Issue 73 (2021)

Boris Guts: We Look Good in Death (Smert’ nam k litsu, 2019)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2021

The website Kino-Teatr.ru bills Boris Guts’s film We Look Good in Death thus:

Could you find four million rubles in four days, if you worked as a food delivery guy, if your parents didn’t give a damn about you and if your best friend was an idiot? Take out a loan, sell everything off, become a porn actor—do everything you can, just so your beloved won’t die. A comedic melodrama shot on cell phones. 

That pretty much covers it. The Omsk-born Guts (b. 1980) represents a millennial cohort of Russian filmmakers seizing the tiny means of production in their pockets to craft ultra-low budget mainstream(-ish) fare. Playing off the title of Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her (1992), and as in his earlier film Fagot (2018) building on a mockumentary conceit, Guts tackles subject matter which seemingly no one in Russian culture wants to openly discuss nowadays: death by cancer. (In fact, the film’s premise alone led to most distributors taking a hard pass; it debuted on the online platform Start; see Kichin & Mazurova 2021.)

smert nam k litsuStill, the movie won the Grand Prix at Vyborg’s Window to Europe Festival in 2019, along with a Producers’ Guild Award for producer Igor Mishin, though whether this owes more to the morbid theme or to the (still fairly) novel production approach seems debatable. In any case, We Look Good in Death is not really about death at all; for one thing (spoiler alert), nobody dies. In short, Guts’s film has far more in common with a Judd Apatow comedy than with Mother and Son (Mat' i syn, dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, 1997).

Burial Plot
The story opens with Masha (played by Aleksandra Bystrzhitskaia, a sort of Russian Keira Knightley) having already received a dire medical prognosis, leaving her at most six months to live. But our ebullient heroine, rather than plunging into deep depression, elects to skip four whole stages of grief and get straight to acceptance. With gay laughter, she plans the funeral, chooses a coffin color (black), makes personal invitations, posts to her vlog and teaches herself Mandarin.

Meanwhile, her taciturn husband Petya (Pugaev) is losing his freakin’ mind. Obsessed with landing the money for a trip to Germany for life-saving treatment, he throws himself into various quick money-making schemes, like pleading with his cold-hearted bourgeois mother (Volkova) to sell her apartment. His dull-witted coworker Cactus (Putsylo) concocts a faux kidnapping-for-ransom scheme, though fortunately that goes nowhere. Before he knows it, Petya find himself as the male talent on an amateur porn set, facing a woman in a Pikachu costume. That too fizzles.

You might say our protagonists act like their famous Russian children’s comics namesakes: Petya is Petia Ryzhik,[1] engaging in several elaborate adventures all over the city, while Masha is “Umnaia Masha” (Smart Masha),[2] approaching even her own demise with bright-eyed openness and curiosity. She seems genuinely puzzled when a cosmetician she wants to hire runs out of the café in panic upon learning she is to do her makeup job on a corpse.

Petya and Masha’s odd coupling actually makes for one of the more intriguing aspects of We Look Good in Death. Sitting in their tiny working-class kitchen, the free-spirited wife at one point berates her “square” conformist husband, who doesn’t like black humor, doesn’t cross on red, even votes for Putin. “Who, if not Putin?” he asks. “Who am I leaving this country to?” Masha exclaims in a huff.  

Ultimately, Masha’s depression catches up to her, leading to a suicidal spiral stylishly filmed like a DIY music video. And Petya solves the money issue the old-fashioned way: by extorting his mother with kompromat when he catches her sleeping with lothario neighbor Edik (Kovbas) while his father is away on an oil job. Family values!  

In the colorful words of critic Marina Aleksandrova (2019): “[W]hile viewing this film, laughter sits in the embrace of horror—as if these two sweethearts were sharing a loveseat in the back row of the theater.”

‘The Death of Postmodernism’
Though I myself found very little of it actually funny, Guts’s brisk 77-minute trifle of a film has its virtues, including classical references to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597), whose twin suicide scene the lovers partly act out, and to a bawdy Sergei Esenin poem, as well as Masha’s love of mordant wordplay like postavit’ rakom—a slang term for sex which happens to use the word rak (“crab,” but also “cancer”).

