Viacheslav Krishtofovich, A Friend of the Deceased (Pryiatel' nebizhchyka/Priiatel' pokoinika, 1997)

reviewed by Lars Kristensen© 2009

priatelIn an interview, Viacheslav Krishtofovich states about his characters in Adam’s Rib (Rebro Adama, 1991) that he loves them (Fein 1992). This character affection, though, seems to have vanished with A Friend of the Deceased (1997). Diminishing interpersonal affection, however, seems in accordance with the portrait of everyday life that is projected through the film; as one of the characters says, the only relationships that exist between people in post-communist Kyiv are business relations. A Friend of the Deceased is a French-Ukrainian co-production (itself a business relation), produced by the Dovzhenko Studio and the French film company Est-Ouest (Pierre Rival). The co-production points toward a cross-cultural viewing strategy, which is best indicated by clearly visible advertisement for a French cigarette brand. The fact that no Belomor cigarettes are for sale in this film is one of the ironic comments made about the condition resulting from the fall of communism.

priatelAnatoli (Tolia) (Aleksandr Lazarev, Jr.) is a translator on the constant outlook for petty jobs. He lives in the Podil area in Kyiv, where he shares a one-room flat with his wife (Anzhelika Nevolina) who is about to leave him for another man. Through an old school friend, Dima (Ievhen Pashyn), Tolia gets in contact with a contract killer, but instead of placing a hit on his wife, he places the contract on himself. However, on the day of the kill, the assigned place of the hit, a café, closes early and Tolia is not killed. Happy with his newly gained life, Tolia celebrates by bringing home a prostitute. The prostitute Vika (Tetiana Kryvyts'ka) turns out to be a loving and caring young woman whose real name is Lena. Now, Tolia no longer wants to die, and thus hires counter contract killer, an old army colonel (Serhii Romaniuk), and with Tolia as bait, the colonel manages to kill the killer. While he has regained his freedom, Tolia is now weighted down by guilt. He seeks out the wife and child of the dead hit man to hand over the money that was meant for them. The young widow, Marina (Elena Korikova), has been abandoned by her in-laws; Tolia gets more and more interested in her, eventually replacing his own would-be killer as a surrogate father and husband to Marina and baby Misha.

priatelBehind this plot is Andrei Kurkov; he scripted the film based on his novel Milyi drug, tovarishch pokoinika (pub. 2001), which was translated into English as A Matter of Death and Life (2006). Kurkov is no stranger to filmmaking: he has penned over twenty stories for the screen, both feature films and documentaries, but it is as the author of popular quirky novels that he is best known to readers worldwide. His book series about Viktor and his depressed penguin, Misha, has been particularly successful at catching readers’ attention, earning Kurkov the recognition as a major new voice of post-communist satire. Kurkov is an ethnically Russian Ukrainian writer who lives and works in Kyiv. He writes in Russian, not in Ukrainian, and could therefore be termed as a diasporic writer. One way of viewing the plot of A Friend of the Deceased as diasporic is in the construction of having Tolia standing between two possible identities. Tolia faces the choice of two women: Marina the single mother and Lena the prostitute. The choice of multiple identities is a salient feature of the diasporic narrative. Tolia’s two identity possibilities are noticeably different. Lena is associated with sex and the murky and dangerous street life, and with fancy bars and restaurants. Marina, on the other hand, is associated with the “decent” way of life: the respectable, bourgeois existence in the newly built suburbs. Tolia chooses the latter over the former in the film, but in the book the choice is more vague, with options of keeping both identities alive. Furthermore, the protagonist of the novel takes on not only the role of husband and father, but also the killer’s profession. Contrary to this prolongation of the lethal profession, in the film Tolia becomes the merciful angel that spares peoples’ lives. This change of plot somehow takes the sting out of the character Tolia.

priatelThe film got favorable screenings at the festival circuit and it won the European Film Award for best script. Eddie Cockrell picks up the film in his report from Berlin Film Festival, emphasizing the bizarre plot and pointing to Aleksandr Lazarev’s “perfectly calibrated hangdog” performance (Cockrell 1998). Upon its US release, Stephen Holden wrote that that the characters of the film are “just ordinary people [who] have lost their moral compass.” The Russian journalist Ol'ga Kostenko-Popova, on the other hand, is quoted on Aleksandr Lazarev’s fan site as saying that Krishtofovich made “a psychological drama in excellent taste,” subtly accusing Krishtofovich of seeking to please his foreign producers. According to her, the filmmakers without doubt secured the film’s foreign distribution by adding luxurious views of Kyiv and beautiful Ukrainian girls (“Priiatel' pokoinika”). This discourse is of course not a new one, but rather one that we often encounter when dealing with co-production in post-communist cinema—for example, Nikita Mikhalkov’s The Barber of Siberia (Sibirskii tsiriul’nik, 1998). These transnational films often become argumentative in trying to persuade their audiences.

