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Pavel Lungin, The Tycoon [Oligarkh] (2002)

reviewed by Lucy Fischer©2005

  

It is common knowledge that Tycoon’s tale of oligarch Platon Makovskii (Vladimir Mashkov) is based on the life of Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, who, in a gesture of consummate and ironic narcissism, is even rumored to have financed the film.[1]  It is also quite customary for the movie to be compared to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941)—given that the narrative entails the biography of a public figure and the quest by an investigator (Shmakov [Andrei Krasko]) to solve the mystery of that individual’s life and death.  That mission leads the detective to interview a group of the deceased’s associates, whose stories are told as a series of recollections.  If it could be argued that Citizen Kane’s structure heralded the inception of film modernism, Tycoon has taken that mode to its limits: its flashbacks are bizarrely interlocking and sometimes embedded within one another like Russian stacking-dolls, thus, creating a mystifying temporal enigma and conundrum for the spectator.  With its repeated intertitles that allege to mark time but only confuse (“The day of Plato’s death,” “Two years before Plato’s death,” “Six days after Plato’s death”), the film approximates the absurd temporality of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1928).  Like Citizen Kane, Tycoon is also a work about the media.  In addition to owning an automobile business (Infocar), Makovskii eventually acquires a television channel.  Thus, like William Randolph Hearst or Charles Foster Kane, he holds the modern-day “means of [ideological] production.”   It is also the media (controlled by him and others) that valorizes his celebrity existence and, throughout the film, we watch news of Plato’s glories and defeats on TV.

Director, Pavel Lungin has also cited The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) in relation to Tycoon, a gesture that situates his own work in the tradition of the American gangster genre.  Its placement next to Coppola’s movie also highlights Tycoon’s focus on a Jewish minority—since the world of The Godfather was that of Italian-Americans.  This ethnic emphasis is typical of the gangster cinema in the USA—whether it alternately concentrated on Irish mobs in Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931) or on Black ghetto street warriors in Boyz in the Hood (John Singleton, 1991).   The fact of Plato’s Jewishness is highlighted in the beginning of the film, when those who protest against him (significantly wearing traditional Russian folk costume) shout “Go live in Israel!”  The subject returns with a vengeance in a later scene when, after  having arranged an underhanded car deal, Plato rides an automobile rig  as one of his cohorts, Larry (Levani Uchaineshvilli), breaks out in a chorus of  “Havah Negeela” (as though all Jews do this at moments of triumph).  Furthermore, one of Plato’s enemies (Comrade Koretskii) calls him a “half breed,” a term that strikes at his genetic heritage.  Clearly, the notion of Jewish “oligarchs” (though ostensibly true) only feeds into long-standing stereotypes of the Semite as usurer and greedy businessman (despite the fact that commerce and “money-lending” were frequently the only trades that Jews—who were often forbidden to own land—were allowed to pursue in Eastern Europe).

In his masterful 1954 essay on the crime film and the western, Robert Warshow called the protagonists of both genres “men with guns.”[2]  To some degree, Plato does not fit this model as we only see him kill people toward the very end of the drama (and those executions seem “justified” versus rash).  We assume that he has murdered his traitorous friend Mussa (Aleksandr Samoilenko), though the act occurs off-screen, and we witness him gun down his enemies Lomov (Vladimir Gussev) and Koretskii (Aleksandr Baluev).  Instead (and fitting into other stereotypes), these Russian-Jewish criminals are essentially “men with brains.”  Several of the mobsters have been college professors and Viktor is a math genius who can “imitate Einstein” (another Jewish intellectual).  Furthermore, one of their swindles is the writing and selling of   dissertations to those who would not otherwise earn degrees.  Basically, their crimes involve elaborate scams that can only have been devised by extremely intelligent, cunning, and strategic minds that outwit the dull, plodding, corrupt, and bureaucratic post-Soviet economic system. 

