Marina Liubakova: Cruelty (Zhestokost' , 2007)

reviewed by Olga Klimova© 2008

Cruelty, starring Russian diva Renata Litvinova and a young actress, Anna Begunova,[1] is the first full-length feature film from documentary director Marina Liubakova.[2] Liubakova starts her film by introducing a professional grade camera, a Nikon, as one of the main characters—both as narrator and as primary structural element—into a story about a teenage girl, Vika (Begunova), and a successful, but lonely business woman in her thirties, Zoia (Litvinova). Liubakova understands her own film as a collision of two generations. In an interview with Moskovskii komsomolets, she asserts: “Contemporary teenagers are very pragmatic. Zoia, … with her romantic nature and modesty, looks so outdated with all of these teenagers in the background” (Kartsev]). Indeed, Litvinova plays the role of Zoia as very flaccid and passive woman, who, surprisingly, works as the head of a legal office somewhere. She lives alone in a modern apartment building, is romantically involved with a married neighbor, attends sessions with a therapist, and does not drive because she still “mixes up the gas pedal with the brakes.” In comparison to her, Vika is a very independent, bold, and even aggressive girl. She comes from a single-parent family and does not seem to get along well with her mother or her younger sister. Her lack of money and a desire to have a better life somewhere in Monte Carlo result in her turn to criminal activities.

The story of Cruelty begins with Vika peeping on people in the new apartment building across the street and documenting their everyday routine with her camera. After discovering Zoia's affair with a businessman, Vika decides to make some money by blackmailing the man. Her plan fails, the businessman breaks up with Zoia, and both women are forced to go on the run from the police for ruining Zoia's lover's car and dacha in an act of revenge. The criminal act of destroying private property sets up the two women to break other laws, for example, robbing Zoia's company at the end of the film. Crime ties together two generations of women and gradually leads to a dramatic ending. Many film critics have noted the similarities between Cruelty and Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise (1991), with its focus on two women trying to escape from a male dominated world.[3] Intertextual references to Scott's film do not consist only in the fact that Zoia and Vika double their American counterparts in temperament and actions, but also in a similar visualization of the road trip, as well as in the external and internal transformation and “masculinization” of the inert, timid heroine, Zoia.

If crime is a link connecting these two completely different women, Vika's camera is an object that initially introduces them to the audience and to each other. The film opens with extreme close-ups of the camera, which are juxtaposed with shots of the film's urban setting, an airship and a plane in the bright blue sky. All of these shots are not only directed from the camera's point-of view, but also contain on the screen the special focus marks, typical of professional cameras. They also alternate with shots of a black screen with a white flashing light at its center, creating a feeling that the camera is blinking like a human eye. Referencing film noir stories about crime, the opening shots of Cruelty are accompanied by a voice-over. This voice-over is not spoken by a human being, however, but is created by the snapping sound of Vika's Nikon. Vika's camera, with its voyeuristic ability and desire to distance and to separate subjects from objects, introduces fragmentation, alienation, and the disintegration of human relationships into the mainstream “crime and punishment” narrative of Cruelty.

The clicking sound of the camera continues while documenting children on a playground, a pregnant woman watering house plants, Zoia's romantic dinner with her lover, and a woman committing suicide in the new apartment building. During the first few minutes of the film, the audience is permitted to see only Vika's fingers putting the memory card into the camera and pressing the button on her Nikon. She initially appears on the screen as an image in a puddle on the roof top, a reflection of her own body. This image is followed by a medium shot of her legs, jumping over the roof curbs. Later in the film, the camera freezes events and “cuts” people's bodies into bits and pieces. In the suicide scene, the woman's body, centered by the window frame as if it were in a painting, invites Vika's and the audience's voyeuristic gaze to eye-witness and to engage in the spectacle. Alternating a view of female legs swinging over a chair with shots of a black screen in rhythmical fade-outs, Vika's camera fragments the suicide scene and the body into smaller segments. Paraphrasing Deleuze's famous notion of the “body without organs,” Liubakova's film constructs “organs without bodies,” or bodies without humans (129).

