Murad Ibragimbekov: Three Girls (Tri devushki, 2007)

reviewed by Jeremy Morris© 2008

“A Copy can Never Replace the Original”: Murad Ibragimbekov's Three Girls

If Murad Ibragimbekov— A Man for a Young Woman (Muzhchina dlia molodoi zhenshchiny, 1996), True Incidents (Istinnye proisshestviia, 2000)—can be called something of a creative everyman, having published short stories (and written the script for Three Girls and a number of other films), acted (in a Peter Greenaway production and in Russian films), and collaborated on a host of other projects from beer advertising on television to music videos with bands like Nautilus Pompilius, it is because he had a prestigious family heritage in the arts to live up to. Son of Maksud, a well-known writer, and nephew of Rustam Ibragimbekov, producer and scriptwriter, best known for his contribution to White Sun of the Desert (Beloe solntse pustyni; dir. Vladimir Motyl', 1971), Murad is clearly seen in Russia as a filmmaker who has arrived: the budget for Three Girls was $1.5 million, a significant sum for what is a filmmaker's film with a complex narrative and an “ethnic” setting (Baku?now very much the near-abroad). Murad Ibragimbekov cites Buñuel, Shukshin, and Petr Lutsik (Outskirts [Okraina], 1998) as influences on his work, and it is not difficult to see how the different cinematic languages of these filmmakers inform Three Girls . From Buñuel the film receives its surreal touches and sexual jokes: a road-work sign comes to life, a woman recalls a sexual encounter as she de-seeds a pepper with her finger; from Shukshin—a close focus on the difficulty of free personality within society and the fated search for connection; and from Lutsik—an attention to music and historical atmosphere, and a sense of timelessness and the moral inevitability of events.

What shows through most from his own previous work is the unashamed literary feel of Three Girls (an adaptation of a short story written by Ibragimbekov, which underwent a prolonged gestation period until its present iteration—a co-writer credit goes to Pavel Finn). With a relaxed pace allowing the drawn-out denouement of its carefully thought-out plot, the film seems much longer than its 84 minutes. The script is also almost too-neatly crafted. Events are repeated and revisited from different perspectives, and characters continually echo each others' words, reinforcing some of the key themes of the film: the nature of identity in a world of counterfeits (both in the human and the art world). Ironically, this is very much a writer's film despite its painterly subject-matter. However, Ibragimbekov has very successfully married his own seemingly simple tale of forged artwork and markswomen in search of love with an accomplished and quite complex cinematic telling, replete with movement backwards and forwards in time of varying extent and reach (one can't help at times feeling that perhaps Ibragimbekov has swallowed a tome on narrative prolepsis and analepsis), with more than a pinch added of defamiliarising devices—a highly idiosyncratic admix of mock-documentary with real newsreel, striking but extremely sparing use of surreal special-effects, and the constant shift between diegetic and non-diegetic music. It is also to the director's credit that none of these movements and directorial tics distract from the relentless progress of the story with its comedically light surface patina—yet another encoding of the palimpsest motif: underneath the charming performances and witty script hides a rather unpleasant truth about the impossible search for fidelity and love from beings consumed by self-interest and egoism.

The three girls of the title are Maia (Ravshana Kurkova), a beautiful, waif-like, placid art-student; Pliusha (Tarana Odjaverdieva), an immigrant to Baku from the countryside with a coquettish sense of humor who likes to play on her naïve status and the only character to speak Azeri (albeit in one scene only); and Sabina (Arzu Kadirbekova), another student, paying for her tuition by working in a sports-center as a computer technician. These firm friends have a common interest: they love to shoot at the local rifle range. However, when three more-or-less eligible young suitors appear on the scene, it appears that new interests may break-up not only their self-disciplined regular target practice, but their trust in one another.

The object that brings the girls and boys together is an exhibition of a once-lost painting discovered in the store of Baku art museum—the Three Girls by Zanzaren, the brush-name of Van Gulen, a painter unsuccessful in his own lifetime whose work in theme and style recalls Paul Gauguin. Maia has a dream that she relates to her friends, in which she paints them as nudes on a beach with the ocean in the background—the exact composition of the Zanzaren painting.

The three boys are Maf (Mikhail Politseimako), a local gangster; Pogranzon, a policeman; and Jambo, a petty thief. That the present is merely a continuation of their childhood rivalry is stressed through multiple flashbacks to their schooldays, underlining their lack of successful entry into the “adult” world. Each plays at a role without succeeding in adequately living up to the symbolic markers laid down for them: Maf's territory—the sports club—is glimpsed only fleetingly; he relies on Sabina's know-how to communicate with the mystery dealer in stolen artwork, indicating that he himself is a very small fish indeed. His domain extends outwards only to a rather small city balcony and the run down seafront arcades of Baku. He can't shoot straight, three times failing to hit his childhood friends from close range. Finally, his prestige is built on the rather shaky foundations of fixing backgammon games with magnetic dice, thereby extorting gambling debts, and trading counterfeit money with the rather more impressive out-of-town criminals. Jambo, for all his posturing, allows both Maf and Maia to trick him; he is only able to steal the painting of the Three Girls thanks to Maia. The portly divorcee Pogranzon, (his name, the most comic of the three, is close to an acronym for the military “border zone) is the most hapless of all, tricked by everyone.

Maia meets Jambo in the museum; he has been tasked by Maf with stealing the painting. Jambo owes Maf a large gambling debt after losing at backgammon to him in a fixed game. If Jambo doesn't steal the painting, Maf will kill him. Maf in his turn must supply an anonymous client with the painting. Identified only by his email address—deusXmachina—the client has offered to pay one million dollars for it, but increasingly resorts to threats when Maf is unable to deliver.

