Anna Melikian, Mars (2004)
reviewed by Elena Prokhorova©2005
A debut film, especially in a film industry that is trying to reinvent itself, makes the viewer wary of derivative style and laboured plot. Anna Melikian’s feature debut Mars may have speckles of both, but it also possesses the lightness and love of the medium that are rare in Russian cinema today. Financed by one of Russia's largest distribution companies, Central Partnership, Mars is playfully romantic. The film has a commendably simple plot, which seems to have been borrowed from Lermontov’s “Taman'”: a jaded visitor from the “capitals” comes and leaves, disrupting “the peaceful life” of a Crimean town.
In Mars, a boxer from Moscow, Boris (Gosha Kutsenko), is on the run from his career and his mobster boss. As Boris emerges from under his hang-over and looks out the train car window, he comes face to face with supersized animals peeking in. Only gradually does the shocked hero realize that the plush toys are peddled by the town’s inhabitants, whose salary is paid in this “soft currency.” In the glory days of socialism, the provincial town of Marks was named after the author of the “Communist Manifesto,” but now it is missing the letter “k” on the train station logo. The Mar(k)s pun is essential for the film’s style, which shifts between absurd comedy and melodrama, between Karen Shakhnazarov’s City Zero (1989) and the colorful fantasies of Amélie (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001).
Boris meets characters straight out of Dmitrii Astrakhan’s nostalgic reveries: a precocious, scheming girl and her mother (Nadia Kamen'kovich and Evgeniia Dobrovol'skaia), both dreaming of a French suitor; a young idealist Grigorii (Artur Smol'ianinov) in love with librarian Greta (played by “Miss Tbilisi,” Nana Kiknadze), whose daily routine includes watching Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942) in the local movie theater; and a barmaid fantasizing about a sexual encounter with Vladimir Putin. At the heart of the plot is the Holy Trinity of post-Soviet cinema: dream, desire, and displacement. Everyone wants to escape her or his predicament. Mar(k)tians dream of abandoning the provincial paradise and getting to Moscow (or even better, to Paris, New York, or Morocco).
Mars, however, is neither nostalgic, nor does it succumb to intellectual feasting on the Mar(k)s pun. Kutsenko’s hero appears amused and baffled by the town’s oddities, and many critics indeed suggest that we as viewers are invited to identify with Boris and see the province as an aberration. Boris’s rugged masculinity, his status as a “guest from Moscow,” and his wallet filled with “real cash” all combine to ensure his desirability for Mars’s predominantly female population. Yet both the point of view and the status of normalcy in the film are reversible. Boris’s dark clothes, emotionless face, and violent black-and-white flashbacks to boxing matches can hardly qualify as an attractive alternative to Mar(k)tian life. In fact, from the very beginning, the film discourages the viewer from a one-sided reading. Grigorii and Boris are complete opposites except for their shared color-blindness: Boris sees the word as blue, Grigorii as pink. The winner of the “Miss Russian Plait” pageant (Iana Esipovich), tired of being the cash cow for her tyrannical father, runs away to Moscow, trading her folkish attire for a hooker’s outfit.
The absurdist element in Mars owes to such films as Shakhnazarov’s City Zero and Iurii Mamin’s Sideburns (1990). Both of these perestroika films use a provincial setting to comment on the social disintegration and identity crisis in Russia. The titles bear heavily on the films’ aesthetics. The central visual metaphor of City Zero is the cake copy of the protagonist’s head, served to him on a platter. The hero’s identity, like the cake, is mushy inside, its “contents” displayed in a phantasmagoric museum. Sideburns, which tempers cultural commentary with bodily puns, replaces rubber penises as the object of perestroika desire with the hairy sideburns of the father of Russian poetry.
Mars has expressive metaphors of its own: “Miss Russian Plait,” nailed to a painted sky; posters announcing the “Marx—Engels Marathon,” and, above all, huge plush animals. The toys are invested with both practical and emotional value: they are used as currency; their soft bellies swallow wallets and spit out lollypops; as backpacks, they gently hug their owners and hold their most treasured possessions. Melikian’s film refuses to reduce its meaning to one image, no matter how good it is. Does Mar(k)s represents Russia’s past or its schizophrenic present? The answer will vary from viewer to viewer. But whatever post-Soviet oppositions the film may invoke, they are modified by the playful style.
Splashes of color, both man-made and natural (beautiful panoramic shots of the sea and the town) provide a therapy and contrast sharply with the dark apartments and squalid buildings. In addition to the music by Aleksei Aigi (composer for Valerii Todorovskii's Land of the Deaf ), the soundtrack features Marlen Dietrich, Dalida’s “Que sont devenues les fleurs,” and a “poppy tango” by an instrumental Finnish group, Alamaailman Vasarat. The lovemaking scene between Boris and Greta, intercut with shots of other characters, each with her or his personal longing—is accompanied by the ballad “Comet,” written and performed by Gosha Kutsenko himself.
Mars’s weakest point is the script. The first part of the film mixes satisfying dollops of absurdism and good humor. The acting is solid, especially for all female parts. The camerawork by Oleg Lukichev, who shot Aleksei German, Jr.’s The Last Train (2003), is first rate, impeccable in framing, camera angles, and creative use of movement. As long as style rules in Mars, the combined momentum of creative cinematography, haunting soundtrack, and precise casting pulls the film ahead. Melikian, who has several award-winning documentary shorts under her belt, is eloquent without being pushy. The first thirty minutes, where nothing happens, are rich in precious snapshots of dreams, obsessions, and little quirks of character that are as comic as they are poignant.
The centerpiece of the plot—and its breaking point—is the lovemaking-boxing match between Boris and Greta. Ending the film with Kutsenko’s amateurish singing debut would have preserved the integrity of the film, merging his on-screen and off-screen personae. But out of this scene emerges a forced love triangle, and the weaknesses of the script surface once the plot skids into melodrama. The second half of the film is superficially dramatic and overburdened with closures that strive to give more meaning and structure to the vignette-style plot. A graduate of Sergei Solov'ev’s workshop, Melikian finally gives in to her teacher’s love for multiple endings. The sequences that follow (the burning of Grigorii’s “love nest,” Greta’s suicide, and the final conciliatory paean to love) are not necessarily false. In fact, for Western audience Mars’ attraction might lie precisely in what a Variety critic calls “Slavic sadness.” But the conventional melodrama does strip the film of its magic.
To Melikian’s credit, she keeps both the heart-wrenching and the saccharine at bay, interlaying romanticism with a healthy doze of irony. Each character line finds appropriate resolution, is treated with gentle humor. Tracking shots of Greta’s ethereal floating through the library may fit organically into the eccentric screen world of Mars, but as the camera pulls away, we see her standing on a dolly, pushed along the dusty shelves by a shapeless library worker.
a young director, Melikian has good instincts and an eye for transforming
“reality” into cinematic material. In Mars, these
qualities deliver winning results.
Elena Prokhorova, University of Richmond
Mars, Russia, 2004
Color, 100 minutes
Director and screenplay: Anna Melikian
Cinematography: Oleg Lukichev
Production design: Ul'iana Riabova
Music: Aleksei Aigi
Cast: Gosha Kutsenko, Nana Kiknadze, Artur Smol'ianinov, Evgeniia Dobrovol'skaia, Elena Morozova, Nadia Kamenkovich, Iana Esipovich
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Sabina Eremeeva
Production: Central Partnership; Slon Studio, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Anna Melikian, Mars (2004)
reviewed by Elena Prokhorova©2005