Issue 23 (2009)

Vitalii Manskii: Virginity (Devstvennost', 2008)

reviewed by Irina Liubarskaia © 2008

Battle for Moscow

A girl with a shrill voice (the singer Elka) sings her smash hit: “Welcome in City of the Deceit” (Dobro pozhalovat' v Gorod Obmana). Wheels turn, tires screech, horns hoot, cars move a little forward in the infinite congestion, which for some reason is called traffic in motion. Adverts are ablaze in light bulbs on a hot summer day. Monotonous squares of windows of high-rise buildings, like an endless, perforated tape. A plane on its approach seems to ram a house. An ugly, huge nested doll with bread and salt lurks from behind a Stalin high-rise , causing bewilderment by its sheer senselessness. People with purposeful faces go somewhere, but their eyes speak of only one desire: to sleep on the move. Trains, the metro, buses, cars—all this apparent commotion towards an unknown, but very important destination. Vagabonds, dogs, smog, the crowd—all this energetically charged non-beauty of a disproportionately overgrown city.

The symbol of movement here is a queue of young people, standing in the scorching sun for hours in pursuit of their dream. They want to attend a casting session “to get onto television”, “to make a career”, “to earn money”, “to sell themselves”. What will you do for one million?—they are asked. Sleep with anybody. Betray someone. Sell their parents. Eat dung. Everything is possible. The tempered and moralizing voice-over (the well-known journalist and writer Dmitrii Bykov) sounds naive and old-fashioned against this background: here the famous metaphor of the world as a supermarket is firmly connected to the image of M ephistopheles , standing at the cash till to buy souls.

From this mass of images three heroines emerge, making their way to the spectator as if they were squeezed from some tube; they have arrived in Moscow from the provinces to fight for their place in the sun. Christina wants to participate in a popular television show and lose her virginity in the arms of one of its heroes. Karina-Barbie wants to take on Madonna herself and become a star of planetary scale; therefore she is prepared to lose her virginity only for starring for big money in an advert for Coca Cola, and with the help of the Coke bottle. Katia wants to get 3,000 dollars for losing her virginity; she has found a buyer on the Internet and wants to use this money to pay for her college fees. Two of the girls will get what they want, although it brings them no pleasure, and they leave Moscow. Only Karina-Barbie preserves her virginity, but begins her path into the “life in pink”, turning into a stripper and becoming one of the stars of a porn show.

The filmmaker's attitude to the heroines is spread rather subjectively, non-uniformly and ambiguously throughout the film. Manskii obviously sympathizes with Katia , enabling her not only to show in front of the camera her confusion and her thoughts about her plan, but even suggesting to pay her if she abandons her plan. Showing this degree of sympathy left even Manskii in a vulnerable position. The scene where he talks to Katia in the car provoked on the whole a very sharp reaction of the audience, which rushed to the girl's defense and accused the filmmaker of being preoccupied with constructing screen concepts instead of switching off the camera and setting the girl on the right path. However, such charges are leveled at any documentary filmmaker since the spectators, who easily sit through – and even justify—murders and violence in fiction film, turn into moralists when it comes to documentary cinema, and reckon that for the sake of art one must not sacrifice ethics and use people as raw material. No lesser objections were caused by the filmmaker's appreciable hostility towards Karina-Barbie, whom he turned into an impressive image of moronic rapacity in a world where everything is for sale. Manskii bestowed the least amount of compassion on Christina, the girl who dreams of becoming famous just by sleeping with a show star. But despite the fact that Manskii set some straightforward emphases, the film contains no unequivocal answers or final conclusions, and certainly no sentences or verdicts.

