Issue 74 (2021)

Aleksei Kamynin: Russian Spleen (Khandra, 2019)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2021

khandra Money or love? Family or freedom? Creativity or bread? These are the basic human choices that the protagonists of Russian Spleen face over the course of a busy day. Russian Spleen is a light, but intertextually rich film about the travails of three roommates in an apartment in the center of contemporary Moscow. Vitalik is a DJ who enjoys sexual success with many different women but does not connect strongly with them; Denia is an unemployed musician going out with a gorgeous actress; Lesha is a new director who aspires to make big films for the festival circuit. All are working hard to make it as creative workers and enjoy the pleasures of the big city; all find their future imperiled, most importantly when the rent money is lost.

khandraKamynin’s cinematography and location choices affirm why they feel such a strong connection and strive to remain there despite economic precarity. Sunlight, bright pop music, and one dramatic storm bathe the Moscow of young creative workers, illuminating the streets of old Moscow, bars, and open parks; social media notifications and SMS messages occasionally pop up as an added layer of cheerful color in the frame. The heroes cross paths with a panoply of characters too varied to list; the writers draw each with a tender absurdity that also contributes to a joyously invigorating setting. The film assiduously avoids sites like the Kremlin that would frame Moscow as the symbolic center of power in the Kremlin and exclusive residential complexes and face-controlled clubs that would draw attention to its concentration of oligarchic wealth. The young generation thoroughly defines this Moscow, drawing critical comparisons of Kamynin’s film to Georgii Daneliia’s 1964 Walking the Streets of Moscow (Ia shagaiu po Moskve, also alluded to in the film’s slogan “ia shataius' po Moskve”) and Marlen Khutsiev’s 1964 Lenin’s Guard (Zastava Il'icha) (Kichin 2019). Moreover, the credits identify the actors as authors and prototypes of the characters they play, reinforcing the sense that they capture something genuine about the lives of the thirty-somethings of these times.

If there is a generational problem driving this film, it is in the realm of negotiating contemporary gender relations. Scene after scene affirms that women who best get along in today’s Moscow are dominating and even scary, particularly Lenka, Vitalik’s current lover and Lesha’s producer. Lenka is the closest figure the film has to an antagonist, both precipitating the loss of the rent money in a violent jealous outburst and looking to foil Lesha’s artistic vision to produce the requested commercial on spec. Reconciliation with her is a narrative arc spanning the film. However, Lenka is not the only “strong female character” in the film. In fact, they seem to be Vitalik’s type, as he crisscrosses the city visiting former girlfriends (and his landlady) for help with rent. All seem capable of giving him everything he needs and more, if he will only submit to them.

Two other kinds of gender expression are visible in the film. One is the traditional, fragile femininity embodied in Fima, Denia’s ex-girlfriend from Krasnoyarsk who appears at his doorstep with a sonogram of a fetus she claims is his. She further entangles his day with falls and long crying spells in the bathroom that require his attention. While she goes beyond this restrained and uncomfortable expression of femininity by the end of the film, Fima’s behavior underscores the unusual assertiveness of most of the female characters.

The other is a certain crisis of masculinity. The preponderance of woman-on-man violence or threats of violence is one of the most remarkable signs of this crisis. Other signs are funnier: Vitalik’s fannypack, an actor’s inability to hit an innocent cow, a colleague’s difficulty initiating sex with his girlfriend. The powers that be in the film appear to recognize this crisis, as an unseen important client calls the producer in the middle of Lesha’s pitch to him and demands that they instead shoot an ideological, victorious sport film to raise the lagging patriotic spirits of the country. But the film suggests that the way forward from this crisis lies in another cinematic tradition: post-Stalinist Soviet arthouse cinema.

