Issue 70 (2020)

Mariia Agranovich: Love Them All (Liubi ikh vsekh, 2019)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2020

Liubi vsekh

Love Them All opens with the prayer of a tech entrepreneur: “Lord, give me more clicks on my links, … health to my employees, … and give me the strength to forget that woman I can’t seem to forget.” That woman is Sasha, a con-artist/ chameleon-courtesan who seduces wealthy men in exchange for money, jewelry, and cars. Dima, the tech entrepreneur, is one of Sasha’s early marks, a memory of her past as a teen runaway from an abusive home. Dima is one of four men Sasha “works” in the film: there is also Tolik, the wealthy businessman whom she manipulates into paying her to leave him; Gleb (Sergei Garmash), an executive some forty years her senior; and Sasha, Gleb’s only son. In each relationship, Sasha goes by a different name: Vera, Nadia, Liuba. The film’s plot hinges on the fact that Sasha and Dima indeed meet again, although by now her craft has earned her a new level of independence: instead of throwing herself in front of cars for profit, which is how she and Dima met, she now shops for designer dresses and cars on her own. Perhaps her feelings for Dima back then were real; or perhaps, for Sasha, their entire relationship has been one long calculation. This is the main narrative question of Love Them All: Who is the film’s nameless heroine, and what does she feel, if anything?

The film was director Mariia Agranovich’s debut feature and it competed in the Debut Program at the 2019 Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival. Agranovich began the script for Love Them All ten years earlier, immediately after her short film No Problem was awarded a special jury mention “For Mature Youth” at Kinotavr in 2010. Agranovich comes from an established filmmaking family: she is the daughter of director and cameraman Mikhail Agranovich, the cinematographer for Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (Monanieba, 1987) and Gleb Panfilov’s The First Circle (Krug pervyi, 2006); her mother is documentary filmmaker Alla Agranovich; and her brother is actor and producer Aleksei Agranovich. Mariia Agranovich describes how she undertook a lengthy and difficult casting process for the film’s lead role before settling on Alena Mikhailova, an unknown graduate from the Perm State Institute of Culture who had recently relocated to Moscow (“Press-konferentsiia” 2019). If this film makes a lasting impression on critics, it is likely to be as the start of Mikhailova’s career. First, because Mikhailova does an impressive job of alternating among the lead protagonist’s multiple personas: Vera, the juvenile runaway; Nadia, the sophisticated femme fatale; and Liuba, the whimsical, working-class philology student. And second, because Mikhailova’s next appearance on screen would be as Marina on the TV series Chicks (Chiki, dir. Eduard Oganesyan, more.tv)—a series that has already gotten significant press in the Russian media, was watched more than 13 million times as of August 2020 (making it the most popular Russian series of the summer), and which also examines the connections between female entrepreneurship and sex work (Uskov 2020).

Liubi vsekhLove Them All fits broadly within a recent wave of films and television series about the “kept woman” and female “sexual entrepreneurship.” Alongside Chicks are Vadim Perel’man’s film Buy Me (Kupi menia, 2017) and Konstantin Bogomolov and Dar’ia Zhuk’s Gold Diggers (Soderzhanki, 2019-2020), a dark erotic comedy for the START online platform that follows the lives of women from the provinces who arrive in Moscow and live off money earned through their relationships with married men. And yet, unlike Gold Diggers, Love Them All does not contain a significant number of erotic scenes, and unlike Buy Me, it does not treat Sasha’s position as a stand-in for a broader social phenomenon, by which women must rely on the financial favors of men to achieve independence and happiness. At a press conference at Kinotavr in 2019, Agranovich denied any social dimension to her film: “It’s an absolute fairytale,” she replied. And then later, in the same interview: “This is a film about a person who does what she wants” (“Press-konferentsiia” 2019). Love Them All also fits within the genre of films about female grifters, who swindle unsuspecting targets using their minds and bodies. However, the film lacks any unified ethical or social message. Perhaps this is due to the fragmented storyline and editing choices, which leave a series of plot-lines unresolved for the viewer. The repetition of musical themes, however, lends the film a sense of cohesion in spite of its narrative fragmentation.