After all, Vitalii Manskii was going to make a completely different film; or rather, two different films at once. One of them should have dealt with the theme that, as a result of the overkill of market relations, everyone today has become a product and lost their face, as well the right to lead a proper life. Whilst researching this topic he found a tremendous heroine: a girl who, for money, agreed to live in her apartment under constant video surveillance and to be reconciled with the fact that her private life would be shown on the Internet. Manskii's other film was a commission for the television channel TNT, which already for more than four years has been running, with high viewer ratings, the reality-show House . Manskii's film observed a group of young people as they tried to get on with their colleagues on the show. The finished film was handed over to TNT, but for some reason they decided not to air it. These two projects, taken together, unexpectedly gave Manskii a concise theme as starting point for reflection: how girls who arrive in hoards every single day “to conquer Moscow” and sell their virginity.

However, there are more than three heroines in his film. First of all, the Russian capital, Moscow, which, as we know, does not believe in tears. Once could say that Vitalii Manskii's film shows how modern girls transform their freshness into consumer goods. One could say that this is a ruthless piece of criticism of a society, which has made consumption the main emotional component of life. One could say a lot. However, without Moscow these words would be empty, because not only everything has a price here, but a price tag can even be put on such a thing as virginity. For Russia, Moscow is a gigantic magnet whose attraction generates an amazing ability of the city to make dreams come true (but also to destroy them, which happens much more often). Moreover, Moscow is a huge vacuum cleaner, which absorbs much filth and where only very rarely a diamond can be found, having been accidentally sucked up. Manskii has achieved something startling: he has filmed our city harshly and sarcastically, cutting off everything that might reveal its genuine suitability for living here or its real beauty and power. However, he thus did not kill the city or transform it into a symbol, into “a yellow-eyed devil”. The camera of his remarkable director of photography Irina Shatilova managed to capture, in the flicker of faces, cars and houses, the tempting soul of the capital which gives everybody the opportunity to try and win. And the city is not to blame that many lose the battle for Moscow, but those who come with unfitting aims.

But there is another heroine. Very few people noticed that sometimes another girl from the provinces passes through the frame, busying herself and looking detached: a young nun in a black headscarf. However, for the attentive spectator her silent image serves without doubt as a tuning fork, setting a counterbalance to what persistently echoes from the screen: everything is for sale – this is the norm of modern life. However, Manskii sensitively introduces this heroine onto the screen, since his task is not at all to point to a possible way out of the world of quick cash. He prefers to confess honestly that for the majority there is no solution. “I think that this film not about three virgins, but about you and me precisely. About all of us. If people don't understand that, if people are horrified by the events on the far-away screen, as if seen from the side, then the film will achieve little. Only when the viewer understands that the horror is not on the screen, but inside each of us, then I can say that my film has achieved its purpose”.

In search of a rhyming partner for this film people frequently mention the twenty-year old film by Iuris Podnieks Is it Easy to be Young? (Legko li byt' molodym?, 1987), and Stanislav Govorukhin's perestroika hit We Cannot live like that (Tak zhit' nel'zia, 1990). The director willingly confirms a continuity in his work from the first film, but rejects a connection with the second. However, we don't need to go that far back to look for analogies. The topicality and freshness of Virginity is highlighted by the fact that it fits neatly into the line that can be traced in films by debut filmmakers, who grapple with topical and painful themes in the young section of our society: The Hard-Hearted (Kremen', 2007) by Aleksei Mizgirev, Cruelty (Zhestokost', 2007) by Marina Liubakova and Everybody Dies but Me (Vse umrut a ia ostanus') by Valeria Gai Germanika.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Irina Liubarskaia

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Virginity, Russia, 2008
Color, 86 min.
Scriptwriter and Director Vitalii Manskii
Narrator Dmitrii Bykov
Director of Photography Irina Shatalova
Song “Yolka”
Sound Evgenii Goriainov
Editing Roman Shklovskii
Producers Sergei Livnev, Lev Nikolau
Executive Producer Natalia Manskaia
Production Film Company Leopolis, Studio “Vertov. Real Cinema”

Vitalii Manskii: Virginity (Devstvennost', 2008)

reviewed by Irina Liubarskaia © 2008

Updated: 07 Jan 09