khandraLesha’s perspective periodically shifts over to his alter-ego, called Not-Tarkovskii in the credits, who exists in an alternative screen language that quotes Andrei Tarkovskii’s long shots and mise-en-scene. The film begins with such a scene, a languid long shot that tracks Not-Tarkovskii’s movement across a room at an apartment party, with the camera circling around him at the end to reveal the room has emptied as he passes a mirror, and continues as if carrying a candle in Nostalghia, flaming cocktail in hand. The liminal dream space ends up being an actual dream as Lesha awakens in his austere bedroom, with a prominent poster for Tarkovskii’s Solaris. Despite the prologue’s Tarkovskian beauty and clear citation of a similar party at Lenin’s Guard that featured a passionate debate about true patriotism, this scene deliberately falls short of their messages. Stylization dresses up the awkwardness of the line for the bathroom and, mirroring every conversation ever held among artists hungry to make their mark, Not-Tarkovskii discusses his latest screenplay (Solaris) with an increasingly incredulous woman.

Lesha’s desire to employ arthouse aesthetics, regardless of the appropriateness of the content, reaches its apotheosis in his paid work: what his customer describes as “the funniest commercial I’ve ever seen” for air conditioners. The Not-Tarkovskii sequences also have this element of camp, ribbing any young filmmaker’s aspirations to capture the specific style of an internationally recognized moment in Soviet film history. Russian Spleen acknowledges that neither the economic structure of the contemporary Russian film industry nor the pro-scenic material of modern Moscow lend themselves to reproducing this moment. If nothing else, the intrusive SMS messages that pop up on the screen and in the characters’ field of attention disrupt any slow unfolding of action, asking insistently “What happened?” or “Why aren’t you here yet?” Yet if modern life foils attempts to directly copy late Soviet masters within the film, Russian Spleen is clearly indebted to late Soviet film in its structure and thematic priorities. There are many sources in this period for Kamynin to draw upon—after all, as Vitalik’s tattoo reminds us, “The Soviet Union is a stronghold of spleen. [SSSR oplot khandry]”

khandra In the end, Russian Spleen is a midsummer carnival, complete with a fool (who spends the film struggling to access a buried drug stash in the courtyard of a highly active church without anyone becoming aware), during which the three male protagonists detach from their routines and must recover themselves. Their separate paths over the course of a single day finally converge underground, and they find themselves in a dark wood in which they discard the trappings of civilized life to leave reborn and baptized the next day. The integrated art scenes invite associations of this narrative movement with Tarkovskian topoi, such as the Zone of his 1979 Stalker (further reinforced by the invocation of disfigured children, reminiscent of the mutants of the science fiction film), but these passages also resonate strongly with Vadim Abdrashitov’s surreal 1984 Parade of the Planets (Parad planet).

By the end of the film, the question “where are you?” that has popped up insistently on our screens falls silent as each man answers it for himself. Each has made a choice that conforms to what one expects out of maturation and self-discovery: commitment to relationships that transcend the transactional; accepting the invitation to step into the responsibilities of adulthood; but also keeping dreams of new and bigger things alive.

Elise Thorsen
Independent Scholar

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Works Cited

Kichin, Valerii. 2019. “Chto rossiiskoe kino predlozhit zriteliu v 2020 godu.” Rossiiskaia gazeta 9 December.

Russian Spleen, Russia, 2019
Director: Aleksei Kamynin
Script: Aleksei Kamynin, Vitalii Anokhin, Denis Lipatov, Nikita Kornev
Cinematography: Nikita Kornev
Design: Eliza Kalachian, Viktoriia Prokopenko, Aleksandra Sachkova
Music: Vera Vasil'eva
Cast: Danila Iakushev, Mikhail Troinik, Kirill Kovbas, Ekaterina Ageeva, Kseniia Zueva, Semen Barkov, Anastasiia Kuimova, Ania Chipovskaia, Ravshana Kurkova, Timofei Tribuntsev, Ivan Iankovskii
Producer: Ekaterina Golubeva-Poldi
Production Company: Smena

Aleksei Kamynin: Russian Spleen (Khandra, 2019)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2021

Updated: 2021