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Aleksei Balabanov, Dead Man's Bluff [Zhmurki] (2005)

reviewed by Dawn Seckler©2005


After a three-year hiatus and two unfinished projects Aleksei Balabanov has finally finished a new movie.[1] Dead Man’s Bluff [Zhmurki], a film for those (as the tagline adds) who lived through the 1990s, premiered on 27 May 2005 in New York and opened one day later in Moscow.[2]  Its simplistic plot can be summed up easily: Mikhalych (played by Nikita Mikhalkov), a mafia don dressed in the iconic raspberry-colored sports coat (a hallmark of New Russian wealth in the mid-1990s), sends his two undependable trigger-happy lackeys, Sergei (Aleksei Panin) and Simon (Dmitrii Diuzhev), to exchange a suitcase of money for a suitcase of heroin. News of the suitcase spreads quickly among the various criminal groups and the narcotics are intercepted by three hacks. The remainder of the film focuses on Sergei and Simon’s search for and recovery of the drugs. As Koron, the leader of the thieving trio played by Sergei Makovetskii, explains to his two bumbling sidekicks immediately before they agree to the heist job: money is running out and they have no prospects. Their decision to take on the job is based on pure financial necessity. The result of their decision? A game of dead man’s bluff and, ultimately, death. One has to wonder whether Balabanov, perhaps, found himself in a comparable situation when embarking on this film.

                                                             

Kirill Pirogov, Aleksandr Bashirov                                                                                            Aleksei Panin, Dmitrii Diuzhev

The new phenomenon of box-office hits in Russia has led film critic Viktor Matizen to hypothesize the death of the director. He argues that the age of the director has given way to the age of the producer. [3] This shift marks the end to auteur filmmaking and the beginning of a film industry that values profit over all else. The genesis story of Dead Man’s Bluff supports Matizen’s thesis. According to Ekaterina Barabash’s article in Nezavisimaia gazeta, former soccer player Stas Mokhnachev wrote the screenplay as a bet. He then, on another bet, brought the screenplay to producer Sergei Sel'ianov. Sel'ianov turned the project over to Balabanov (not, as one might expect, vice versa), and the film was shot in the course of one and half months.[4]

Certain aspects immediately reveal the film as typical of Balabanov, starting with the film’s production. Balabanov and Sel'ianov continue to maintain their almost decade-long partnership; like all of Balabanov’s films since Brother [Brat, 1997], the CTB studio produced Dead Man’s Bluff. Second, two of the director’s favorite actors play supporting roles —Viktor Sukhorukov, who has been cast in the majority of Balabanov’s films since Happy Days [Schastlivye dni, 1991], and Sergei Makovetskii, who joined Balabanov’s cast of favorites in 1998 when he played the lead role in Of Freaks and Men [Pro urodov i liudei]. 

                                            

Balabanov & Mikhalkov                                                  Viktor Sukhorukov                                                              Renata Litvinova   

The list of features atypical of Balabanov’s filmmaking is longer, however. For the first time, Balabanov is not the principle writer of his film’s screenplay. It is also his first time orchestrating a film with such a long list of famous actors, including Aleksei Panin, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Nikita Mikhalkov, Viktor Sukhorukov, Sergei Makovetskii, Andrei Panin, Iurii Stepanov, Kirill Pirogov, and Renata Litvinova. And, a third first: with Dead Man’s Bluff Balabanov makes his debut as a director of a comedy. The result is a film minimally reminiscent of Balabanov’s filmography.

Without any of his typical pretension or professed contempt for profitable filmmaking, Balabanov unapologetically labeled Dead Man’s Bluff a kassovyi, or commercial, criminal comedy during a press conference held at the Kinotavr Film Festival. This classification helps to explain the atypical star-studded cast: the film is a production prank. In other words, if the goal is to make a commercial comedy, then the film needs to have selling power. What better way to draw in the masses than to pack the movie with stars? Mikhalkov, who in years past criticized Balabanov, referring to him as a potentially dangerous director, now applauds him for his choice of actors. He observes that Balabanov makes no attempt in this film to introduce new actors. Instead, he correctly, in Mikhalkov’s opinion, invited famous actors to play small rolls and used them to comic effect. [5] Mikhalkov, who usually drips with saccharine pathos, gets big laughs for his comedic caricature of a provincial mafia boss. However, like many of the film’s characters (with the notable exception of the principle duo—Sergei and Simon), Mikhalkov has minimal on-screen time and virtually disappears in the second half of the film, returning in the film’s epilogue as the dethroned leader of the gang. Sukhorukov’s character is killed off too early to provide laughs to the end of the film and Makovetskii (also eventually killed off) gives one of his worst performances to date. The reliance on this group of well-known actors, the majority of whom have only brief cameo appearances, does not result in a well-acted film. 

                

Aleksei Serebriakov                                            Iurii Stepanov                                                       Serenriakov and gangsters

The film also falls short from the point of view of visual aesthetics. For over ten years Balabanov has worked almost exclusively with cameraman Sergei Astakhov, whose absence behind the camera in this film is immediately noticeable. To speak of cinematography in Dead Man’s Bluff is akin to discussing the brush strokes of a child’s finger-painting. Centered medium shots, static camera work, and complete disinterest in the periphery of the screen prevail. Visual representation of the mid-1990s consists almost entirely of bad haircuts (with a particular focus on bangs), a variety of unattractive jackets ranging from the raspberry-colored sports coat to the black trench coat, and a beat-up BMW. Nothing about the settings—neither the interior nor exterior settings—helps to create an overall sense of the time period that the film endeavors to represent. Moreover, in opposition to Balabanov’s earlier, meticulously crafted films, Dead Man’s Bluff lacks attention to detail. It contains anachronistic mistakes, such as a McDonald’s cup printed with the 2003-2005 “I Love It!” ad campaign. 

