Kirill Serebrennikov: Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2006)

reviewed by Oleg Sulkin© 2006

A Shakespearean Blue Blouse

First came the stage. The production of Playing the Victim, based on the play by Oleg and Vladimir Presniakov, was staged by director Kirill Serebrennikov in the Moscow Art Theater (Chekhov). That was two years ago. A year and a half later, the same director transferred the performance onto the screen, inviting two of the stage actors to take part in the film. Produced by Natal'ia Mokritskaia, Ul'iana Savel'eva, and Leonid Zagal'skii for the New People Film Company and Vega Production, the film was awarded first prize at the Kinotavr national film festival in 2006, as well as the prize of the Guild of Russian Film Critics, and it received varied and conflicting reviews that reflected the contradictory reactions of viewers.

It could not have been otherwise. I am referring to the recognition extended by the festival elite and the puzzled reaction of the general public. Despite its external appearance as a popular burlesque in the style of the “Blue Blouse,” with its comic episodes and vulgar dialog, the film unquestionably winks at viewers who have read a lot and seen a lot of movies, and who are inclined towards complex culturological reflection.

Obviously, Hamlet flickers inside the carcass of the plot. Val'ka, the main character—a skinny, young guy with long locks and a pronounced Adam’s apple—hates his mother and her fancy suitor, his natural uncle, Petia. He suspects that his father, a naval officer, did not die of natural causes and that uncle Petia was somehow involved. His dead father, a stern man in the uniform of a captain of the first rank, appears before Val'ka at night and at crucial moments in the film. Val'ka is having an affair with a young woman, Olia, who is as pitiful and defenseless a being as Ophelia. And at the end of the film, this post-Soviet Danish prince will settle scores drastically with Gertrude and Claudius, and also with the unfortunate Ophelia, putting a tragic end to his relations with the world.

Shakespeare is enacted superficially, schematically, without immersion into the abyss. The film also uses the ethical code of heroic solitude amongst the samurai—to which Val'ka aspires—just as superficially, commercially, on a pedestrian level. Essentially, this is the programmatic yardstick of the director’s vision: to slide along the outermost layers of actual cultural myths. I make this point without the least shadow of any judgment. According to Anna Akhmatova, art can be made from any bit of trash, from any material at hand; this is especially true of art in the surfeited epoch of internet accessibility, in which all of the achievements of the past is nothing but a string of sites at the mercy of a simple “click.”

As a matter of fact, the film’s structure is also constructed using the canons of fractured computer consciousness, when texts, images, pop-up ads, impertinent intrusions of spam are all jumbled together into one pulsating heap. The task facing new demiurges is to organize this already assimilated space in accordance with their artistic goals. Playing the Victim can be compared to a skewer onto which various formats of reflected reality have been strung. Like a masterful cook of shish-kebabs, Serebrennikov uses three primary and very tasty ingredients in his directorial kitchen; tasty, of course, only if such sharp and spicy food is to one’s palate.

The first—most effective and fertile ingredient—is amateur video filming—more precisely, its painstaking imitation. The film begins with an episode of such filmmaking even as the opening credits roll. And it ends with another such episode. The screen becomes narrowed: on one corner of the frame is the “record” icon, on the other a time code is running. All in all, if I have not miscounted, five such fragments flash before the viewer, magnificently shot by cameraman Sergei Mokritskii.

The video-camera is used without any special cleverness, but very diligently by a policewoman “Dziga Vertov,” a full-figured young woman with epaulets and a round, artless face. The role of Liudmila, the camerawoman, is played by Anna Mikhalkova (daughter of Nikita Mikhalkov), who, no matter how strange it might seem, is very successful in capturing simple and earthbound heroines. Her character is filming the testimony of suspects and witnesses for legal reasons: the investigation team drives out to the scene of a crime in order to recreate it and this process is video-taped. But until the moment the stern and eternally frowning captain of police gives the order “Roll it!,” Val'ka, the irrepressible mocker keeps trying to force his way into the view-finder in order to make faces. At the very beginning of the film he delivers a tirade to the police video-camera, which should be quoted without any censoring: “Russian cinema is in big shit. Russian cinema is in big shit. Only Fedia Bondarchuk is a cool guy. Fedia is cool… His father got an Oscar. And he’ll get one. He’ll get stronger and get one for sure.” While Liudmila chews him out for the “shit,” the ensuing lexical feast treats viewers to such a well-selected dish of obscenities that it is, in fact, the scriptwriters and the director who should be chewed out—and how! Or, perhaps instead of being chewed out they should be praised and applauded for the “great and powerful” Russian foul language (mat), which has finally been legalized and made sense of conceptually.

Val'ka plays the victims of crimes that have been committed. It’s his job. He is a puppet, a mute extra; he’s a body, a physical mass that fills in the outlines of those who have been killed. His motions and manipulations are supervised by the stern captain-demiurge. At the same time, Val'ka replays the reconstructed crimes in his soul, and this process can be read on his extremely expressive face. Iurii Chursin, who plays Val'ka, succeeds in conveying a person’s heartfelt trembling in experiencing these “reconstructions” too acutely. Of course he puts on an act, concealing his grief and horror behind the mask of a buffoon (skomorokh). We can sense the gradual accumulation of the poisonous emanations in him of the “investigative experiments,” which result in the murderous catharsis at the end of the film.

