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Leonid Rybakov, The Book Stealers [Pokhititeli knig] (2004)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov©2005

Before Leonid Rybakov became a filmmaker and scriptwriter, he pursued a career as a nuclear physicist.  Perhaps this is why his most recent film, The Book Stealers, constantly toys with the idea of narrative entropy.  Rybakov’s first film, a short, Marakut’s Diploma (1993), brought him the reputation as of being a promissing young filmmaker and received a critics’ award from the Russian film studies journal, Kinovedcheskie zapiski.  In 1998 Rybakov collaborated with Petr Lutsik on the film The Outskirts (1998).  Book Stealers is Rybakov’s first feature film and it establishes him as a filmmaker trying to create a Russian counterpart to the European teen-flick.  As Rybakov himself notes:

I wanted to make a fresh and contemporary picture attracting the young viewers who usually prefer to watch Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001), Lucía y 

el sexo (Julio Medem, 2001), and Mondscheintarif (Ralf Huettner, 2001). (interview with Rybakov)

The Book Stealers could easily be renamed The Film Stealers.  The characters name and display for us the stars and filmmakers whom the director chooses to incorporate into the film.  Vera Kholodnaia and Jean Luc Godard merely open the endless list of references and allusions to films and cinematic styles, inlcuding Amélie, Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1970), Singing in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly 1952), and many others.

The female protagonist’s subjective point of view defines the film’s diegesis: her loneliness in a big city and her name, Catherine, pronounced by the narrator in a French style with a stress on the last syllable, hinting that Amélie is the film’s primary model.  In a typical Russo-Soviet claim for inventing everything in the world, one of the reviewers notes that Rybakov wrote the script about a girl with the French name “Catherine” long before the French even conceived of Amélie and only the lack of funding prevented the Russian filmmakers from releasing the Russian Amélie (that is, The Book Stealers), ahead of the French counterpart (see Svetlana Prygunova, “Chto pokhitili-to? ”; http://www.rostov.ru/rep853485).

While it is up to lawyers and historians to decide whether the French or the Russians came up first with the bestselling story of a lonely girl carnivalizing the daily routine of a big city, the Russian protagonist with a French name chooses a very Russian way of ending her boredom and loneliness: with the help of the printed word.  The heroine of the film posts a personal ad in the newspaper: “I am dying from boredom.  Help!  Twelve noon sharp under the clock.  Catherine.”  Three soul mates respond to the message: Rita-the-hairdresser, Sasha-the-boxer, and Pasha-the-rich-kid.  Rita, Pasha, and Sasha also serve as Catherine’s guardian angels: the angel of love, the angel of hope, and the angel of silence, respectively.  With the assistance of these magical helpers, Catherine can take care of her essentials (her hair, her basic safety, and her finances) and initiate her carnivalistic journey around the city.  The desire to transform the everyday city into a teen fantasyland informs this journey while the narratives picked up from stolen books propel the characters’ imaginations and change the cityscape.  Catherine and her friends steal books from stores, read them, and cruise around the city, traversing a collage of media, genres, and narratives, including romance, comedy, melodrama, the chase film, an erotic, landscape, as well as portrait photography, animation, and music video.

            In addition to the intertextual links with European cinema, Rybakov also emulates the domestic model of the musical cult film invented by Sergei Solov'ev in the late 1980s, above all Assa (1988) and Black Rose is an Emblem of Sorrow, Red Rose is an Emblem of Love (1989).  Like Solov'ev, Rybakov turns the soundtrack of his film into one of its major attractions.  Il'ia Lagutenko and his rock band, Mumiy Troll, the cult group of the 1990s, play the central role in The Book Stealers, just as Aquarium and Kino played the central role in Solov'ev’s films and guaranteed them cult followings in the 1980s.  While Solov'ev, I would argue, managed to bring us along without losing control over the plot, Rybakov loses control of his picture.  To be more precise, Lagutenko high-jacks Rybakov’s film.

In the film, the story of Catherine and her friends lacks continuity and narrative coherence.  If there is a dominanta that holds the film together, it is not the image but the soundtrack: Lagutenko’s songs connect the clips-shards of the characters’ adventures.  It is not a coincidence that the film begins and ends on the sound stage where the group records its songs.  The Book Stealers falls apart into several fragments that lead the viewer from one appearance of Lagutenko and his group to another.  Through his songs and episodic appearances, Lagutenko gradually turns into the central textual force.  Lagutenko’s excessive presence raises a question about the type of text under scrutiny.  Are we watching a musical teen-flick that possesses a narrative structure of its own or are we watching a series of Lagutenko’s musical videos that have completely taken over the narrative shell of Rybakov’s film?  Not surprisingly, on one of the posters promoting the film, Lagutenko’s portrait occupies the foreground, while the film’s characters are relegated to the background.

If  I seem to be too ungenerous to Rybakov’s firstborn feature, he got plenty of positive reinforcement from his audience.  Online discussions of the film by young viewers are full of rave comments including this one from a viewer in Novosibirsk: “Blia, chuvaki, smotrel vchera etot fil'mets po nakurke!!!  Pizdets!!!  Tak sshibaet!!!”  [“Fuck, dudes, I saw the film yesterday after having a joint!  Fucking shit!  It gave me a good high!”] (see http:///www.bagira.ru/events/films/7617).  Even though it is not clear whether the joint or the film got this viewer high, we can safely assume that the viewer left the theater satisfied.  While for some the film might border on the unwatchable, it has the potential to become a cult picture for fans of Mumiy Troll and Il'ia Lagutenko.

 Alexander Prokhorov, College of William and Mary


The Book Stealers (Russia, 2003)

Color, 96 minutes
Director: Leonid Rybakov
Screenplay: Leonid Rybakov
Cinematography: Eduard Moshkovich
Soundtrack: Il'ia Lagutenko and Mumiy Troll
Cast: Il'ia Lagutenko, Iulia Agafonova, Marina Orel, Evgenii Sergeev, Maksim Maksot, Kseniia Belaia

Producer: Sergei Chliiants

Production: Pygmalion Production


Leonid Rybakov, The Book Stealers [Pokhititeli knig] (2004)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov©2005

6/1/05