priatelThis, in my opinion, is also the case with Krishtofovich’s handling of the material. The film is constructing a view of Kyiv that is attractive to the foreign viewer; i.e. as a place of coffee loving people who sit around in cafés discussing literature and poetry or playing music. Adding to this, in the constant images of narrow cobblestone streets, golden-domed churches, and “fashionable” bars and restaurants, we have the perfect tourist brochure of a city that is both historic and romantic. According to the film, the city of Kyiv is inhabited by only young people or babushkas; even Tolia is called a starik (old man) by the young café goers. And, as noted by Kostenko-Popova, the young women are portrayed as slim and beautiful, and always short skirted. This gives the film a heavy-handed outlook that is aimed at selling Ukrainianness to foreign audiences.

Furthermore, in this process of pleasing audiences, Krishtofovich seems to lose the affection for his leading character. In the US promotion material, the filmmaker is quoted as saying, “I don’t really think of Anatoli’s life as a grand metaphor. For me, it’s just a story about one weak person. [B]ut, then, most people are weak, and Anatoli isn’t an isolated case” (Krishtofovich 1998).

priatelIn the film version, the leading character is almost ridiculed and mocked. For example, in the portrayal of the missed hit on Tolia, the cinematic narrative is neatly constructed, but without conveying the literary subtleness of Kurkov’s story. In the novel, the protagonist’s would-be last day passes as one of his dullest; in fact, he manages to do his ironing. In the film, however, the scene is constructed without empathy for the Tolia character, leaving him on the side looking foolish with a piece of a cake in his hand and an umbrella in the other. Lazarev, on the other hand, overplays his role (see e.g. Pavlov-Andreevich 1997), leading to a character who is neither funny nor sad (as was the case in the novel).

priatelAnother example of the film’s problematic storytelling can be found in Tolia’s desire to commit suicide. In the opening of the film we get Tolia’s view from the window (beautiful) and his morning encounter with his wife (beautiful). In fact, the only reason that we are given for Tolia wanting to kill himself by a contract killer is because his wife is leaving him for another man (something that the protagonist of the novel finds utterly trivial). There are several ways in which this can be done cinematically: one solution is presented in Ari Kaurismäki’s I Hired a Contract Killer (1990).[1] Kaurismäki managed to construct this desire by aesthetically portraying the protagonist in barren environs and as a loner with no prospect in life. Moreover, what Kaurismäki never loses sight of is his affection for his character. Because Kaurismäki loves his protagonist, so do we as viewers. Watching A Friend of the Deceased we never get to love Tolia, because Krishtofovich seems to have lost his love.

Lars Kristensen, University of St Andrews


Notes

1] Ron Holloway aptly points out this connection in his introduction to the film at Cannes Film Festival (http://www.filmfestivals.com/cannes97/cfilmd14.htm). Kaurismäki’s film could be a possible inspiration for Kurkov writing the novel. Other examples of plots featuring seeking suicide by a contract killer and then regretting it are Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998) and Keith Snyder’s Emmett’s Mark (2002).


 

Works Cited

Cockrell, Eddie. “48th Berlin International Film Festival: Notes from the Festival,” Nitrateonline 1998.

Fein, Esther B. “Lenses Reflect Back to the U.S.S.R.; ‘Adam’s Rib’ Finds Hope Amid Pain,” The New York Times 3 May 1992.

Holden, Stephen. “Paying for Love and Death In the Desperation of Kiev,” The New York Times, 1 May 1998.

Krishtofovich, Viacheslav. “Interview with the Director,” Sony Pictures Classics (1998).

Pavlov-Andreevich, Fedor. “O ‘Priiatele pokoinika’ ili khorosho, ili nitsego,” Kommersant 85 (1267), 6 June 1997.

Priiatel' pokoinika

 


A Friend of the Deceased, Ukraine, 1997
Color, 110 min.
Director: Viacheslav Krishtofovich
Script: Andrei Kurkov
Cinematography: Vilen Kaliuta
Art Direction: Roman Adamovych
Sound: Heorhii Stremovs'kyi, Bohdan Mikhnevych
Music: Volodymyr Hrons'kyi
Cast: Aleksandr Lazarev, Jr., Anzhelika Nevolina, Ievhen Pashyn, Tetiana Kryvyts'ka, Elena Korikova, Kostiantyn Kostyshyn, Serhii Romaniuk, Anatolii Mateshko, Valentyna Illiashenko, Rostyslav Iankovs'kyi
Producers: Jacky Ouaknine, Pierre Rival
Production: Dovzhenko Film Studios, Kyiv; Compagnie des Films; Compagnie Est-Ouest

 

Viacheslav Krishtofovich, A Friend of the Deceased (Pryiatel' nebizhchyka/Priiatel' pokoinika, 1997)

reviewed by Lars Kristensen© 2009

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