Aleksei Popogrebskii: Simple Things (Prostye veshchi, 2007)

reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2008

At the core of Aleksei Popogrebskii's superb new film Simple Things are the rueful smile and the extraordinary charisma of Sergei Puskepalis. Originally an actor, Puskepalis re-trained as a theater director under Petr Fomenko, and is now the main director at the Pushkin Drama Theater in Magnitogorsk. He met Popogrebskii when visiting his son, Gleb Puskepalis, on the set of Koktebel, the film Popogrebskii directed with Boris Khlebnikov in 2003. Popogrebskii says that he wrote the screenplay of Simple Things with Puskepalis in mind and never considered anyone else for the leading role. Though it is the actor's first major role in a film and he is required to be in every scene, Popogrebskii's confidence has been triumphantly rewarded by one of the most riveting performances in recent Russian cinema. [1]

The character whom Puskepalis inhabits is his namesake, Sergei Maslov, an anesthetist at the “Fourth City Hospital” in St. Petersburg. Maslov's life is beset by troubles. His job at the hospital is poorly paid and he takes petty bribes to get by (though he turns down the bigger bribes that he is offered). He and his wife live in a cramped flat in a kommunalka, which one of his neighbors, a bent old woman, almost blows up by switching on the gas and dropping the matches while Sergei is smoking in the kitchen. His non-descript, right-wheel drive car is left standing at traffic lights by classier models, and then, when he goes drinking after work in a bar, he loses his license. An attempt to retrieve it by using blat with a Major who is his former patient is rebuffed and he is reduced to traveling on overcrowded public transport. His attempts to organize an assignation with Ksiusha, a receptionist at the hospital, are thwarted by her parents' decision not to go to their dacha. His daughter Lena has left home to live with a boyfriend whom he and his wife Katia don't know. To cap it all, Katia announces that she is pregnant. Appalled at the idea of having another child in their tiny flat, he says he'll speak to a fellow doctor about arranging an abortion, only to find that Katia is determined to have the baby. In such circumstances anyone would be forgiven for having a minor mid-life crisis. Maslov is frequently seen (in his flat, at the hospital, at a party at a Chinese restaurant) cast into thought while others are having fun. A fellow doctor even warns him that “thinking is no good for you.” But Maslov is assailed by a sense of failure—asked by his wise and tactful wife what is making him dissatisfied, he answers, with a flash of anger: “Myself. I'm dissatisfied with myself” (“Soboi. Ia soboi nedovolen”).

In early Soviet films, doctors, like teachers, were dedicated and self-sacrificing, motivated by their belief in the new order. Dr Birman, in Oleg Frelikh's Prostitute (Prostitutka, 1926), dispenses jobs in a sewing workshop and lectures on avoiding venereal disease. The eponymous young hero of Erast Garin and Khesia Lokshina's Doctor Kaliuzhnyi (1939) returns to his native town after graduating. He sorts out the chaos in the local hospital, and operates on his former schoolteacher and on his girlfriend's sister, in both cases managing to restore their sight. In Aleksandr Zarkhi and Iosif Kheifits's In the Name of Life (Vo imia zhizni, 1946) a young surgeon solves the problem of cell regeneration, while Kazakova, the heroine of Sergei Gerasimov's The Village Doctor (Sel'skii vrach, 1951) goes to work in a village hospital and wins the respect of the old doctor who runs it.

Doctors remained favorite heroes in the films of the Thaw and beyond. In Fridrikh Ermler's An Unfinished Story (Neokonchennaia povest', 1955), Elizaveta Maksimovna, a model of hard work, good sense, and kindness, nurses the shipbuilder Ershov back to his feet after a serious accident, falling in love with him along the way. The belated finding of his true love is also part of the story of Vladimir Ustimenko, the doctor hero of Iosif Kheifits's 1958 film My Dear Person (Dorogoi moi chelovek), which begins in the 1930s, when he is a student, takes him through service in the Great Patriotic War, and ends with his leaving to work in the virgin lands. And though the trio of doctors in Aleksei Sakharov's Colleagues (Kollegi, 1962), taken from Vasilii Aksenov's novel, are of a younger generation, graduating from the Leningrad Medical Institute in 1956, they are still driven by lofty aspiration, in particular the central figure, Sasha Zelenin, whose appointment as a village doctor places him in a tradition that goes back, via Gerasimov's Kazakova and Garin's Kaliuzhnyi to the doctors of Chekhov, a patrimony he acknowledges by placing a portrait of the writer on the wall of his village flat. It is Zelenin's commitment to his profession that helps him to overcome the many challenges that his work brings him, and that same commitment can be seen in two of the doctor protagonists in films of the Brezhnev years. Sedov, the surgeon hero of Il'ia Averbakh's A Degree of Risk (Stepen' riska, 1968) is plunged into self-doubt when a five year old girl dies after he has operated on her, but eventually agrees to try to save the life of a talented mathematician, while in Pavel Chukhrai's Remember Sometimes! (Ty inogda vspominai!, 1977 ) a military surgeon, who has retired to a little town near the border after the death of his son, realizes that he can still be useful and begins to practice again.