In a series of black-and-white flashbacks to WWII, which make effective use of newsreel and documentary footage, it is revealed that Van Gulen, who worked for the Nazis as a counterfeiter, had stolen a piece of artwork from Field Marshal Goering's looted collection, replacing it with a forgery. Pursued to Africa, he refuses to give up the piece to Goering's representatives and is killed. In the final scene of the film, which combines the African and Baku chronotopes, the Zanzaren painting of the Three Girls is revealed to have been painted over Raphael 's Portrait of a Young Man, looted from the Czartoryski Museum in 1939.

Jambo courts Maia and commissions a copy of the painting from her. Maia naively obliges, even forging Zanzaren's signature when Jambo insists that “a copy must be a copy.” Meanwhile Pogranzon pursues Pliusha, who is charmed by his inability to shoot straight: “You can't shoot! You can't shoot! You're a policeman. You should be able to shoot. How good it is that you can't shoot!” The copy is finished and switched for the original by Jambo. However, on discovering the plot, the three girls join forces and make another copy and switch this with the original before Jambo has time to collect it. Jambo is arrested by Pogranzon, who supplies Maf with the copy of the copy. The boys, then realizing they have been tricked by the girls agree to split the money between them once Jambo has obtained the real painting from Maia. “Nothing is stronger and purer than male friendship,” they proclaim. This, however is a triple-cross. Each of the boys attempts to persuade the respective girlfriend to shoot dead one of the other boys to protect his investment in return for the prospect of marriage. Each of the girls seems meekly to agree to this. Supplied with high-powered rifles with telescopic sights, they all appear from different rooftops and windows in the final scene and duly make good on the deal. Each of the boys is shot in turn. They have achieved what they set out to do: betray each other. They have failed to manipulate the girls, who appear in a tableau scene where the nature of the real painting is revealed by the arm of Zanzaren (played by Ibragimbekov, whose face is never seen) in a mixed color and black-and-white scene, distorting the separation of the framed stories in the film.

Despite the definition of “black comedy” given to this film by reviewers, a tone of lightness, warmth, and humor is maintained throughout. The men are ridiculous, rather than despicable. Their deaths are deserved, but not tragic. By these reviewers' definitions, a film like The Lavender Hill Mob (dir. Charles Crichton, UK, 1951) would also be classified as “black comedy.” In fact, Three Girls is not unlike an Ealing comedy: expansive, human, funny, and slightly subversive within moral limits.

Ibragimbekov has called his films “Russian of Azeri origin,” reflecting the emigrant status he has as a filmmaker based in Moscow. As indicated above, he has also stressed the importance of a European tradition of film-craft. Russian-language reviews of Three Girls are at something of a loss: after their initial praise of the filmmaker for his competence, they attempt to stress the local “color” of the film and to hail it as part of the rebirth of Azeri national cinema. This is to ignore that Baku is very much a backdrop to the primacy of story in this film. In fact, one of the film's strengths is its refusal to lose sight of the six central characters for more than a second. Framing of shots is close-up, shutting out the city, making us care about the female characters and evoking a kind of ambiguous sympathy for the male protagonists. Having said that, the hazy, green communal yard does have an important function as a meeting place and location of an a cappella trio of extras who act as a Greek chorus, singing in Azeri—first of the beauty of the three girls, then warning them of the evil motives of their suitors. These are not the only “ready-made” musical (or location) elements, and this does, arguably, give something of a “national” flavor to the film. However, this is a film in Russian by a Moscow filmmaker who has cut his teeth in the “ rolik ” business there. The one scene in Azeri, where Pliusha relates how she came to Baku from the country, maintains the director's persistent striving for defamiliarisation, not because it is in a different language, but because it is shot on DV by a handheld camera without introduction—the framing continues within the main plot of the film as the girls are introduced by this technique. Any emphasis on her status as the only “non-Russianized” character is wholly overshadowed by directorial “technique.”

As indicated in the opening paragraph to this review, what is much more interesting about this film than questions of national identity are the laudable efforts here to marry a simple narrative with moral undertones to a highly complex filmic narration. Perhaps too complex for some. On reading a number of Russian reviews one is struck by how many of them misunderstand key aspects of the plot concerning the WWII narrative. Perhaps this is due to inattentive festival viewings; a pity, because this film has so much to offer repeated viewings. Another reason may be the difficulty of subtitling in an extensively multi-lingual film: the WWII scenes are shot with accomplished German actors (Joachim Paul Assboeck from Schindler's List [dir. Steven Spielberg], 1993), sweating uncomfortably under the African sun, stealing at least their own part of the show.

Jeremy Morris
University of Birmingham

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Three Girls, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Germany, 2007
Color and black-and-white, 84 minutes
Director: Murad Ibragimbekov
Scriptwriters: Murad Ibragimbekov, Pavel Finn
Cinematography: Farkhad Mamadkazin
Cast: Tarana Odjaverdieva, Arzu Kadibekova, Ravshana Kurkova, Mikhail Politseimako, Joachim Paul Assboeck
Producers: Rustam Ibragimbekov, David Shufutinskii, Olaf Jacobs
Production: Studio Azerbaijanfilm, Central Production International Group (Russia), Höferichter & Jacobs

Murad Ibragimbekov: Three Girls (Tri devushki, 2007)

reviewed by Jeremy Morris© 2008

Updated: 09 Jan 08