Larisa Sadilova: Nothing Personal (Nichego lichnogo, 2007)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova© 2008

Peeping Tom Fails to Meet the Conversation: Larisa Sadilova's Nothing Personal

To be moral does not mean “to be good,”
but to exercise one's freedom of authorship
and/or actorship as a choice between good and evil.
Zygmunt Bauman (4)

“Big brother is watching you” was one of the memorable catchphrases from George Orwell's classic 1984, and it has come sadly to symbolize not only the dire practices of the communist totalitarianism in Soviet bloc countries, which the British classic metaphorically targeted, but also increasingly and prophetically the spirit of our own times. The boundaries between prying on people's privacy for security reasons or just watching the popular reality show Big Brother , featured in nationally specific versions by TV stations worldwide, are becoming blurred commensurately with the increasingly unfathomable perception of right and wrong in matters of public and private morals. The characters of Sadilova's latest film, Nothing Personal, inhabit this grey area of ethics, situated in the no-man's land between the fear of forcible inclusion (usually behind the impenetrable borders of a totalitarian country), symbolized by the Old Big Brother, and that of arrogant elitist exclusion, epitomized by the New Big Brother.

As in her previous films—Happy Birthday (S dnem rozhdeniia!, 1998 ), With Love, Lilly (S liubov'iu, Lilia, 2002 ), and Babysitter Required (Trebuetsia niania, 2005 )—the narrative is very simple: a certain Zimin (Valerii Barinov), a middle-age employee of a private detective agency in the provinces and obviously a former (retired?) state secret services (KGB) official, is asked to establish a 24/7 surveillance of the apartment of a thirty-something woman, Irina (Zoia Kaidanovskaia). About a third through the film, however, it turns out he has been given the wrong apartment number and has to install a/v devices in the adjacent apartment of a sexy blonde (Mariia Leonova) with an influential lover, evidently for the purpose of blackmail or extortion. Zimin dismantles all the devices from Irina's apartment except for one camera, allowing him to keep watching her—by that time it becomes obvious that his interest in her exceeds his professional involvement.

What follows is filtered through his personal point of view, thus compelling the viewer to identify first with his professionally and then personally justified voyeurism. It should be noted right away that, unlike sadistically voyeuristic films by male directors (Michael Powell's Peeping Tom [UK, 1960], Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho [US, 1960], and even Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others [Das Leben der Anderen, Germany, 2007]), the film is very prudish in matters of sex and nudity, and the female objects of surveillance are only seen (or heard) in a state of permanent boredom, punctuated (as is the case with Irina) by a couple of outbursts of extreme psychological frustration, but are never exposed as objects of the desiring gaze. Certainly this is justified by the camera angles of the planted devices, the time Zimin “logs on,” etc., but the film looks and feels like a pre-perestroika, 1980s Soviet one, which in a way interferes with and even short circuits its rather bold, nouvelle subject matter.

In spite of his stately presence, Zimin is not the traditional Soviet type of a conscientious, middle-aged civil servant—the type the late Mikhail Ul'ianov interpreted so well throughout his career (Aleksei Saltykov's The Chairman [Predsedatel', 1964], Iulii Raizman's Private Life [Chastnaia zhizn', 1982], Nikita Mikhalkov's Without Witnesses [Bez svidetelei, 1983], etc). Zimin accepts to spy on people not because he is forced to do so by any compelling circumstances of his profession or by the (totalitarian) political system, like the forensic sound engineer in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) or the Stasi service man, the protagonist of The Lives of Others, but because he has chosen to do so mostly out of greed—he is paid $500 a day! What is really shocking is that Zimin does this without a shred of remorse or even a shadow of doubt that something might be morally wrong. In that he is joined prudently by his wife, a seasoned police-woman (sic!), who takes vivid interest in his job and even helps with suggestions, but never questions or reprimands the nature of his activities, which is especially baffling since he is surveying women. The only time she gets incensed is when she accidentally finds out that he takes more than a professional interest in one of his objects. The viewer is left to wonder whether she is worried that she might lose her husband, friend, and lover or the affluent life and the lovely dacha he pays for. This reminds of Victor Pelevin's bitter statement, made in one his latest novels, The Holy Werewolf Book, that the “generally accepted way of life [of Russian citizens] could be qualified as criminal before the court of law (which has left an indelible imprint of sin on people's faces)…” (103; my translation).