What is especially peculiar about the status of Plato as Jew in the film is the way the narrative tends to situate him as a kind of postmodern Christ figure, surrounded by his apostles (Larry, Mark [Mikhail Vasserbaum], Viktor [Sergei Oshkevich], and Mussa).  The word “Judas” is used to describe the disloyal Mussa.  Moroever, though the film initially leads the spectator to believe that Plato has been killed, he is eventually resurrected in a “second coming”—as his death is revealed to have been a ruse.  As the film ends, he has declared his “return” to Moscow. Curiously, in an inversion of the Christ story, a scene of Plato’s enemies dining in a steam bath is posed like The Last Supper.

Tycoon announces its debt to the American gangster genre in yet another way.  The ideology that Plato expresses (economic license as true “freedom”) is once more consonant with the way in which Warshow understood the crime film.  Basically, he saw the mobster as pursuing the American Dream in the underground “free-market economy”—constituting a corrupt Doppelgänger of the successful, lawful entrepreneur.  The relative glamour with which Plato is treated in Tycoon  (with his good looks reminiscent of Jean-Paul Belmondo), announces this kind of sympathy as the jazz score implies a connection to the American spirit.  The fact that one of his company’s goods is counterfeit Levi jeans (a product first made by an American immigrant Jew) only emphasizes the point.  Finally, in the figure of Shmakov we also find an incarnation of the classic criminal’s “double”—the detective who pursues him in the “police procedural” form of the genre.  With his constant vodka drinking, his maverick style, and his jaded cynicism, Shmakov might have walked out of a novel by James Cain or Raymond Chandler.   When he is fired for actually seeking (and finding) the truth—we have proof that Plato’s stance in a crooked society is only a mirror image of official policy—no better, but no worse.

The subtitle of Tycoon is “The New Russian.”  At one point in the narrative someone tells a joke about this type of man who is upset to have paid $3,000 for a tie when he might have paid $5,000—since the latter gives him more opportunity for fiscal excess.  Clearly, “The New Russian” is (among other things) the “nouveau riche”—again a stereotype associated with the Jew who could never be a part of “old money.”  If Plato represents himself as a seeker of freedom, Viktor’s wife calls him a “rat charmer”—associating “The New Russian” with decadence, and filfth (despite the fact that the reference is to the Pied Piper who led vermin away).   The abject is also symbolically represented by the first merchandise involved in Plato’s schemes—the production of brooms (which can either sweep away or redistribute dirt).  But, officially, the private sector could not sell, only exchange items; so the gang “traded” brooms for cars (despite the ludicrousness of that incommensurate act of barter).

In a similar fashion, in the post-Soviet economy, Lungin has done some trading himself—socialist realism for American genre cinema, canned “idealism” for rampant skepticism, the Russian hero for the ruthless all-American mogul. 

Lucy Fischer, University of Pittsburgh

[1] See Roger Ebert’s Sept. 12, 2003 review of the film in the Chicago Sun-Times.

[2] This was first published in his book The Immediate Experience (1962).


Tycoon: The New Russian (Russia and France, 2002)

Color, 128 minutes

Director: Pavel Lounguine

Script: Aleksandr Borodianskii, Iulii Dubov, Pavel Lounguine

Cinematography: Oleg Dobronravov and Aleksei Fedorov

Art Director: Pavel Lounguine

Music: Leonid Desiatnikov

Cast: Vladimir Mashkov, Mariia Mironova, Levani Uchaneishvilli, Aleksandr Baluev, Andrei Krasko, Marat Basharov, Mikhail Vasserbaum, Sergei Iushkevich, Aleksandr Samoilenko,

Producers: Vladimir Grigor'ev, Sergei Sel'ianov, Catherine Dussart

Production: STW Film Company, ARTE France Cinema, Catherine Dussart Productions, France 2 Cinema, Gimage Films, Kominter, Magnat, Network Movie, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen


Pavel Lungin, The Tycoon [Oligarkh] (2002)

reviewed by Lucy Fischer©2005

6/1/05