The video-novellas shot by the police are constructed along a single principle, using the same devices, and so might appear somewhat boring. Once again, this is a matter of aesthetic taste. I watched with interest because I appreciate carefully worked-out second and third planes of action. And this is what is most intriguing in the video fragments. Just as in the densely populated canvases of Breughel or Bosch, life is teeming at every point of represented space. Take, for example, the opening novella, in which a bewildered Karas' (Marat Basharov) shows the investigator how―out of jealousy―he carved up his girlfriend inside an outdoor public toilet booth. Val'ka, the stand in for the victim, is made to sit on the toilet bowl while Karas' demonstrates how he killed his girlfriend and then tried to dismember her. In the background some drunks shove each other around; the curious guys try to stare into the camera and Liudmila shoos them away like flies. The camera-eye changes people, and Serebrennikov and his actors succeed in conveying this instantaneous and curious metamorphosis wonderfully and with great humor. Starting with Karas', the suspects lose their train of thought: they are clearly embarrassed to declare for “eternity” the details of what they have done. And the investigators try to appear better than they actually are―they primp and speak with stilted voices.

The second episode with police video filming takes place in an intellectual’s apartment, where a woman has been thrown out the window. Or did she throw herself out? This is what the captain is trying to establish as he conducts an investigative experiment with the participation of the victim’s husband, a fairly intelligent guy suspected of killing his wife. Could a draft from a sharply slammed door in the apartment’s entryway have caused the window to slam shut forcefully enough to push the woman off the windowsill? Risking his life, Val'ka is forced to stand in the open window frame, playing the wife; his only lifeline is the synthetic nylon stocking tied around his waist and held by Sevka, the dim-witted cop who is always around to run errands. The suspect tries to prove that the cause of his wife’s death was the draft. The first take confirms his claims: the door slams shut and immediately afterwards, so does the window. But in subsequent shots the window does not move, and only as the police brigade leaves the apartment and slams the door shut does the window not only close, but slams shut with such force that the glass shatters.

In the third video episode, a funny and very short man from the Caucasus (played by Igor' Gasparian, an actor beloved at Russian film festivals) is made to show how he drowned a young woman in a pool because of unrequited love. In this episode Serebrennikov’s circus turns on all the lights. The shorty passionately tries to demonstrate “how it happened”; the captain gets angry with Val'ka for not bringing a bathing suit to change into―without a bathing suit it is forbidden to enter the pool and, therefore, impossible to re-enact “how it happened” directly in the water. In the background we see Sevka kicking inflatable balls and toys because he has nothing else to do, and a group of portly “girls,” getting a lesson―so it seems―in synchronic swimming from a loud-mouthed instructor.

And, finally, in the fourth and culminating video episode, we end up in an expensive Japanese restaurant of the sort that has opened up all over the Russian capital in the last few years. I should note that today in Moscow sushi is guzzled like it was potatoes, and via sushi the image of the unconquerable samurai—who even gulps the scary poisonous fish, fougou, without batting an eye—is embedding itself in Russians’ consciousness. The West has dimmed somewhat in the past few years as a potential beacon for Russia’s capitalistic rebirth, while the East—with Japan and China as its advanced outposts—are rated by contrast very highly and frequently figure in various newly fashionable contexts (Pelevin, Akunin, Sorokin, Prigov, to name a few). In Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), Jim Jarmusch’s American samurai lies on a roof reading a moral treatise and from time to time kills people for money. Serebrennikov’s Russian samurai, as mobile as mercury, wears a baseball cap and imitates murder victims; he does not need to read anything since he has already read everything while studying in the university. He, too, will kill, but with disinterest, á la Raskolnikov, for an idea. The Japanese thread in the film is declared both in the songs, which are in the genre of heart-rending kitsch, and in the inserted episodes where Val'ka plays at being some sort of romantic Russian killer à la Takeshi Kitano. The theme very effectively defamiliarizes the purely Russian idea of the vacillating and inexplicable soul of the outsider, adding a flickering, exotic dimension to the idea.