As in Babysitter Required , Sadilova remains ambivalent about the ethics of the whole enterprise to the point that she coerces the viewer into sympathising with Zimin's middle-age crisis and emotional drama of being torn between his infatuation with Irina and the genuine affection for his wife of many years. A possible explanation of this dangerous ambivalence could be Sadilova's already established preference for blurring genre boundaries or her attempt at provoking our moral indignation to force us into categorically rejecting her hero in spite of his undeniable charisma. “Moral life,” writes the Polish-born social philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, is “a life of continuous uncertainty ... loneliness and ambivalence,” predicated on the agony of responsibility over making the right choice. Pre-modern times provided a religious “ ex post facto cure … in the form of redemption and repentance” for the sin of choosing evil over good, “guaranteeing freedom from worry in exchange for obedience” (Bauman 3 ) . The modern project proudly promised to “prevent evil from being done … eliminating sin (now called guilt) from choice … simplified to the straightforward dilemma of obedience and disobedience to the rule,” prescribed and proscribed by supra-individual agencies “endowed with exclusive moral authority” (Bauman 4 ) . But the decisively “modern,” linear construction of the narrative of Nothing Personal (with firmly determined beginning, middle, and end; with no loose or dangling threads) and the accomplished psychological make-up of the principal character, directly allude to the above mentioned pre-perestroika film style—with its ethical rules, prescribed and proscribed by authorized supra-individual agencies “endowed with exclusive moral authority”; rules against which all of the supporting characters—Irina, the wife, and even the blonde and her New Russian lover—exercise their moral choices. In other words, the film leaves us at a loss regarding Zimin's overall ethical performance by failing to provide any clues as to what the filmmaker (or for that matter, her protagonist) believe to be “good” or “bad”; neither does she offers any reassurances of his actorship, in Bauman's terms, in his manoeuvring between “good” and “evil.” Which is all the more difficult to justify since Sadilova is the author of the film in the strict modernist sense of the term: both its scriptwriter and its director, the only demiurge with full control over its ethical universe.

Similar moral ambiguity (or rather, indecisiveness) plagued Sadilova's previous film, Babysitter Required, on both the level of genre and the level of characters, as Vida Johnson has elaborately stated in her perceptive article on the film in the January 2006 issue of KinoKultura. There, the eponymous babysitter (Marina Zubanova) displays analogically unrepentant bluntness, in her case not in matters of the heart but with regard to her spinning of harmful intrigues against each and everyone in the home of her employers and their relatives, not sparing even the six-year old girl in her care. But while Sadilova there offered some kind of (no matter how feeble) explanation—the babysitter does it all out of class envy, hurt pride, feminine jealousy and spite against her much better off and happily married employers, and ultimately for the pretty amount of blackmail money she extorts—here we are deprived of any facilitating justification. We are led to believe that Zimin has seriously fallen in love with Irina after having gotten to know her well from his spy screen; from a couple of visits to her work place at the pharmacy and at her home under the pretence of being a collector of old furniture; as well as from a couple of lavish lunches with flowers and all, where he almost openly declares his infatuation. It turns out, however, that the purpose of his last visit to her place, where they consummate their passion, is prompted by his intention to retrieve the camera he has left in one of the rooms while Irina, finally happy to have found what she believes to be the man of her life (and unmarried at that!), is taking a post-coitus shower… There are certainly a couple of other interpretations of this act of open cruelty—that Zimin still loves his wife dearly or that he is unable to dump everything in the name of a new life—but they basically boil down to the same old one: Zimin would like to have his cake and eat it, too. In this sense, the wickedness of Zubanova's babysitter remains inspiring in its shocking unpredictability and as an enterprisingly risky psychological discovery of the new Russian cinema. Barinov's Zimin, by contrast, does not contribute to what has already been said over and over again on film, on stage, or in literature about successful but bored-to-death middle-aged men and their treacherous fear of change; in fact, this is the stuff of which most melodramas and soap operas are made. In any case, Sadilova's monotonously amoral Zimin falls far behind such psychological master characters of middle-aged spies in crisis like Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) from The Lives of Others or Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) from Coppola's The Conversation, who sacrifice their careers and well being in the name of a belated but powerful moral awakening.

