Phony Games: The International Moscow Film Festival 2007

By Mihai Chirilov (Bucharest)

At its twenty ninth edition, the good old Moscow International Film Festival had a brand new team run by the same ubiquitous president, Nikita Mikhalkov. It was an adventurous enterprise, given the ups and downs of the enthusiastic but flawed organization. As the newly installed program director Kirsi Tykkylainen put it one evening during a traditional festival gathering: “We have all the prints and the audience response is massive. I was expecting a catastrophe, but so far everything is okay.”

Frankly, I expected things to be worse, as the whole festival had been put together in only three months, so I was told, or maybe that's just an excuse for the mixed feelings I had throughout the ten-day marathon. The audience response was far from “massive,” as far as I could tell, and the regular festival atmosphere was short of positive vibes, even during the nocturnal festival parties (where the audience did finally reach a massive number), to which some of the festival's guests were not invited. Thankfully, the Russians are real people, easygoing and eager to break the phoniness in the air: vodka is pure and comes in huge quantities. The line-up was consistent and featured a strong bunch of fresh Russian films and Russian co-productions.

As I was stranded in the FIPRESCI jury, free floating from one venue to another or picking titles according to my interest and flair was impossible, so all temptations arising from parallel sections had to be put aside and my focus had to remain on the main competition program. The selection was balanced, even featuring some edgy titles that could make one forget about the inclusion of Laurent Tirard's clumsy Molière (France, 2007) among the nineteen contenders. Regular viewers, however, rated this feature quite highly in their daily poll. And even the main jury, headed by Australian director Fred Schepisi, regrettably bestowed this mediocre French biopic with a Best Actor Prize for Fabrice Luchini. Actually, almost all prizes seemed to be awarded with eyes wide closed, including the main award to one of the weakest Russian films in the competition, Vera Storozheva's Traveling with Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi, 2007) .

Last but not least, big names were almost nowhere to be found on the guest list (Tarantino, anyone?), but exciting sidebars—especially “Moscow Euphoria” and “8½ Films”—and euphoric retrospectives—“Goodbye, USSR!” and “Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals,” among others—made up, at least on paper, for that lack of glamour.

Pointing out in this report such a trashy piece like Molière has its reason, though. It is a faux biopic that tries to fill in a real blank in the life of the great French actor and playwright, when he disappeared without a trace for a period of time. This film's entertaining theory contends that he was dispatched to some rich married man's house to help him rehearse a one-act play. Since his intentions are not so pure (the man wants to perform his own play in front of a frivolous widow in order to win her heart), Molière is introduced into the house as a priest and the game is on. A game made out of lies and buffooneries, with players who are not what they pretend to be—a phony game, so to say. The fact that the film itself rings false is another matter. What really matters is that this “phony game thing” urged me to look at most of the competition titles shown in Moscow as if they—or their characters—were trying to fool me, to be something other than what they really were.

At this very point, and from this self-imposed angle, I have to make a confession: I completely fell for Larisa Sadilova's cynical drama, Nothing Personal (Nichego lichnogo, 200 ). I really didn't see it coming. It's a perfect phony game, although not all my FIPRESCI jury colleagues were willing to admit that they were fooled. But still, we decided to award it the FIPRESCI critics' award, even if not unanimously—and here's why.

Good films sometimes make you feel bad. And the funny thing is that, up to some point, you actually felt quite good—not only because the movie itself is good, but because the story seems to be driven by a certain humanitarian action. It's called manipulation, and it fools you because it is clever and almost invisible, which is quite remarkable in a film about the evil powers of voyeurism. Nothing seems to happen in Nothing Personal , Sadilova's fourth film: a veteran detective is employed to install video cameras in the apartment of a spinster druggist and to monitor her activities in black-and-white. What he sees and hears is what we see and hear—a woman on the verge of a breakdown after her boyfriend leaves, lots of crying and smashing of glasses, some old pieces of furniture that the woman is trying to get rid of, and long phone conversations with her deadly optimistic mother. Something must be hidden in this obvious descent into depression, and that's what keeps us—and the detective—enthralled in the tracking process.

Slowly, the immersion into this woman's uneventful but somehow disturbed life becomes addictive, because it might mirror, in a strange but increasingly clearer way, the uneventful life of the observer. It is even more addictive when it is no longer necessary to follow this daily routine: half way through the movie, the detective discovers that he has bugged the wrong apartment. His real subject was actually the spinster's neighbor, a blonde woman with a dog, a lover, and an equally dull life. But at this point, the obsession has already taken root, forcing the detective to follow both women. The new woman is just a job, but the first woman has become part of his troubled and boring life, which had previously been divided between work, wife, and a country house. And that's what makes it terribly exciting. The story goes right up to the point when the two lives actually connect and the promise of a romance arises—regardless of any bitter consequences to this sudden improvement of their existence.