Liubi vsekhIf the film opens with Dima’s prayer, it closes with Sasha’s plea to her mother: “Mommy, why don’t you love me? Why didn’t you ever read me fairy tales?” This moment offers motivation for Sasha’s actions: perhaps she is incapable of showing love, given that she never received it; perhaps her male “victims” function as moral collateral for her mother’ neglect. And yet, Sasha’s childhood trauma is left unexamined. Agranovich describes her protagonist not in psychological terms, and in fact dismisses psychological readings of the film. She speaks of Sasha as a “superhero,” as “somebody who could work in the special forces” given her abilities for deception and calculation (“Press-konferentsiia” 2019). “And then I took this idea to the level of the absurd,” Agranovich continues in a separate interview (Ostasheva 2019). In her apartment, Sasha maintains a whiteboard where she diagrams her relationship with each man she is currently “working”—reminders about what persona she has adopted for each, character notes for every role she plays. To each man she also assigns a box, into which she places jewelry and gifts, so that they are ready for sale once the relationship has ended. Even if Sasha indeed was written as a “superhero” or a grifter without a conscience, scenes of her character’s unexplored trauma nonetheless poke through. We see how Sasha’s mother is interested only in money, and not in reconnecting with her estranged daughter. When one of Sasha’s “contractors”—a woman named Tania, whom she pays to sleep with a mark—announces that she is quitting (“I can’t do this anymore, Tanya says, I want to get married.”), Sasha binges on pizza and Chinese food alone in her apartment. At a press conference in 2019, Agranovich brushed off the suggestion that Sasha’s childhood might have been a path worth developing, arguing instead that the mother-daughter storyline serves only as motivation for Sasha’s inability to feel human connection.

Liubi vsekhThere is, however, a noticeable lack of meaningful female relationships in the film. Sasha makes a retail assistant walk back and forth across the sales floor, just to watch her struggle in uncomfortable shoes and with bloodied heels. Later Sasha offers this young girl work. “What if I don’t enjoy sleeping with [some rich guy for money]?,” the young assistant asks. “And do you always enjoy it when you sleep with poor guys for free?,” Sasha replies. Any attempts to find female solidarity in the film come up short. Men buy women, but so do women buy each other. Even what little we know about Sasha risks falling into fiction. Her real name (Sasha) is suggested only at the film’s end, but perhaps that too is a lie. Here, the protagonist’s pseudonyms highlight the meaninglessness of female identity: Vera, Nadia, and Liuba, translate respectively to Hope, Faith, and Love—only some the “services” she offers to Dima, Tolik, and Gleb. But the film makes space for none of these things for Sasha herself. Within the world of the narrative, Agranovich lays the blame at the protagonist’s feet: “The [men in Sasha’s life] are all worthy of love in return. But, most likely, the problem is with Sasha herself: in the fact that despite her skill at love, she is actually unable to experience that feeling” (Ostasheva 2019). At the film’s conclusion, a fourth man appears: Gleb’s son, with whom we find out Sasha is also involved, but only as part of her plan to extort from his father her largest sum yet. Seeking inspiration from Agranovich’s own method of “taking an idea to the absurd,” we might argue that there are no women at all in Love Them All: only men, their desires, and the manifestation of those desires on female bodies. If this is feminism, then it is feminism in a system that believes that feminism is an unspeakable word.

Liubi vsekhOne the one hand, we might interpret the film as a cutting criticism of the absence of feminism on-screen, in a climate where leading Russian-based female directors are hesitant (or outright hostile) to the idea of advocating specifically for women in the filmmaking process.[1] Women occupy key positions on the production team for Love Them All, including serving in the roles of art director, music director, editor, and producer. Moreover, the film was released at the crest of a historic wave that appears to be just about to break, as in 2020 the main competition of Russia’s leading film festival is, for the first time ever, comprised nearly half (but not quite) by female-directed films. To provide the statistics: At Kinotavr 2020, 6 of 13 films will be directed by women (46%) vs 3/9 in 2019 (33%) and 3/12 in 2018 (25%). On the other hand, however, Agranovich herself vehemently denies that her film has anything to say about feminism, or even about the female experience in Russia in general. She has equally dismissed any suggestion that the #MeToo movement, which hit full force while she was completing the screenplay for Love Them All, played any role in her creative process (“Press-konferentsiia” 2019). Instead, she argues:

I had no intentions of raising the theme of feminism in the film. I am absolutely convinced that women, no matter how strong, are always somehow weaker than men. And I think that this is a strength and not a weakness. You know, I don’t think that the word ‘feminism’ is at all relevant today, because gender differences are being erased. Today women do everything that men do. We have nothing left to fight for. And in general, I find it much easier to be with men and I like them a lot more, and so next time I want to make a film “for men.” (Ostasheva 2019)