In recent years, some Russian cinematic doctors (usually Muscovites) have become wealthy and glamorous. They run an expensive private clinic, as in Aleksei Sidorov's Shadowboxing ( Boi s ten'iu , 2005), or at least dream of running one, as in Aleksandr Atanesian's ludicrous Summer Rain (Letnii dozhd', 2000) in which two “brilliant young gynecologists” in chic suits take chic women in chic cars to chic restaurants. Others have become fashionably weird, like the mad researchers in Roman Prygunov's Solitude of Blood (Odinochestvo krovi, 2001), the alarming hospital doctors of Aleksandr Shein's The Mixer Tap (Smesitel', 2001), the sinister psychiatrists in Nikolai Lebedev's The Iris Effect (Izgnannik, 2004), or the hospital director of Denis Neimand's Junk (Zhest', 2006). Perhaps the most unlikely transmogrification is the doctor as action hero, as played by Evgenii Mironov in Egor Konchalovskii's Flight (Pobeg, 2005). Like Averbakh's Sedov, Mironov's Evgenii Vetrov is a cardiologist. Unlike Sedov he runs his own private clinic, lives in a grand apartment, is framed for the brutal murder of his own wife (the plot is very similar to that of The Fugitive [dir. Andrew Davis, 1993]), and is sent to Siberia. He escapes, goes on the run, and is hunted by a Colonel whose young daughter will die unless she has a heart operation. After car chases and a jump into a river from a helicopter, he saves the girl, exposes the machinations of his Salerian assistant, and clears his name.

Nothing could be further from these flashy comic-book heroics than the mundane dramas of Sergei Maslov. But then Maslov is not a Moscow doctor. Trained in Rostov-on the-Don, he works in St. Petersburg, a city whose cultural history and present circumstances both contribute to the film's meaning. Popogrebskii eschews the grand Petersburg of the tourist sights (though some scenes are shot near the Mariinskii theatre), [2] preferring to portray a city of dark streets and cheap bars, inhabited by those forced to consider the compromises of the market economy—one of Maslov's former colleagues, Vasin, has left the hospital to work as a rep. selling medicines. It is also a city with a slightly old-fashioned air, and this helps place Maslov, and the film, in the context of other great St. Petersburg/Leningrad films.

It is impossible, while watching Simple Things, not to be reminded of Georgii Daneliia's Autumn Marathon (Osennii marafon, 1979). The film takes place in autumn and Maslov is given a box of chocolates called Autumn Waltz (Osennii val's). Daneliia's Andrei Buzykin, as played by Oleg Basilashvili, had the same engaging charm that Puskepalis now brings to Sergei Maslov. He also had several of the same problems. Like Buzykin, Maslov has both a wife and a pretty young mistress (though Maslov's liaison is given far less weight); like Buzykin, he finds his visits to his girlfriend complicated by the eternal Russian question of living space; like Buzykin he has a daughter, Lena, who has left home to live with her husband/boyfriend, making his wife feel lonely and bereft; like Buzykin, he tries desperately to do right by everyone around him, leaving him drained and plunging him into reflection. Russian critics have repeatedly invoked Buzykin, as well as Sergei Makarov, the character played by Oleg Iankovskii in Roman Balaian's Flights in Dreams and Reality (Polety vo sne i naiavu, 1983), and Gia, the hero of Otar Ioseliani's Once there was a Singing Blackbird (Iqo shashvi mgalobeli; Zhil pevchii drozd, 1970), while Popogrebskii himself finds Maslov to be closer to the hero of Daneliia's 1977 film Mimino (Kichin). It is symptomatic that all these films were made in the undramatic Brezhnev years, a period in which the best Russian films turned their gaze at the dilemmas of private life.