Comparisons with Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) are more than welcome, as Nothing Personal features the same blend of detective story, sick love, mirror games, phony intentions, and real wounds. It is equally cynical and manipulative, and ends with the same triumph of obsession over the self, using and abusing somebody else's life. I won't spoil the finale, which is really disturbing, but suffice it to say that the external observer will feel just as exploited and deprived of any existing sparkle in his or her own life as one of the main characters. And that really makes you feel bad.

This cannot be said about Opium (Hungary, 2007) , directed by Janos Szasz, although the movie surprisingly employs the same device. It is equally cynical since the person who is supposed to be helping is a psychiatrist set to cure a madwoman who tortures herself through compulsive writing. The doctor was also once a successful writer, who now fuels himself with morphine in order to regain his inspiration. There is also the promise of a love story between the two, which is sold to the viewer as a desperate way to ease communication and the healing process. Compared to the earthiness of the setting and the characters of Nothing Personal, the characters in Opium are operatic and, thus, hard to empathize with, although they struggle with their own disturbing sickness and addictions. It is a theater of madness, which takes place in an oppressive clinic that looks like a medieval torture chamber, but the game and the feeling that both heroes might have their hidden agendas are pretty obvious here. You might expect, given their complementary nature (the woman is consumed with writing, whereas the man is impotent in creative terms), that there will be a little give-and-take and that they will miraculously cure each other. A doctor is usually set to help his patients, but that means forgetting that a writer is willing to do anything it takes to put his creative life back on track. And that's what happens here: again, one character uses and abuses the other, pretending he actually cares. The film's finale contains a cruel twist, but not as surprising and painful as the revelation in Nothing Personal.

The striking revelation of Moscow's competition was the American feature Viva (2007), the wild and campy debut of multi-tasker Anna Biller, who wrote, directed, edited, produced, designed costumes and sets, and composed the music. She obviously stars in this bizarre tribute to the soft-core films of the 1960s and 1970s, sadly slashed by local critics and audiences alike. The phoniness in Viva is innovative and perfectly matches the innocence of its main heroine, a bored housewife called Barbi looking for sexual liberation by reinventing herself as a prostitute named Viva. Here she is, facing a delirious world of predators who want to tempt her in their web of dirty games, to use and abuse her naïveté.

The heroine's journey put aside, what is truly remarkable in this extravagant, colorful, and enthusiastic exercise of style is what lies beneath its glitzy surface. For all its implied artificiality, kitschy characters, and phony dialogues, Viva rings true in its depiction of the surrounding falseness. It recalls Bunuel's Belle de jour (1967) , remade by Almodovar in 2005. Biller takes a huge risk in playing this audacious game with her audience, who might be too blinded by the assumed kitsch and clumsiness to see that the satiric joy of her enterprise serves as a tool for a cynical take on sexuality and empowerment. The movie may look dumb, but it makes you smarter—and that's the paradox.

The big winner, the Russian film Traveling with Pets , is dumb—no matter how much lyricism director Vera Storozheva pours into it. It is an exercise in empowerment, like Viva, but here poetry rhymes with phony since you never believe that a widow who looks like a top model and lives alone in a remote railway station also milks cows and walks as if on catwalk. Erik Clausen's Temporary Release (2007), the Danish entry in the competition, also rings false from the beginning: a prisoner is allowed to attend a wedding, but he needs to be escorted by a jail guard. And guess what: the officer is actually the bad guy, whereas the prisoner is not the toughie we think he is, but a pathetic loser. Zoe Cassavetes's Broken English (2007) is everything Viva is not: American independent cinema at its worst, trying so hard to be different from the rest that it forgot to make characters believable and sympathetic. I have played long enough on this “phony game,” although I could go on and on—with the fake setting (Tbilisi instead of Moscow) and the out-of-place comic touches of Aleko Tsabadze's Russian Triangle (Russkii treugol'nik; Georgia, 2007 ) or the laughless parody of an alternative Hitler in Dani Levy's Mein Fuhrer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler (Germany, 2007). But I'll end it here. I'm done using and abusing movies to get rid of this phony feeling I had during the festival. It's “nothing personal,” actually. Game over.

Mihai Chirilov was FIPRESCI jury chairman at the MIFF 2007.

Mihai Chirilov
Editor-in-chief Re:Publik, Bucharest, Romania

Mihai Chirilov© 2007

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Updated: 05 Oct 07