to escape the rampant and fantasy-killing pragmatism of the post-Soviet system, while the other characters remain trapped in it. One scene in particular shows his joyful liberation from any chains and doubts: Vadim climbs a tree with a rope around his shoulder, which may evoke the possibility of Vadim hanging himself, but he ties the rope around a branch instead and uses it as a swing: overjoyed and with a Tarzan-like scream he surrenders to the joys of leaping and swinging. From this moment on he knows that he has to pursue his own destiny, whatever the cost.  The scene on the swing is also reminiscent of a similar scene in the film Flights in Dreams and Reality (Polety vo sne i naiavu, 1982; dir. Roman Balaian). In this film, too, the romantically inclined protagonist—the opposite of a man of action and rationalist—can preserve his inner independence and go his own way, even though he is in crisis, stands between two women and doubts the meaningfulness of his everyday life.

sheenaLooking at Vadim’s relationship with the two women, it becomes clear that this constellation is very strongly linked to common Russian discourses in which criticisms of capitalism and globalization are linked to anti-Americanism. After all, Vadim wants to leave his Russian wife in favor of an American siren and exchanges the real, the Russian, for American bling-bling. Thus he also leaves Russian warmheartedness, physical love, and closeness, turning to cold pornographic seductions on a flickering screen instead. As if that wasn’t enough, he also monetarizes love as a value by swapping his wife for a prostitute. However, Vadim-Ivan, who is basically a trusting, guileless Russian figure, can’t really want all this. According to the movie’s logic, he must be the victim of a delusion. The number 667 in Sheena’s nickname points the way in this respect, as this number along with 666 is often called the devil’s number. Sheena’s feathered shirt now gets the additional connotation of “fur” and thus corresponds to traditional depictions of the devil. Sheena’s makeup with dark eyes and her long fingernails with dark nail polish reinforce this image.  With this kind of reference to the diabolical, the film joins the widespread Russian discourses about the Antichrist, which interpret the present time as the age of the Antichrist. According to this reading, Antichrist blinds people and offers them fake-miracles which they take for real—and only with the help of the Holy Scriptures the forgeries can be recognized as such. Looking at the film from this point of view, Vadim-Ivan may overcome his delusions with the help of Christian teaching, and thus to steer his recently acquired determination into the right direction. A corresponding hint is the oversized wooden cross Vadim comes across. It stands in the Russian winter landscape and Vadim is looking at it lengthily, assuming that it belongs to Baptists. This way out of temptations and entanglements is also in harmony with the ongoing spiritual quest by the director, who has been seeking spiritual support in the Seventh-day Adventist Church since his youth.

One of the great strengths of the film are the dialogues, in which Aleksandr Rodionov’s experience as dramaturge of teatr.doc comes into play and which contribute significantly to the comic side of the film. Neither the absurd nor the limits of verbal communication are alien to the very lively dialogues with its short retorts. A good example for that are the conversion attempts by relatives and friends. Olia’s mother (Nadezhda Markina), for example, reacts to her son-in-law’s confession that he will leave Olia with a deadpan retort: “Will you see a priest or a doctor, your choice”. Vadim’s father-in-law, on the other hand, can only circle around the issue, but never name it: “How are you going to go on, Vadim? Well then, good that we’ve talked. You understood everything, yes? I do know, deep down in your heart you’re a good man”. However, according to the logic of the film, all these appeals must fade away, since their speakers have already adopted the utilitarian thinking of New Russia.

Considering the film’s imagery and the soundtrack one can notice many references to the films of Loznitsa and Zviagintsev. The soundtrack avoids any sound carpet and is limited to everyday noises.  References to Zviagintsev’s films Elena (2011) and Loveless (Neliubov’, 2017) are the frequent use of sequence shots as well as the shots of the apartment; and the pictures of the garage in night lighting and the scrap heap remind us vividly of the corresponding pictures in Leviathan (2014). Apart from Loznitsa, Zviagintsev, and Popogrebskii, Dobrygin mentions also Kira Muratova, Aki Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson as his role models who impress him most for their ability to create their own cinematic world. It is perhaps the overabundance of references to an overabundance of good directors with an overabundance of symbolizations and metaphors that is detrimental to the film and prevents the viewer from recognizing Dobrygin’s own handwriting.

Another point of criticism refers to the division into chapters. The film has thirteen chapters, each introduced by an intertitle and by baroque harpsichord music—an approach which emphasizes the episodic character and the self-contained nature of the individual parts. However, contrary to this and unlike the chapters in Andersson’s films, Sheena667 tells a relatively consistent, traditional story, which develops coherently and any subdivision seems artificial. Moreover, it is not only the story which is traditional, but also the constellation of characters: the male protagonist is flanked by two female characters who despite their excellent acting achievements, remain reduced to their illustrative function for the man’s problems.

 


Notes

1] Sheena is originally a fictional comic book character (1937), later the female Tarzan of a 26-episode TV-series (1955) as well as of the movie Sheena: Queen of the Jungle (1984; dir. John Guillermin).

Christine Engel
University of Innsbruck

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Works Cited

Dolin, Anton. 2019. “V Rotterdame pokazali ‘Sheena667’—rezhisserskii debiut aktera Grigoriia Dobrygina o liubvi, naidennoi v pornochate.” Meduza 30 January.

Ferseva, Natasha. 2018. “Grigorii Dobrygin: bol’shaia nadezhda rossiiskogo kino.” Oxvo.ru 20 January.

Khlebnikova, Veronika. 2019. “Russkii chelovek na randevu: pervyi vazhnyi otechestvennyi fil’m 2019 goda—Sheena667 Grigoriia Dobrygina.” Iskusstvo kino 1.

Plakhov, Andrei. 2019. “Virtual’noe begstvo: ‘Sheena667’ Grigoriia Dobrygina sredi prem’er Rotterdamskogo festivalia.” Kommersant 31 January.

Zagovora, Maksim. 2019. “Grigorii Dobrygin – o debiute Sheena667, sotssetakh i rabote s Aleksandrom Rodionovym.” Interview. Kino TV, 22 June.

Kinotavr. 2019. Press-konferentsiia fil’ma Sheena667. Kinotavr TV 15 June.


Sheena667, Russia, 2019
Languages: Russian, English
Color, 97 min.
Director: Grigorii Dobrygin
Script: Aleksandr Rodionov, Grigorii Dobrygin, Il’ia Nosochenko
Editor: Danielius Kokanauksis, Vadim Krasnitskii
Sound: Vladimir Golovnitskii
Production Designer: Mikhail Krichman
Cast: Vladimir Svirskii, Iuliia Peresil’d, Jordan Rose Frye, Nadezhda Markina, Iurii Kuznetsov
Producers: Grigorii Dobrygin, Tat’iana Ochinskaia, Nora Sharif
Production: Mind the Gap Films
Premiere: 28 January 2019 (Rotterdam)

Grigorii Dobrygin: Sheena667 (2019)

reviewed by Christine Engel © 2020

Updated: 2020