Agranovich’s views here are not surprising, given negative opinions of feminism in contemporary Russian culture in general. Some viewers echo her sentiments, for instance a female on-line reviewer from Sevastopol, who notes that, “I thought the film would be mediocre, given that it was made by a woman, and in general I don’t normally like Russian film, to be honest. But actually the film drew me in and it was very interesting, and I liked almost all the actors” (‘imeda11’ 2020). Viewers’ comments about their low expectations from female directors aside, Love Them All is also easily interpreted as an anti-feminist film. It raises serious questions about female agency, authenticity, and pleasure, but then neither shows any interest in those themes, nor seems to admit that it raises them in the first place.

Liubi vsekhIf the Sasha-Dima relationship is the main through-line of the film, the other storylines are less developed. Dima’s business dealings are introduced, but never expanded upon; neither do we learn what happens to the young salesclerk whom Sasha initiates into her craft. Sasha cites the rules to her business (don’t ever sleep with somebody you like; don’t get involved with men who have wives or children), but her rules never reach the level of a “method”; Moreover, she breaks both rules she sets for herself. Agranovich admitted that the film ended up being much longer than expected, and that certain plot lines were lost or truncated during the editorial process (“Press-konferentsiia” 2019). For critics, and probably for viewers too, this answer is likely to be unsatisfying. And yet, the film features strong performances by both Mikhailova and Aleksandr Kuznetsov, which mitigates the effect of the fragmented storyline.

As for the film’s ending, Love Them All offers its viewers three possible routes. First, there is Sasha’s plea to her mother—an acknowledgment of her trauma, which encourages us to re-watch and re-asses the film from a psychological perspective. Second, we are offered the potential for a happy ending, one in which Sasha finally gets to experience love through marriage (to Gleb’s son) and motherhood (with Gleb’s child). This happy ending, shot as a light-saturated dream sequence, is one that the protagonist ultimately rejects. And finally, there is the finale that Sasha appears to choose: to continue on her path, where human connection is unnecessary or impossible, and where “money equals freedom.” The “all” in the film’s title raises similar questions. Whom is it that we should love, and to whom is the imperative directed? To all of Sasha’s personas, to all of her men, to women/men in general, or to viewers themselves? The film ends, fittingly, with an extreme close up of Sasha’s eye. Just at the moment where we think we’ve achieved access to her inner world, the camera cuts away, and the screen goes black.


Notes

1] See, for instance, Anna Melikian’s comments on feminism and “female filmmaking” in: Kataev 2019 and Redaktsiia 2019.

Alyssa DeBlasio
Dickinson College

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Works Cited

‘imeda11’. 2020. Otzovik (10 Jan).
 
Kataev, Denis. 2019. “Anna Melikian: ‘Vsegda est’ to, chego nedostaet, eto daet vozmozhnost’ dushe razvivat’sia. Tak ustroena dramaturgiia zhizni.” World Class (14 May).
 
Ostasheva, Dar’ia. 2019. “Mariia Agranovich: V “Liubi ikh vsekh’ ia ne obrashchalas’ k feministskoi teme.’” ProfiCinema (27 May).

“Press-konferentsiia fil’ma ‘Liubi ikh vsekh,’ 2019. KinotavrTV.

Redaktsiia. 2017. “‘Feminizm u nas – do pervogo muzhchiny na gorizonte’: pravila zhizni Anny Melikian.” Glamour (16 Aug).

Uskov, Oleg. 2020. “Rossiiskii serial ‘Chiki’ posmotreli bolee 13 millionov raz.” Rossiiskaia gazeta (7 August).


Love Them All, Russia, 2019
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Mariia Agranovich
Screenplay: Mariia Agranovich
Cinematography: Dmitrii Karnachik
Director of Photography: Iuliia Charandaeva, Irina Mironova
Music: Vadim Maevskii, Miriam Sekhon
Editing: Ol’ga Grinshpun
Cast: Alena Mikhailova, Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Sergei Garmash, Aleksandr Tronov, Aleksandra Kiseleva, Kirill Safonov
Producers: Sergei Sel’ianov, Dmitrii Dobuzhinskii, Anna Bochkareva
Production: CTB, Park Cinema Production

Mariia Agranovich: Love Them All (Liubi ikh vsekh, 2019)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio © 2020

Updated: 2020