More than anything else, the attempt to portray the time period is reduced to the tumultuous story of two lackeys’ acquisition of heroin and the violent struggle that accompanies it. As if to suggest that the contemporary viewer needs a quick class in capitalist economics, the movie opens with an otherwise unrelated episode that takes place in a contemporary university auditorium. A stern professor explains to her students—and by extension to the viewer—that start-up capital was the key to success during Russia’s nascent capitalist state of the mid-1990s. In order to acquire money people went to any length: corruption ran rampant, cops turned into criminals, and pyramid schemes abounded. However, the lucky few who both managed to get hold of start-up capital and to survive the lawless “wild east,” as it has been called, have become Russia’s famous oligarchs. Without this brief lecture and the bold-print title that reads “The Mid-1990s,” which signals the beginning of the film’s narrative, the average viewer might be hard-pressed to date the film’s action accurately. 

The remaining 103 minutes of this 105 minute-long film is filled with innumerable killings, gallons of spilled blood, and banal racist humor that illustrate the professor’s description. Racism, nationalism, and sexism are among Balabanov’s favorite sins. At the risk of sounding like an apologist, it is necessary to emphasize a significant difference in their use here when compared to other Balabanov films. Whereas film critics on both side of the ocean wrote furiously about Danila, the solitary warrior of the Brother films, who shot and killed with reckless abandon, the eighteen murders in Dead Man’s Bluff have received virtually no critical commentary. Perhaps the difference lies in the significance of the murders. When Danila killed, his actions were steeped in nationalist commitment—he killed Russia’s enemies. Here, the murders have absolutely no consequence. The dispassionate killings in Dead Man’s Bluff are not gory, frightening, or sad; they are quite obviously fake and, by the logic of the film, therefore, funny. 

The repeated and unbridled racist slurs are also meant to be funny. In the Brother films and again in War [Voina, 2002] nationalism and racism functioned logically within the films’ overall plots. Those films deal to a certain extent with Russian-Chechen or, in the case of Brother 2, with Russian-American relations or politics, topics laden with racist and nationalist sentiment. This time, however, the film’s one black character, dubbed “the Ethiopian,” exists solely to provide immature and banal comic relief. The film’s best attempt at humor exists at the level of gratuitous racist name-calling and a long list of derogatory comments. 

During the film’s press conference at the 2005 Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi, the young actor and star of the movie, Aleksei Panin, verbally attacked the attending critics and journalists in a preemptive strike against criticisms of the film. Before the first question had been posed, Panin, almost hysterical, hollered, “It’s a joke! We’re joking in this film! The blood, the corpses—it’s comical! You need not take it all so seriously!” and then stormed out of the conference hall. Balabanov made a similar appeal following the film’s Moscow debut. Alena Solntseva writes that the audience was asked “not to take the movie as ‘serious cinema,’ but rather, to relate to it as a joke, preferably as a good joke.” [6] Unfortunately, Balabanov’s first attempt at comedy is a joke, though, sadly, not a particularly good one. 

Dawn Seckler, University of Pittsburgh


Dead Man’s Bluff (Russia, 2005)
Color, 105 minutes 
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Script: Stas Maokhnachev, Aleksei Balabanov
Cinematography: Evgenii Privin
Art Director: Pavel Parkhomenko
Cast: Aleksei Panin, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Nikita Mikhalkov, Sergei Makovetskii, Viktor Sukhorukov,Dmitrii Pevtsov, Kirill Pirogov, Aleksei Serebriakov, Renata Litvinova, Garik Sukhachev, Aleksandr Bashirov
Producer: Sergei Sel'ianov
Production: STW Film Studio


Endnotes

1] The two unfinished projects are The River [Reka] and The American [Amerikanets]. Balabanov was forced to end the shooting of The River after the film’s lead actress, Tuiara Svinoboeva, tragically died in a car accident. However, an unfinished version of the film was released by CTB in 2002. In 2003 the filming of The American was canceled due to problems with lead actor Michael Biehn.

2] Sul'kin, Oleg. “V N'iu-Iorke sostoialsia press-pokaz rossiiskoi komedii Zhmurki.” Novoe russkoe slovo (5 May 2005). 

3] Matizen, Viktor. “Konets epokhi rezhissorov.” Novye izvestiia (13 July 2005). 

4] Barabash, Ekaterina. “Tsirk sgorel, i klouny razbezhalis'.” Nezavisimaia gazeta (1 June 2005). 

5] Quoted in Moskvina, Tat'iana. “Ostalis' odni urody.” Moskovskie novosti (3 June 2005). 

6] “не воспринимать фильм как «серьезное кино», а отнестись к нему как шутке, желательно — как к хорошей шутке.” Solntseva, Alena. “Kto ne zazhmurilsia, tot ne vinovat.” Online Vremia novostei (6 May 2005). 

Pictures from  www.ctb.ru

Aleksei Balabanov, Dead Man's Bluff [Zhmurki] (2005)

reviewed by Dawn Seckler©2005

09/10/05