Change comes to Sergei Maslov when he is employed by a vaguely shady agency to give daily injections to an old and captious actor. Vladimir Mikhailovich Zhuravlev was once extremely famous, though Maslov has never heard of him. Coached to ingratiate himself by mentioning two of Zhuravlev's biggest popular successes, The Major's Courtship (Svatovstvo maiora) and And Now I'll Sing for You… (Ia vam seichas spoiu…), he finds that Zhuravlev is exasperated to be remembered for these hack works rather than for his more serious films. He is also snobbishly appalled at being treated by a man who studied in the provinces and has not got a degree, but eventually an unlikely friendship develops between them. It is one of the many triumphs of Simple Things that the old actor Zhuravlev is played, in a master-class of actorly attention to detail, by the great Soviet star Leonid Bronevoi, still performing at the Lenkom Theater in Moscow, but not seen in a film for a decade. Bronevoi provides another continuity both with Soviet films and with the Soviet period, and the relationship between the young man and the old intellectual recalls that between Zina and the old man whose flat she was decorating, and who listened constantly to classical music, in another wonderful Leningrad film from the Brezhnev years (and another film in which housing problems cause a teenaged child to leave home), Vitalii Mel'nikov's Mom Got Married (Mama vyshla zamuzh, 1969).

But the encounter with the actor also provides a link to another Petersburg past and another Petersburg text. Knowing that he has not long to live, and sympathetic to Sergei, who has told him his problems, Zhuravlev wants to help him. He insists that a rather dismal looking painting on his wall, though unsigned, is a Repin. He proposes to transfer ownership of the painting to Sergei and to keep the letter confirming this in his pocket. Then, on a day of his choosing, Sergei must put him out of his misery by giving him not a palliative but a lethal injection, take the letter, sell the painting, and, on the proceeds, buy a new flat, raise his new child, and live happily ever after. The Dostoevskian implications of dispensing with a useless old man are apparent both to audiences and to Maslov, [3] but Maslov emphatically refuses Zhuravlev's offer. He even comically botches a later attempt to take the painting and replace it with a reproduction. What is most striking about this strand of the plot of Simple Things is that Popogrebskii declines to develop its dramatic potential. Simple Things is not a film “about” euthanasia, any more than it is a film about abortion. It is instructive to contrast Maslov's reaction to hearing that his wife is pregnant with a child that he does not want with the way in which the hero, Alex, responds to similar news in Andrei Zviagintsev's new film The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007)—Maslov's wife Katia even echoes Alex's wife Vera by telling him that the child is “not his,” not his if he does not want it. In Simple Things the news causes stress and temporary estrangement, followed by accommodation. In The Banishment it leads, portentously, to abortion, suicide, heart attack, and thoughts of murder. Reacting to criticism at the end of the studio discussion of his film in the television series Closed Screening (Zakrytyi pokaz), Popogrebskii stressed that he had not made an issue-driven film, that he had not wanted to say anything. He spoke similarly in a recent monologue about Tarkovskii, insisting: “I don't like philosophizing in films. I am interested in concrete, individual characters and concrete, individual stories” (Popogrebskii 36).

Indeed, the film's other cultural references are consistently downbeat and often inglorious. Michelangelo's image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the hand of God giving life to Adam is here blown up as a relief print. The painting of an old man on Zhuravlev's wall, which may be a Repin, is so dark and nondescript that it has been overlooked by the vultures who have already taken all his other valuables. The bar Maslov drinks in has the Gor'kian name The Lower Depths (Na dne). Chekhov (a brooding presence) is invoked by Zhuravlev through a reference to words he wrote about heroin just before his death, while Maslov doesn't even know where he comes from: he thinks that, like him and like the fish soup cooked up by Zhuravlev's housekeeper, he is “ iz rostovskikh,” that he comes from Rostov-on-the-Don. [4] The most extensive allusion is to Tiutchev, whose 1866 poem appealing for acceptance in the face of the waning of youthful energy, “When your fading forces…” (“Kogda driakhleiushchie sily…”), is recited by Zhuravlev as a stoic lesson for both men. [5]