Guts told an interviewer he considers the contemporary moment one of cultural “necrophilia” (Ageichev 2020), which explains the film’s patchwork of eclectic pop call-outs, from Masha’s Griffyndor hoodie to her Eminem poster, from the aforementioned Pikachu porn to Xavier Dolan. Visual references to Aleksei Balabanov’s films in particular serve as one of Guts’s running gags:[3] Pugaev’s physical features and the sweater which he wears throughout strongly recall Sergei Bodrov Jr. in Brother (Brat, dir. Balabanov, 1997); and like Danila Bagrov in that film, he even rides the bus. In one of the movie’s more meta moments, Petya tries to impress a film producer by muttering about “the death of postmodernism” in front of a Twin Peaks Season 3 poster. The film is nothing if not au courant. In fact, its here-and-now topicality made me wonder why Petya doesn’t just turn to online crowdfunding to meet his loved one’s desperate healthcare emergency, the way many of us do in the US.

smert nam k litsu‘Mobil’noe Kino’ and Its Discontents
As pointed out in most reviews by the second paragraph, Guts shot We Look Good in Death on an iPhone 7 and an iPhone 7+. He also used this mobil’noe kino (cellphone cinema) technique—more daringly, in first-person—for his previous film, Fagot. This worldwide cinematic trend’s adherents include even established auteurs such as Park Chan-wook (Night Fishing, 2012) and Steven Soderbergh (Unsane, 2018), and was greatly advanced by the success of Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015).

Like an earlier generation of US auteurs who made up the US Mumblecore movement in the 1990s/2000s, and the Dogme 95 group in Denmark even earlier, Guts pursues a stripped-down aesthetic (no sets, available light) for its “immediacy” and “authenticity.” Russian films that share hand-held camera inclinations with We Look Good in Death for an enhanced “reality” effect also include Aleksei Uchitel’s The Stroll (Progulka, 2003). Moreover, as a mockumentarian, he draws inspiration from such precursors as The Blair Witch Project (dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999); Paranormal Activity (dir. Oren Peli, 2007); the Borat films (2006/2020); the Russian entry in the genre, First on the Moon (Pervye na lune, dir. Aleksei Fedorchenko, 2005); and of course the Urtext, This is Spinal Tap (dir. Rob Reiner, 1984).

But perhaps the film’s closest cinematic cousins are documentaries devoted to death and dying, like the AIDS-focused Silver Lake Life: The View from Here (dir. Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman, 1993); Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan (dir. Kirby Dick, 1997), on a terminally ill “supermasochist” performance artist; and Tamara Dondurei’s 21 Days (2014), on hospice residents. Notably, in such works of thanato-cinema, the subjects often die, practically on-screen. Like those directors, Guts makes use of death symbols like butterflies, mortuary and cemetery imagery, and the motif of death as a journey.

Here, though, any similarity ends—and this partly has to do with the mobil’noe kino mockumentary approach. Critics Valerii Kichin and Svetlana Mazurova maintain that thanks to the technique “there emerges an effect of unusual intimacy, spontaneity and sincerity” (Kichin & Mazurova 2021), but I experienced the opposite.

One reason is that Masha’s “dying process” is much too clean: we see no hint of a physical transformation or pain, and barely any physiological discomfort. She vomits once, loses consciousness, and requires resuscitation—all of it rather unconvincingly. Masha is “dying” the way the cotton swirls and yellow paper with a smiley face “mean” clouds and sun in the decorations she uses for her videoblog set. I would add another complication—that Bystrzhitskaia is not a good actress – except that I don’t think she’s really trying to convey either fear or disavowal of imminent death, and neither is Guts. As mentioned, this is not really a film about death at all. (And besides, as Freud said, one can never imagine one’s own death, so whatevs.)[4

Then there is the matter of our protagonists repeatedly looking at the camera. Guts relies on this device too often as a sort of punctuation to the scenes, as if to say, “Isn’t this funny? Isn’t this absurd? Are you laughing? You’re laughing, right?” Once or twice it works, for example when Masha stares at us in horror as her grieving friend Oksana (Aug) crushes her in a despairing embrace. “Help!” her expression screams. But as shown in mockumentary sitcoms like The Office, such a trick has steeply diminishing returns unless used sparingly.
 
I want to relate this point about breaking the fourth wall to something Roland Barthes wrote long before the age of the selfie. In Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (itself a meditation on death and the visual), Barthes discusses the notion of “playing oneself” before the camera:

I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing, but (to square the circle) this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality: what I am, apart from any effigy. What I want, in short, is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs, altering with situation and age, should always coincide with my (profound) “self”; but it is the contrary that must be said: “myself” never coincides with my image … (Barthes 1981, 11-12).

