Andrei Konchalovskii: Gloss (Glianets, 2007)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova© 2008

A non-competition film that opened the 2007 Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi, Andrei Konchalovskii's Gloss provides a cinematic interpretation of Putin-era Russian glamur (glamour). Cultivated by glossy magazines, popular literature, television fashion programs, and celebrity talk shows, glamur —as an affirmation of luxury, class, and notoriety—has recently become one of Russia's most dominant aesthetic modes. As Konchalovskii himself states: “Gloss, in my understanding, is a certain world where everyone is white and fuzzy. We all want to get there. And when we leave this glossy world, we find ourselves in… [real] life” (Biriukov and Naralenkova). The director's sarcastic juxtaposition of “real life” and its glossy representation echoes a number of recent Russian novels—such as Viktor Pelevin's Empire “V” (2006) and Sergei Minaev's Dukhless (2006)—that have used the prism of glamur to re-examine contemporary Russian values and ideals. Claiming to share Pelevin's outlook on glamour (Biriukov and Naralenkova), Konchalovskii suggests that his film offers a “succinct metaphor” of today's Russia that “lives in poverty but reads glossy magazines” (Al'perina; Antonov).

Based on a screenplay that Konchalovskii co-wrote with Dunia Smirnova, Gloss tells the story of a seamstress named Galia, played by Iuliia Vysotskaia, Konchalovskii's wife (and recurring star in his films). The opening scenes of the film are set in Rostov-on-the-Don, which the director presents as the epitome of the Russian provinces. With a nod to the gloomy naturalism of early post-Soviet chernukha, the camera pans across a dark street flanked by decrepit buildings, zooms to graffiti on the walls, and moves inside to a poorly-lit stairwell, pausing at the chipped paint and rusty mailboxes. These chernukha-esque shots are intertwined with bright images from a glossy magazine that Galia is reading as she sits on a toilet, with her panties at her ankles. The scene's grotesqueness is enhanced by a female voice-over reading a text (a possible parody of Vladimir Sorokin's novels), in which Brezhnev and Voltaire discuss excrement as they engage in sexual foreplay. Chernukha-infused imagery further permeates most of the mise-en-scènes that define Galia's Rostov-on-the-Don surroundings: a deliriously alcoholic father, a violently abusive mother, a gangster boyfriend. Amidst this melancholy and chaotic environment, the illusory world of glossy magazines and television commercials presents itself as the female protagonist's only avenue of entry into the “sweet life” of beauty and prosperity.

In the tradition of such Soviet-era hits as Evgenii Tashkov's Come Back Tomorrow (Prikhodite zavtra, 1963), Vladimir Men'shov's Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1979), and Tat'iana Lioznova's Carnival (Karnaval, 1981), as well as Elena Nikolaeva's recent film Pops (Popsa, 2005), Galia quickly abandons the countryside. After her photo (taken by a local amateur photographer) appears in Komsomol'skaia Pravda, Galia heads to Moscow in hopes of launching a modeling career. Symbolizing the female protagonist's ostensible escape from her abject country life, the dark visual imagery of the Russian provinces gives way to a fast-paced cinematic text brimming with images of glamur. However, the film, which is subtitled “A Bitter Comedy about Sweet Life” (“Gor'kaia komedia o sladkoi zhizni”), portrays an urban experience as equally farcical and dispiriting as the protagonist's provincial, chernukha -tinged former life. “Glossy” collages of Moscow's Western-style luxury stores, prominent product placement, and cameo appearances of actual Russian socialites, all provide a superficial spectacle devoid of humanity and governed exclusively by the power of money.

Infused by the standard Marxian critique of the capitalist “cash nexus,” “buying” and “selling” become key motifs of the film. In Gloss 's cinematic universe everyone and everything is defined by monetary transactions, a clichéd generalization well encapsulated by Galia's observation towards the end of the film: “All people can be divided into those who buy, who sell, and who are being sold.” In this vein the editor of Beauty magazine (Irina Rozanova) sells glossy images while cynically asserting that “intelligent people don't read glossy publications, they publish them.” Another character, a designer named Mark Shiffer (parodically played by the prominent comedian Efim Shifrin) completely reworks his collection just a few days before a show after a colleague deems Shiffer's original offering to be “ démodé.” In a none-too-subtle commentary on the fashion world and the questionable taste of gullible Western consumers, Shiffer's scandalous new collection, entitled “100% shit,” is immediately purchased by a New York fashion house.

While the two subplots described above offer a critique of the fashion industry's superficial gloss and of its vacuous, albeit voracious consumers, the film's next episode makes a broader, although equally nihilistic statement. Petia, the owner of a modeling and “dating” agency (played by Gennadii Smirnov and based on a real-life prototype, Petr Listerman), supplies girls, whom he labels “shaggy gold” (lokhmatoe zoloto), to oligarchs at an average price of $70,000 per “unit.” Close-ups of semi-nude women strolling about the agency present a parable of female commodification, where women are transformed and “packaged” into any image that fits the paying client's demands. The female protagonist, who first lands a job as Petia's house-keeper and later—thanks to her skills in “managing” the girls—as his assistant, eventually becomes a “chick ( tsypka ) for sale” herself. When one of the agency's nouveau riche clients, Klimenko (Aleksandr Domogarov) “orders” a wife that looks like Grace Kelly, Galia—personifying a Hollywood rendition of Walter Benjamin's “mechanically reproduced art”—is quickly re-fashioned into a copy of the actress-princess.