Vika's camera plays an important role in Liubakova's film insofar as it creates a gap, a distance, between subjects and objects, and alienates subjects from themselves. The photographic microcosm of the Nikon also projects the macrocosm of contemporary Moscow with its heavy traffic, numerous business centers made of steel and glass, and people who do not know anything about their neighbors anymore. One of the main ideas of Liubakova's film is contained in the advertising slogan at the bus stop shown in the second half of the film: “Moscow is preoccupied with business” (Moskva zaniata biznesom). The slogan functions as a metaphor for describing a life style, common in the contemporary Russian metropolis, where everyone is alienated from his/her friends and family and from him-/herself as a result of the market economy and the commercialization of people's life.[4]

Vika's hobby of spying on people comes from her inability to communicate with her own family and people around her. She does not seem to have any friends, she lacks a job or occupation, and the guy she thinks is her boyfriend has another girlfriend with whom he is going on summer vacation. While constantly gazing at Zoia through the lens of her Nikon, Vika gradually gets attached to her and, later in the film, this obsession with the older woman acquires sexual overtones: she comments on her body while Zoia is changing her clothes (“You don't look so bad, I thought it would be much worse”) and later suggests to Zoia that they become lesbians.

Both Zoia and Vika undergo transformations in the film. Under the influence of a young savage, quiet and polite Zoia begins to act violently, irrationally, and unpredictably. Ekaterina Barabash, in her review of Cruelty, even distinguishes unpredictability as another important character of the film . The moment that marks the beginning of Zoia's gradual transformation into a voyeuristic and active person, somewhat resembling Vika from the beginning of the film, occurs in an episode at the theater, where the two women come to watch their new acquaintance, Arkadii, dance. Arkadii's half naked body on the stage, separated from the rest of the dark frame by a circle of light, moves slowly in a cloud of dust. The display of his body attracts Zoia's attention and she begins to take pictures of him dancing. Later, she becomes involved in another blackmailing scheme together with her teenage girlfriend and takes pictures as Vika attempts to seduce a middle-age man.

Zoia's transformation occurs slowly and gradually. After eating and drinking at the restaurant at the expense of some random guy, Zoia smashes his car for calling them lesbians.[5] This is the second car in the film to be destroyed by the women. When they escaped from the city in Zoia's lover's Volvo, Zoia refused to drive the car: “Why would I need to drive a car if there are men for that,” thereby acknowledging that driving represents an essential masculine characteristic. After pushing the Volvo off a cliff, Zoia comments, “He [her lover] cares more about his car than about any of his mistresses.”[6] Indeed, men in this film value their expensive cars very much, first of all because they signify financial prosperity and a higher position in the social spectrum and, secondly, because they also point to their hypermasculinity and domination over wives and lovers. Losing the car emasculates Zoia's lover: nobody stops to give him a ride, he fails to carry all his documents from work, and, as a result, all his papers fly apart on the sidewalk. Vandalizing men's cars becomes women's protest against men's authority and control, an attempt to deprive men of their masculinity, and a sign of the female's transformation into bold and autonomous beings. Later in the film, Zoia also beats up two men who attack them at night, screaming “I'll kill you, you bastards!,” and she finally breaks Vika's camera during a quarrel with her teenage friend. Thus, Zoia becomes Vika's double, not only by putting on a similar red sweatshirt, baggy pants, and a knit hat, but also by adopting similar aggressive and anti-social behavior.

In her turn, after noticing that Arkadii pays more attention to Zoia than to her, Vika becomes interested in transforming herself into an attractive young lady. She breaks into Zoia's apartment, tries on her black dress, puts on some high heels, and covers her lips with red lipstick. In this scene, the camera's focus on Vika's body, reflected in the mirror and the extreme close-up of her face, presents her as a sexualized object for the audience's voyeuristic gaze. In the last scene of Cruelty, this image of Vika is repeated and her femininity is intensified by the bright red color of her coat and by the camera fragmenting her long legs wearing black tights and high heels.