This irreducible disjunct between the “I” and the “I’s” visual representation gets invoked every time Masha and Petya regard the viewer who regards them, dissolving any sense of “reality.” (Here, Michael Fried’s distinction between “absorption” and “theatricality” in painting seems useful.) In these moments, peppered throughout We Look Good in Death, the mockumentary technique makes things more stagy, artificial and unbelievable, not less.

smert nam k litsuAnd can we talk about that weird cameraperson issue? Guts leaves the question of who or what is actually wielding the iPhone in the film—and their ethics—bizarrely vague, if not borderline psychopathic. The lead characters mention an offscreen “Dasha” (this would be—and in fact is—Daria Likhacheva, the film’s cinematographer) and tell the people they meet not to interact with her, as if she is not there. (Though that advice gets flouted in brief direct-address interviews with various subjects.) Likhacheva even makes a brief appearance at the end, with the camera, though this then prompts the question: if we see Likhacheva holding her smartphone, then who’s filming everybody now?

More egregiously, Guts seems not to have thought through the interpersonal dynamics of his story-world. Dasha is supposedly a close friend of the couple, but in stressful moments she refuses to switch off the camera when ordered to, or to leave when told to get out. Instead, she zooms in closer. And what kind of moral delinquent keeps filming even when a husband yells at her to call an ambulance as his wife lies catatonic, while he frantically administers CPR? And still doesn’t go even after he has batted the camera out of her hands? (She just picks it up again and continues shooting, apparently eager to capture her “close friend” Masha’s dying breath, should it come to that.) These ugly scenes feel uncomfortably exploitative—or they would, if the stakes themselves felt real to begin with (they don’t; see above). Mostly, they come off as a writer/director not quite knowing what he’s doing, and not caring. 

Conclusion: That’s Thanatainment!
In her review of We Look Good in Death, Marina Aleksandrova (2019) writes: “Perhaps we need movies like this in our cynical times, when the idea of dumping your husband or wife because they’ve fallen ill is practically considered a psychologically healthy decision”. Indeed, Guts’s film functions first and foremost as a story on the enduring power of love to ward off death—a sentiment represented on the film’s poster by Pugaev flipping el birdo to the heavens, Bystrzhitskaia in his arms, alive and well. (Of course, unlike Orpheus, Petya has the luxury of not being proven disastrously wrong in that belief.)

The story, Guts assures his audience, does come straight out of his own anxieties about mortality. The filmmaker revealed that several years prior to making the movie, he experienced a traumatic medical diagnosis which led him to believe he would die within five years. While living for a time beneath a “Sword of Damocles,” he resorted, with his partner, to irreverent games to make light of his imminent shuffling off. “[M]asha in the film is, in essence, me,” he said (Kichin & Mazurova 2021). Hence Guts’s avoidance of the more maudlin death markers; as critic Olia Smolina (2019) puts it, “[H]ere there are no doomed visages, no sorrowful eyes and dying groans on a hospital bed; only once or twice a chapel will gleam non-commitally on-frame.”

While nominally a film about dying in today’s Russia, Guts’s work turns out to be anything but. As François de la Rochefoucauld put it in the 17th century: “Death, like the sun, cannot be looked at steadily.” Or to paraphrase a more recent composer of maxims, Stephen Colbert: if much contemporary media is not about truth but “truthiness,” modern thanatainment spectacles like We Look Good in Death aim not for death but for “deathiness,” i.e., its cheaply-bought theatrics, what Hamlet calls “the trappings and the suits of woe,” since these are all “actions that a man might play” (Shakespeare 1992, 10; Act I, Scene 2).

Literary scholar Dina Khapaeva bemoans such empty shadow-boxing, which she sees as part of a profound social malaise, the “cult of death,” which

transforms violent death into a popular culture commodity and an acceptable form of entertainment. Its specificity consists in the dehumanization of humanity in general, rather than any particular social group or ethnicity, as it was in the case of communism and fascism in the previous century. […] The cult of death expresses a nascent cultural paradigm—a profound contempt for the human race (Khapaeva 2017, 182).

That’s putting it rather strongly, but in this sense Guts’s work does come off as a deeply “dishonest” and insubstantial film about a very serious thing people do all the time: die. To say so, though, is unfair: as literary scholars Elisabeth Bronfen and Sarah Goodwin note, “[E]very representation of death is a misrepresentation” (Bronfen and Goodwin 1993, 20)— Rochefoucauld redux.

So, if Death Becomes Us is not about “real” death at all, what is it about? In fact, about many things.

It is about the predominant roles in contemporary Russian culture played by money (especially when one is desperate) and attention (i.e., the drive to mediate one’s experience). In short, capital of one sort or another.

It is about the paradoxes which result in such a world: Petya will take his beloved for life-saving treatment in Germany,[5] then return home to vote for the party in power and presumably keep mocking Angela Merkel, because “If not Putin, who?” Or take Masha’s former teacher Aunt Natasha (Pavlenkova), who winsomely declaims, “In this country everything’s shit [khrenovo], but it’s also good.”  