Just as the title of Boris Khlebnikov's 2006 film Free Floating seemed to refer as much to his way of making the film as to the experiences of his hero, so Popogrebskii's title, Simple Things , can be seen as a manifesto of his approach to telling a cinematic story. In his Tarkovskii monologue he asserted that “ cinéma d'auteur is linked with the question of whether a real person can be seen behind the film or not, whether this person can be sensed” (37). Popogrebskii has also spoken of making “a film in which you cannot see the filmmaking” (“kino, v kotorom ne vidno kino”), something that is, of course, very different from artlessness (Bobrova). Asked by Oleg Sul'kin to name directors whom he admires, he mentioned Ioseliani, Daneliia, Kitano, and Kaurismäki; while to the same question from Valerii Kichin he cited the Dardenne Brothers. In both cases he said that his favorite director is Truffaut.

Simple Things works through the accumulation of engrossing detail (there is a compelling opening sequence of an unseen woman's hand preparing the jar of soup that an unseen man then puts into his briefcase, before leaving hurriedly for work) and through its laconic, humorous, suggestive dialogue, praised by the writer and scriptwriter Viktoriia Tokareva in the Closed Screening discussion. The sense of authenticity is increased by the decision to shoot not on studio sets but in real St. Petersburg flats, already “inhabited” by the filmmakers, and to shoot with synchronized sound (Sul'kin). The work of the sound designer is flawless, as is that of the editor, who repeatedly cuts scenes short, not waiting to spell out their import. Other scenes are underplayed: Maslov's visits to an antique shop and a print shop when he plans to replace the painting are shown in vision and not sound, while a brush with the police is briskly resolved. Some scenes are not there at all—we do not see the confrontation that leads to the loss of his license. By contrast with Koktebel , which worked mainly through long and medium shots, Popogrebskii here consciously chose to have lots of close-ups and to shoot with a hand-held camera (Sherengoi). His cinematographer, Pavel Kostomarov, who worked on another recent St. Petersburg film, Aleksei Uchitel''s The Stroll (Progulka, 2003) is a distinguished maker of documentaries, who has collaborated with Vitalii Manskii and Sergei Loznitsa, and has co-directed two films with the Swiss filmmaker Antoine Cattin. [6]

Simple Things ends with a winter scene out of L.S. Lowry, with Maslov and his daughter's boyfriend standing freezing in the snow waiting for his wife and daughter, both now heavily pregnant. This has been interpreted in some quarters as a “ kheppi end ” (always a term of abuse among serious Russian viewers). Yet the dual pregnancy and Maslov's affectionately muttered words “All women are fools” (“Vse baby dury”), an echo of his wife's earlier “You're a fool, Maslov” (“Durak ty, Maslov”), suggest that there will be more surprises ahead. The first of these comes in the final shots of the film: Maslov is hit full in the face by a snowball concealed by his wife, both an engaging image in itself and a typically subtle metaphor for the greater shock she has previously visited upon him.

Simple Things swept the board at the 18th Kinotavr Film Festival, held in Sochi in June 2007, winning the Grand Prix for best film and other prizes for Popogrebskii as best director, and Puskepalis as best actor, in addition to which the annual prize for a “priceless contribution to Russian film” went to Leonid Bronevoi. More prizes followed in July at the 42nd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival: Puskepalis was again named best actor, Bronevoi got a Special Jury Mention, and the film won the award of the International Film Critics (FIPRESCI). But the success at Sochi was tinged with controversy. Supporters of Aleksei Balabanov's Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007) found it difficult to accept that his film was completely overlooked by the jury, and tempers were further frayed when the Head of the Guild of Film Scholars and Film Critics presented not one, but two prizes, to both Balabanov and Popogrebskii, though the initial vote had gone clearly to Cargo 200. Critical temperatures rose, principled stands were taken, and harsh words were spoken. Simple Things was dismissed by some as belukha to Balabanov's chernukha. [7] For this western viewer, Cargo 200 is, indeed, a masterwork, a triumphant return to form after the doodlings of Dead Man's Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005) and It Doesn't Hurt (Mne ne bol'no, 2006). It is more daring, more powerful, more angry, and finally more important than Simple Things, but Simple Things is a work of imagination, subtlety, humor, maturity, and invention, and Popogrebskii was unlucky to get caught in the crossfire.

