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Ol'ga Stolpovskaia and Dmitrii Troitskii, You I Love [Ia tebia liubliu] (2004)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland©2005

 

You I Love is the official English title of this film, which in Russian is called simply I Love You.  It is not clear what the authors meant to express with the transformation of the simple declarative statement of the Russian to the convoluted and ambiguous English version.  This strange combination of simplicity and complexity is emblematic for the film as a whole.  It has been billed as Russia’s first real example of gay cinema, but the sexual orientation per se of the characters receives relatively little attention or analysis in the course of the action.  It is almost lost within a mixture of the most various themes, ideas, images, jokes, and textual and visual references that threaten to disrupt any artistic or ideological unity in the film.  This is a film that ultimately doesn’t seem to know what or for whom its message really is.

The three main characters are introduced at the beginning of the film, two of them first as disembodied and anonymous voices.  As the young Uloomji, an undocumented resident from the periphery of the former Soviet empire, seeks work in Moscow, we hear Timofei―the creator of television advertising campaigns―doing market research by telephone and Vera―a well-known television news caster―reporting on the growing problem of undocumented workers in the capital.  While Uloomji tries to find his place in a city that does not welcome him, the viewer has an equally difficult time placing the mechanically mediated voices speaking from beyond the screen.  This introduction sets up the configuration not only of the cast of characters, but also to a large extent of the larger social environment that will structure the drama to come.

Vera and Timofei soon meet and begin a relationship.  One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way it aesthetically captures the lifestyle of the young cosmopolitan generation of yuppie-like denizens of a no longer post-Soviet Moscow.  The glossy surface and the empty content of modern life is communicated in a relatively small set of dramatic sequences.  Vera and Timofei live in a world that is completely constructed by the mass media, which they themselves produce and in which they work.  This is underscored not only through a recurring series of ads marketing a western-style soft drink as the fulfillment of all human aspiration, but also in the self-conscious way film itself repeatedly frames its characters as if they are speaking lines in one of Timofei’s video clips.

In this way, You I Love is one of the most striking examples of a film that actually grapples with the new reality of 21st century urban Russia, at least with its cash-drenched new elite.  Yet the film is frustratingly coy in its evaluation of this new reality.  Technology and urban life give individual identity a kind of amorphous character that has never before been conceivable in Russia’s history.  This fluidity of identity is neither celebrated nor mourned, but rather put on display in a way that is half play and half manipulation.  Timofei’s supposed discovery of his bisexuality and his developing relationship with both Vera and Uloomji are perceived, on the one hand, as a kind of personal liberation to be sure, but he repeatedly shows himself incapable, on the other hand, of stepping out of the prison house of media images that condition the role-play through which he experiences real life.  Vera, too, is at once both a true celebrity in her role as TV newscaster and a prisoner of a system that turns her physical body into a battlefield in the war for ratings.

The film’s narrative voice is likewise diffuse and indeterminate.  At several points in the film, Vera’s off-screen voice weaves itself into the action to describe her feelings and small epiphanies.  At times we seem to be hearing the story of Vera’s path to a kind of Buddhist enlightenment, a developing ability to see beyond the limitations of the material and social world in which humanity tries to exist.  But this narrative voice is not sustained, nor is Vera the focal point for the larger storyline. For much of the action, Vera is pushed far to the sidelines and left to observe the developing relationship of the two men.  But on an extradiagetic level, Vera’s subject position continues to organize the film’s point of view, even when her voice does not narrate.  As she struggles to understand what is happening with the man she loves, she seems to join the viewers at a place where the inner content of Timofei’s psyche remains completely inaccessible.  While we see brief manifestations of strong emotional trauma, Timofei remains very much a cipher, a person with no defined history who keeps his authentic personality tightly locked so deep in the closet that it has become inaccessible even to him.  He remains a mystery to us even more: just how novel were his feelings of attraction for Uloomji?  to what extent is his bisexuality a new discovery?  how long was he in the West and what traces of that experience remain with him after his return to Moscow?  what kind of unspoken signals pass between him and his boss in their workplace interactions?  The viewer is shut out in the same way that Vera feels herself shut out as she asks helplessly “What is going on here?”  Neither she nor we ever get a final answer to this question.  

       

For Western critics, however, the most disturbing character in the film is not the repressed Timofei but the crudely stereotyped Uloomji.  The young “friend of the steppe, the Kalmyk” is a near caricature in which a primitive, half-civilized man-boy from the wild periphery is fashioned into a variant of the noble savage.  Viewers are apparently expected to believe that a man who had intended to enroll in an institute does not understand the workings of an ATM machine.  His seduction of Timofei is accomplished through a hypnotic ritual of song and movement, and a vaguely Eastern mysticism characterizes his entire approach to life.  His impulsiveness, his naively direct expression of his feelings for Timofei, and his special relationship to animals all contribute to a character that is both orientalized and infantilized.  While offensive to Western sensibilities, the crudely stable and comfortably foreign characterization of Uloomji seems to be built in to the film for the sake of its own small kernel of hidden wisdom.  It would seem that the malleability of identities within the space of urban Russia requires that there be some immutable stability existing somewhere outside of “our” space that gives the searching subject hope in another more authentic reality that will provide some kind of ultimate fulfillment.  

Ol'ga Stolpovskaia and Dmitrii Troitskii are both products of the Parallel Cinema movement and have made names for themselves―together and separately―as the authors of innovative and experimental works, mostly in the realm of video production.  You I Love bears the marks of this experimental approach to filmmaking.  It has many moments of sharp humor, visual puns, and political in-jokes.  It manifests a clever self-awareness at those points in which the virtual nature of reality seem to be at least briefly interrogated.  But in the context of a feature film, this exercise in experimentation depends unconsciously on some of Russian culture’s most stubborn stereotypes.  The free play of identity formation seems to make the human personality itself less rather than more knowable.  What can be interpreted as the film’s call for social tolerance is accomplished at the price of a certain hesitance at confronting real social contradictions: allusions to migrant workers, economic instability, and ethnic tensions are forgotten as quickly as they are made.  The result is a complex and sometimes confused film with no palpable center of gravity.  It is not completely clear whether this confusion is by design, and whether, as Timofei’s technophile co-workers might put it, this lack of a center of gravity is to be designated as a bug or a feature.  

Gerald McCausland, University of Pittsburgh


You I Love, Russia, 2004

Color, 85 minutes

Directors: Ol'ga Stolpovskaia and Dmitrii Troitskii

Screenplay: Ol'ga Stolpovskaia, with Dmitrii Troitskii

Cinematography: Aleksandr Simonov

Set Design: Konstantin Vitavskii

Music: Richardas Norvila

Cast: Liubov' Tolkalina, Evgenii Koriakovskii, Damir Badmaev, Irina Grineva, Iurii Sherstnev

Producers: Ol'ga Stolpovskaia, Dmitrii Troitskii

Production: Malevich Productions  


Ol'ga Stolpovskaia and Dmitrii Troitskii, You I Love [Ia tebia liubliu] (2004)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland©2005

10/07/05