It is about class: Petya and Masha live in a minuscule, unkempt apartment that’s falling apart, while Petya’s mother entertains her lover in a posh flat, which she calls part of their “inheritance.” It is also, famously, about (partial) alternatives to corporate film production: in addition to shooting it on iPhone in real locations, Guts used mostly unknown actors found through a casting call on Facebook.

So, while the film does a lot of things poorly, especially when compared to other, better films made with zero-budget, low-fi means—such as Sergei Loban’s extraordinary Dust (Pyl’, 2005), it definitely has important things to say about this historical moment. Guts’s work falls into the same category, more or less, as light thanato-films like Vladimir Kott’s Thawed Carp (Karp otmorozhennyi, 2018; see Alaniz 2018), movies that really only feign concern at the plight of the marginalized dying—the better to derive cheap laughs from their miseries. 

Don’t count on it for penetrating insights on the human confrontation with death; it is no The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, dir. Juraj Herz, Czechoslovakia, 1969) or Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop, dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1972). It is not at all the movie you want to cue up for a hard-hitting, detailed portrait of how hard it is to die in 21st-century Russia, the way The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lăzărescu, dir. Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2005) provides an excruciating (and darkly humorous) take on how hard it is to die in 21st-century Romania. Dondurei’s 21 Days would work better for that, even if its hospice residents are old and quite visibly ailing, and not maintaining colorful vlogs.

And though it is not exactly known as a laughfest, Sokurov’s masterpiece of death cinema The Second Circle (Krug vtoroi, 1990) has a hilarious episode in which the deceased’s son and an undertaker awkwardly try to maneuver an open casket (with the beloved still in it) through a cramped Soviet apartment and down some stairs—a more transgressive, discomfiting and—yes—funny scene than anything on view in We Look Good in Death.


Notes

1] Ivan Semenov produced The Incredible Adventures of the Famous Traveler Petya Ryzhik and His Loyal Friends Mika and Muka for Veselye Kartinki starting in the 1950s.

2] Umnaia Masha by writers Daniil Kharms, Nina Gernet et al. and illustrator Bronislav Malakhovsky, appeared in the children’s journal Chizh beginning in the 1930s.

3] As noted by Eve Ivanilova (2014): “[G]erych’s brother Vasia, resembles Viktor Sukhorukov’s character in the Brother films.”

4] “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we are in fact still present as spectators” (Freud 1957, 289).

5] Aleksandrova (2019) mockingly notes how Germany has become a deus ex machina “nature preserve of medical miracle-workers” in more than one recent Russian film. 

José Alaniz
University of Washington, Seattle

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Works Cited

Ageichev, Oleg. 2020. “Boris Guts: Kino na iPhone, komediia o smerti i postmodernizme.” Online Shkola Kino Stories 25 March. 

Alaniz, José. 2018. “Vladimir Kott: Thawed Carp (Karp otmorozhennyi, 2017).” KinoKultura 61.

Aleksandrova, Marina. 2019. “Umiraesh’? Uchi kitaiskii! Nebanal’nyi fil’m o liubvi i smerti.” Regnum 9 August.

Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Fried, Michael. 1998. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. University of Chicago Press. 

Freud, Sigmund. 1957. “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 14, 275-300. London: Hogarth Press.

Goodwin, Sarah Webster and Bronfen, Elisabeth. 1993. “Introduction.” Death and Representation, edited by Goodwin and Bronfen, 3–25. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ivanilova, Eve. 2017. “Boris Guts: Watermelon Rinds (Arbuznye korki, 2016).” KinoKultura 56. 

Khapaeva, Dina. 2017. The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kichin, Valerii and Mazurova, Svetlana. 2021. “Boris Guts rasskazal o svoem fil’me ‘Smert’ nam k litsu’”. Rossiiskaia gazeta 11 April. 

Shakespeare, William. 1992. Hamlet. New York: Norton & Norton.

Smolina, Olia. 2019. “Smeshi liubit’: retsenziia na fil’m ‘Smert’ nam k litsu’”. Film.ru 15 August. . 


We Look Good in Death, Russia, 2019
Director and Screenwriter: Boris Guts
DoP: Daria Likhacheva
Production Design: Vanya Bowden
Cast: Daniil Pugaev, Aleksandra Bystrzhitskaia, Polina Aug, Kirill Kovbas, Natal’ia Pavlenkova, Ekaterina Volkova
Producers: Boris Guts, Igor Mishin, Maksim Mussel’, Anastasiia Gusentsova

Boris Guts: We Look Good in Death (Smert’ nam k litsu, 2019)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2021

Updated: 2021