In this line of thought Sadilova would have been much better off sticking to her original plan and casting a forty-something actor in the role of Zimin, which she initially contemplated, but changed her mind ten days into the shooting and invited Valerii Barinov for the role (Maliukova). A younger actor would have avoided sending mixed signals to the audience by harking back to the simpler and, paradoxically, more prudent Soviet era, where good was good and evil was evil. A younger actor would have convincingly conveyed the gist of late modern moral life, where, with the “state ethical monopoly in abeyance … the supply of ethical rules is abandoned to the care of the marketplace.” A younger actor would have been better adapted to the current life of “a continuous uncertainty … loneliness and ambivalence, predicated on the agony of responsibility over making the right choice” that would not hurt one's material well-being (Bauman 5).

Certainly the merits of the film largely compensate for the problem with the protagonist, especially the masterfully recreated Russian provincial life with its hang ups; Irina's drama of the quintessential lonely woman, predicated on a succession of doomed love affairs with married men; and even Zimin's affluent but bland life, locked up in his private triangle of wife, home, and dacha or the public one, comprised of his office, his boss, and the surveillance truck, from where he watches “the lives of (female) others.”

Nothing Personal re-confirms Sadilova's talent, professionalism, and her keen eye for the unobtrusive, mundane details of life in contemporary Russia, which has brought her so much success, especially with her first two films, Happy Birthday and With Love, Lilly! Her ability to offer in only a few broad strokes a uniquely captivating portrayal of women's romantic dreams in stark contrast to their uneventful and drab lives remains, indeed, unsurpassed on the backdrop of new Russian cinema, dominated by male characters and male directors. It is not surprising, therefore, that her film was distinguished by the prestigious FIPRESCI (the International Film Press) award at the Moscow International Film Festival 2007. It is time, however, that Sadilova offers a more resolute stance regarding not only the genres of her films or the sometimes baffling morality of her principal characters, but mostly concerning her place vis-à-vis the perennial opposition between auteur and commercial cinema. It is this indecisiveness that affects the interpretation of the path chosen by her protagonists at the crucial point of their lives—and of the narrative. If the babysitter definitely belongs to the characters populating modernist auteur cinema but suffers from insufficiently evolved narrative ambiance and psychological motivation, then Zimin is misplaced not only in space (a melodramatic genre type in an auteur film) but also in time—he definitely belongs to another era, with other values and other sensitivities. A filmmaker, rather an auteur of Sadilova's rank, is not entitled to such mishaps any more. Noblesse oblige…

Christina Stojanova
University of Regina

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Works Cited

Bauman, Zygmunt. Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.

Johnson, Vida. “Larisa Sadilova: Babysitter Required.” KinoKultura 11 (January 2006).

Maliukova, Larisa. “Rezhisser Larisa Sadilova: Muzhchiny khotiat na druguiu planety.” Novaia gazeta (14 September 2007).

Pelevin, Victor. The Holy Werewolf Book. Moscow: Eskimo Press, 2004.

Nothing Personal, Russia, 2007
Color, 94 minutes
Director: Larisa Sadilova
Scriptwriter: Larisa Sadilova
Cinematography: Dobrynia Morgachev, Dmitrii Mishin
Art Director: Nigmat Dzhuraev
Cast: Valerii Barinov, Zoia Kaidanovskaia, Mariia Leonova, Natal'ia Kochetova, Aleksandr Kliukvin, Shukhrat Ergashev
Producer: Rustam Akhadov
Production: Arsi-Film, with the assistance of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Larisa Sadilova: Nothing Personal (Nichego lichnogo, 2007)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova© 2008

Updated: 09 Jan 08