If there is crime, there should be also punishment. The final scenes of Cruelty, however, do not offer the typical ending of many criminal drama films, with the wrongdoers being either sentenced or killed. Zoia is imprisoned for the crimes they committed together, but Vika escapes with the stolen money and starts a new life. The result of the collision of two generations is visualized in the final episode. A group of women wearing grey prison uniforms walks toward the camera. The colors of the setting are grey and dull, and Zoia faces the audience, walking in this group of tired and unhappy women. This shot is followed by a match cut of Vika in a fashionable outfit walking on the street and smiling. Vika represents a new generation of young people who have easily adapted to the changing economic conditions in contemporary Moscow and who have won the battle with the previous generation over financial power. These young people are interested in easy ways of making money but do not acknowledge the moral consequences of their actions. Paraphrasing the slogan from an earlier scene, Liubakova's film claims: “Young Moscow is preoccupied ONLY with business.”

Olga Klimova
University of Pittsburgh

Comment on this review via the Forum or by sending your comments to the Moderator


1] Anna Begunova is better known among Moscow audiences for her theatrical performances in Romeo and Juliette, Lend me a Tenor, and Bullets over Broadway at the Pushkin Theater .

2] Liubakova's documentaries include The Icon-Painter (Ikonopisets, 1994), Not Seeing Each Other (Ne vidia drug druga, 1998), Nadia Kozhushanaia (2001), Valerii Frid (2002), and Dark Mu (Temnyi Mu, 2004).

3] See the reviews by Kulikov, Liubarskaia, and Novikov.

4] The only remnants of “humanity” and compassion are incarnated in the character of Arkadii. He not only pays for Vika and Zoia's food at the restaurant, but also allows them to stay at his apartment after knowing them only for a couple of hours. However, Arkadii is initially marked as different, as marginal, as the Other, first of all, through his bisexuality, and, secondly, visually, through his clothes, his long blue hair, and a tattooed dragon on his back.

5] The scene in the restaurant is reminiscent of the scene in Valerii Todorovskii's The Land of the Deaf (Strana glukhikh, 1998), in which two girls also make a stranger pay for their lunch without giving him anything in exchange. Like Vika and Zoia, the female characters of Todorovskii's film develop a special bond that makes them contemplate their potential lesbian tendencies, with, however, some ironic overtones.

6] The destruction of a man's car as a signifier of women's liberation from male domination is also a leitmotiv in another film by a female director—Inessa Selezneva's Development of Cruelty in Women and Dogs (Vospitanie zhestokosti u zhenshchin i sobak, 1992).

Works Cited

Barabash, Ekaterina. “Khorovod olovianykh soldatikov.” Nezavisimaia gazeta (10 December 2007).

Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester. NY: Columbia UP, 1990.

Kartsev, Nikita. “Litvinova izobrazila zhertvu.” Moskovskii komsomolets (30 August 2007).

Kulikov, Ivan. “Podruga gospozhi Mest'.” Film.Ru (6 December 2007).

Liubarskaia, Irina. “Devushka Vika na kryshe sidela…” Itogi (5 December 2007).

Novikov, Dmitrii. “Pod nogami Renaty Litvinovoi gorit zemlia.” NTV Novosti (6 December 2007).

Cruelty, Russia, 2007
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Marina Liubakova
Scriptwriter: Marina Liubakova, Denis Rodimin
Cinematography: Anton Drozdov
Music: Dato Evgenidze
Cast: Anna Begunova, Renata Litvinova, Ol'ga Onishchenko, Evgenii Serov, Aleksei Frandetti, Aleksandra Astakhova, Nikita Emshanov
Producer: Iurii Glotser, Ol'ga Vasil'eva, Pavel Lungin, Rima Shul'gina, Nadezhda Solov'eva
Production: Pavel Lungin Studio, BFG Media Production
Awards: Best Female Leading Role (2007 Film Festival “Moscow Premier”)

Marina Liubakova: Cruelty (Zhestokost' , 2007)

reviewed by Olga Klimova© 2008

Updated: 23 Mar 08