When it was announced after the triumph of their Koktebel, in 2003, that Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii would now each be making a feature on their own, it was natural to wonder how these new works would differ and whether one of them would put the other in the shade. When Khlebnikov's marvellous Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006) appeared last year to broad acclaim, it naturally increased the pressure on Popogrebskii. Free Floating is a work of stunning originality, but it is difficult (and invidious) to have to choose between these two hugely talented filmmakers. Popogrebskii now intends to make a film with just two characters set in Chukotka and again starring Sergei Puskepalis. The degree of expectation elicited by this announcement is a measure of the achievement of Simple Things.

Julian Graffy
University College London

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1] On Sergei Puskepalis and on Popogrebskii's choice of him for the part of Sergei Maslov, see Sul'kin's extensive and absorbing interview with Popogrebskii. Other interviews referred to in this review are: Gizatullin's interview with Sergei Puskepalis; Bobrova's with Aleksei Popogrebskii; Sherengoi's with Popogrebskii; and the combined interview conducted by Kichin with Popogrebskii, Puskepalis, and the film's producer, Roman Borisevich.

2] Popogrebskii discusses his attitude to St. Petersburg and his choice of Petersburg locations in his interview with Sul'kin.

3] Savel'ev draws attention to the role in the film of the Dostoevskian part of St. Petersburg near Sennaia ploshchad' (33).

4] A number of critics have found Maslov to be a Chekhovian doctor, and Vasil'eva likens the Repin painting on the wall to the Chekhovian shotgun, which is destined to fire (though in fact it doesn't).

5] Popogrebskii explains in interview that when Bronevoi proposed that his character should recite this poem, his initial reaction was one of horror, since it seemed so uncinematic. He decided to give the old man his way and then quietly to cut the sequence during editing. But when the scene was shot he realized just how consonant the poem was with what he had wanted to indicate in the scene; see Bobrova.

6] Popogrebskii speaks of his admiration for documentary cinema and his reasons for choosing Kostomarov in his interview with Kichin.

7] The initial controversy is well explained by Dolin in his wittily titled article “Molchi, ‘Gruz,' molchi.” An open letter from a group of critics on the subject and the extensive ensuing discussion can be read on the Seans blog.

Works Cited

Bobrova, Natal'ia. “‘Ia delal kino bez kino'.” Vecherniaia Moskva (18 June 2007).

Dolin, Anton. “Molchi, ‘Gruz,' molchi.” Moskovskie novosti (23) 2007 (15-21 June 2007).

Gizatullin, El'dar. “Spektakl' — eto pochti chto borshch.” Argumenty i fakty Cheliabinsk 28 (11 July 2007).

Kichin, Valerii. “Urok kadrom.” Rossiiskaia gazeta, federal issue 4407 (6 July 2007).

Popogrebskii, Aleksei. “Tarkovskii dlia menia — avtor ‘Zerkala',” Iskusstvo kino 4 (2007): 36- 37.

Savel'ev, Dmitrii. “Vzgliad na ‘Veshchi',” Iskusstvo kino 8 (2007): 32-34.

Sherengoi, Maksim. “Gruz i tiazhest' ‘Prostykh veshchei'.” Film.Ru (2 August 2007).

Sul'kin, Oleg. “Polbukhanki i kartina Repina.” Novoe russkoe slovo (22 July 2007).

Vasil'eva, Zhanna. “Vozvrashchenie cheloveka.” Moskovskaia sreda 23 (27 July 2007).

Simple Things, Russia, 2007
Color, 106 minutes
Director: Aleksei Popogrebskii
Scriptwriter: Aleksei Popogrebskii
Cinematography: Pavel Kostomarov
Art Direction: Ol'ga Osipova
Music: Dmitrii Katkhanov
Cast: Sergei Puskepalis, Leonid Bronevoi, Svetlana Kamynina, Dinara Kutueva, Ivan Osipov, Malkhaz Zhvaniia, Ivan Shvedov, Luiza Markova, Liubov' Makeeva
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Nataliia Borisevich, Mikhail Kolodiazhnyi
Production: Kinokompaniia Koktebel', Roman Borisevich, with the state financial support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Aleksei Popogrebskii: Simple Things (Prostye veshchi, 2007)

reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2008

Updated: 11 Jan 08