Although Gloss resorts to a traditional fairy-tale metamorphosis of the female protagonist, it approaches the Cinderella tale from a profoundly cynical and repulsive angle. When Galia is brought to the oligarch's lavish mansion, she quickly (and voluntarily) finds herself in his bedroom, drunk and crawling on the floor. Klimenko commands Galia to remove her panties and lift up her skirt. He then proceeds to lob nuts at her bare backside. While sharing the crudeness of chernukha cinema, this debasing scene also contains parallels to themes and stylistic devices of Petr Todorovskii's 1989 smash hit Intergirl (Interdevochka). Like the protagonist Tania in Todorovskii's film, Galia “sells” her body (and presumably her soul) in a symbolic form of market exchange. As Serguei Oushakine has noted, Todorovskii's female protagonist is involved in the metaphoric chain of “woman—prostitution—foreignness—capitalism” (296). The chief difference between the main characters in these two films is that Konchalovskii's Galia becomes a commodified object for the Russian, rather than the Western moneyed class.

In the concluding segment of the film, Galia's jealous former boyfriend, Vitëk (who has also come to Moscow and now works for the oligarch Klimenko), follows Galia as he raises a gun (presumably aiming it at Galia's back). The camera, however, never shows Vitëk pulling the trigger and it remains unclear whether he actually kills Galia. The director uses this open-endedness to reinforce his didactic pessimism. The implication is that, even if Vitëk does not physically kill Galia, her glamorous life with the oligarch ultimately entails the female protagonist's spiritual death. As the titles begin to roll, Galia reappears on the screen. Wrapped in luxurious furs, she is re-united with the oligarch Klimenko as they attend Moscow's annual Millionaire's Fair. In another heavy-handed critique of Russia's nouveaux riches and consumer culture , the closing frame of the film zooms to the cover of Beauty magazine featuring Galia's portrait as it passes through a shredding machine, where the protagonist is metaphorically “chewed up” by Russia's version of capitalism.

In an attempt to demonstrate “what it takes to make it to the cover of a glossy magazine” (“A. S. Konchalovskii), Konchalovskii has created a grotesque and despairing cinematic metaphor of Russia that intertwines the mafia, the fashion industry, new Russian money, as well as bleak visions of an impoverished countryside. Only a few scenes dedicated to Galia's childhood memories, highlighted by Anna German's Soviet-era song “Hope” (Nadezhda), seem to suggest a hint of optimism. But these nostalgic episodes are short-lived as Galia—before joining the glossy world of Russian glamour—waves a symbolic good-bye to a vision of herself as a child. A cautionary (and somewhat facile) tale about “soulless” consumer culture, Konchalovskii's Gloss offers an essentially fatalistic statement about perverse capitalist values that have supposedly “infected” contemporary Russia. Ironically enough, despite the vehement criticism of the role that consumer culture plays in today's Russia, the film features extensive product placement and an ample array of consumer goods. Then again, the frequent references to Blue Diamond (Goluboi brilliant) vodka and “I” (Ia) fruit juice perhaps provide a subverted form of self-irony and self-reflexivity and are, therefore, fundamental to the film's critique of gloss and glamour.

Olga Mesropova
Iowa State University

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Works Cited

"A. S. Konchalovskii o fil'me".

Al'perina, Susanna. “Polnyi Glianets.” Rossiiskaia gazeta (23 June 2006).

Antonov, Dmitrii. “Andrei Konchalovskii: ‘Glianets—moi luchshii fil'm'.” Moskovskie Novosti 34 (6 September 2007).

Biriukov, Dmitrii and Oksana Naralenkova. “Andrei Konchalovskii: Reaktsionnyi ‘Glianets'.” Rossiiskaia gazeta (24 August 2007).

Oushakine, Serguei. “The Fatal Splitting. Symbolizing Anxiety in Post-Soviet Russia.” ETHNOS 66:3 (2001): 291 – 319.

Gloss, Russia, 2007
Color, 117 minutes
Director: Andrei Konchalovskii
Scriptwriters: Andrei Konchalovskii, Dunia Smirnova
Cinematography: Maria Solov'eva
Production design: Ekaterina Zaletaeva
Music: Boris Frumkin
Cast: Iulia Vysotskaia, Irina Rozanova, Aleksei Serebriakov, Aleksandr Domogarov, Efim Shifrin, Il'ia Isaev, Gennadii Smirnov, Ol'ga Arntgol'ts, Andrei Noskov
Producers: Andrei Konchalovskii, Evgenii Stepanov, Aleksandr Brovarets, Ol'ga Vasil'eva
Production: Andrei Konchalovskii Producing Center, Studiocanal-Cadran Production-Motion Investment Group, Backup Films

Andrei Konchalovskii: Gloss (Glianets, 2007)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova© 2008

Updated: 20 Mar 08