A murder has been committed in the restaurant, stupid and depressingly ordinary, like virtually everything that occurs in the police work of our hero-captain, who is performed impeccably by Vitalii Khaev. He is an expressive actor, sculpturesque, with the powerful skull of a Yul Brynner and the eyes of an enraged bull, in whose gaze is distilled a yearning for something real, something that has not come to pass. The latest bewildered suspect is an adolescent who has not grown up, and who has shot his former classmate in the forehead at an evening gathering of graduates simply because he was making fun of him and was “laughing like a horse.” The witness is an elderly woman, a former actress who has retired and now earns some money working as a waitress. She is clad in a kimono, with an entire greenhouse on her head and in her eyes the wild excitement of a new, amusing mission as “an elderly Japanese woman with a destiny.” Liia Akhedzhakova―the favorite actress of El'dar Riazanov, the director of film comedies―plays this role with demonstrative theatricality, with obvious overacting. It is with her that the captain, dissatisfied with everything, finds a common language; in her he will sense a common spirit. And he will pour out his hatred of the new generation of simpletons and “faggots” in a stunning, hysterical monolog, which, in its shattering force, holds its own in comparison with Howard Beale’s rant in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). The captain, too, is “mad as hell” and does not want “to take it anymore”―all of these morons and cretins who have occupied Russia like some alien locusts. The concentration of obscenities in these tirades is unprecedented, even for the more liberal, new Russian cinema. And like some comic lowering of pathos, towards the end of the monolog we hear that in addition to the captain’s chagrin with the entire universe, he is also displeased with how the Russian championship team is playing soccer. The captain’s exclamation “You’ve gotta play soccer, dammit!,” a phrase that aspires to become immortal, has been included on the poster for the film as its main slogan.

In the intervals between the video episodes, shot by cameraman Mokritskii in a different style that is somewhat more realistic, we learn about the people with whom Val'ka lives: his mother, an irksome petty-bourgeois, aggressively persistent and extraordinarily stupid (Marina Golub, who like Vitalii Khaev performs in the play that served as the basis of the film); his uncle, a vulgar guy whom Val'ka very much likes to tease in order infuriate him so that he will drop the pretense and reveal his true face―the ugly mug of a lout; and, finally, Olia, a colorless being, ready to do anything in order to achieve her family “idyll.” What a magnificent scene when Val'ka, naked and wearing a rabbit mask, jumps up and down on the bed as Olia gives him a hand job and simultaneously strangles him with a scarf, at his request, so as to increase the pleasure, while at the same time telling him something about herself, something tearful and girlie.

From all of this, and to the accompanying laughter of the audience (for let us not forget that this is a comedy, even if a dark one), is “conjoined”―the captain’s favorite word―Val'ka’s burning hatred for his surrounding world, which is under the sway of “global fuckheads,” again in the words of the captain. The protuberances of this hatred explode on screen in grotesque back-and-white animation clips, which run through the film in layers. They can probably be interpreted as a sarcastic and amusing summary of each of the preceding episodes and as a reflection of the hell opening up in Val'ka’s impressionable mind. These animation sequences fill out the multi-layered cake construction of this tragic-farce, which consists of a hypothetical layer (the animation), a pseudo-documentary layer (the police video chronicle), a fantasy layer (Val'ka’s dreams and the appearances of his father), a realistic everyday-life layer (the domestic scenes), the concert-hall buffonade (Akhedzhakova’s solo performance in the Japanese restaurant).

It is precisely from the Japanese restaurant that the perfidious evil-doer Val'ka brings his wonderful relatives the poisonous fish fougou as a leftover-present. This triple murder of the mother, uncle, and bride-to-be is investigated by the very same captain, following not logic (according to the laws of logic, the case would have been delegated to an independent investigator), but the laws of the buffonade. And in the final police video, Val'ka is no longer imitating the victim; he is the suspect, while into the outlines of the victims―as if they were the carrying cases for someone else’s destiny―obediently lie down other “val'kas,” about whom a film has not yet been made.

Why did he kill them? An excellent question. Revenge for his father. An unwillingness to repeat his destiny. Hatred for the vulgarity and deceit of the surrounding world: his mother, uncle Petia, the bride-to-be Olia―for him this is vulgarity and deceit. And universal anguish. The anti-hero’s misanthropy is not something new, obviously. There is a legion of ideational ancestors for the nihilist Val'ka, starting with Pechorin and Child Harolde and extending through Sergei Makarov in the conceptual film Flights in Dreams and Reality (Polety vo sne i naiavu; dir. Roman Balaian, 1982), which was a kind of farewell to the intellectual illusions of the 1960s. It’s just that Makarov’s bitter play acting, performed with such genius by Oleg Iankovskii, is limited to an imitation of suicide, while Val'ka snuffs them out. What can you say? It is a different, more cruel time.

(The End)

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Oleg Sulkin
Film critic, Novoye Russkoye Slovo

Playing the Victim, Russia, 2006
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenplay: Oleg and Vladimir Presniakov
Cinematography: Sergei Mokritskii
Art Director: Valerii Arkhipov
Animation: Roman Sokolov
Cast: Iurii Chursin, Vitalii Khaev, Anna Mikhalkova, Liia Akhedzhakova, Marat Basharov, Marina Golub, Andrei Fomin, Maksim Konovalov, Igor' Gasparian, Elena Morozova, Fedor Dobronravov
Producers: Natal'ia Mokritskaia, Ul'iana Savel'eva, Leonid Zagal'skii
Production: New People Film Company, Vega production, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Kirill Serebrennikov: Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2006)

reviewed by Oleg Sulkin© 2006

Updated: 05 Oct 06