Issue 26 (2009)

Boris Khlebnikov, Petr Buslov, Ivan Vyrypaev, Aleksei German Jr., and Kirill Serebrennikov: Crush: Five Stories about Love (Korotkoe zamykanie, 2009)

reviewed by Joshua First © 2009

With the participation of Khlebnikov, Buslov, Vyrypaev, German Jr., and Serebrennikov, Crush will inevitably be hyped for its all-star lineup of contemporary Russian filmmakers. The Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival featured the film in its opening gala in June 2009, and its international premiere took place at the Venice International Film Festival in September, where the film competed in the “Orrizonti” section. Despite its directorial and international film festival credentials, the structure of Crush evokesthe time-honored Soviet tradition of the kinoal’manakh, wherein a few directors agree on a vague theme—such as “friendship” (a popular one in the Soviet Union)—and create a short, and, for the most part, forgettable film. In Crush, the chosen theme is love, as the English title indicates. The Russian title, translated as “short circuit,” however, indicates something more specific to the theme that these short pieces address: all of them deal with love as a force that necessarily moves in unintended directions; that it is in no way predictable or fateful. In this respect, love possesses something magical about it, perhaps the same kind of magic that brought to life Number 5, the hero of another film that shared a title with this one. While perhaps this also fits the plot of a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, the directors at least provide enough stylistic flair to keep things interesting for 95 minutes. 

crushAs with much of contemporary Russian cinema, Crush focuses on socially marginal spaces and people—hooligans in apartment block courtyards, a deaf cobbler who lives and works in a basement shop, a forced labor camp for the mentally ill, and a sub-proletarian, prawn-suited young man advertising a seafood restaurant. With the exception of Petr Buslov’scontribution, all of them are notable for their dark humor, each of them foregrounding the surreal and unexpected. While none of the shorts rank with the best of the five directors’ work (again, with the possible exception of Buslov), they are all entertaining, with some more interesting on a formal level than others. 

The film begins, in black and white, with each of the directors, in turn, ordering a drink. They then all gather the front row of a movie theater, where we watch the five settle down to view their own film. While certainly a novel manner to begin a film, perhaps it comments on the zadanie that the directors were given—to produce something original out of a tried and true, some might say cliché, formula. Thus, we see them as the proverbial “ordinary spectators,” and at the same time as auteurs.

crushIn the first story that follows this introduction, Boris Khlebnikov attempts to mitigate between everyday adolescent male violence and the innocence of young love. “Shame” opens as an unmotivated young journalist, Sasha, is sent to investigate a confrontation between flat residents and the building management over a broken water pipe. Upon his arrival he instead discovers a hand-scrawled sign on a wall in the courtyard, “Olia is a tit” (Olia sis’ka). His task then becomes to find Olia in order to tell her, paradoxically, that this message was a sign of true love. In this task, he encounters the writer of the sign, who throws rocks at him and then beats him over the head with a brick, and eventually, after regaining consciousness, Olia herself, whom he terrorizes with his rant about the hooligan’s love for her. The piece ends from Olia’s point of view, looking out the window to see the forlorn hooligan squatting on the ground below, and thus solidifying his transformation from an aggressor to a sympathetic, if confused, adolescent. The shot also transforms Olia’s position in the film, from a woman defined by the writing on the wall to the subject, with whose gaze the audience is aligned. Nonetheless, knowledge is still mediated through Sasha, the journalist, and hence, the author and producer of meaning in “Shame.”

crushLike the introduction and Khlebnikov’s “Shame,” Ivan Vyrypaev’s contribution to Crush also addresses questions of authorship, viewing positions and spectatorship. Although his new feature, Oxygen (Kislorod), received far more attention at Kinotavr, this short piece, evidently filmed at the same time with the same cast, provides further evidence of the director’s creative rejection of cinematic conventions. “Feel It” is narrated through a Polish woman’s (Karolina Gruszka) amateur footage of her tourist trip to Moscow. The first half documents her trip to the major attractions and night clubs. The next day, the woman veers from the Kremlin and the clubs to shoot an ordinary Moscow neighborhood, during which she encounters a young man (Aleksei Filimonov). During their mutually incomprehensible interaction, which she also videotapes, evidently to provide further spectacle of Russian life, he continually asks her to ‘feel’ what he is saying, an invitation with clear sexual overtones. The female tourist relinquishes authorship at this point, first so that she can retrieve her Langenscheidt dictionary to ask him, in Russian, his name and how he is doing. Finally, we see her on-camera at a club, indicating that the male now has permanent control over the text. At the end of the piece, a second man asks off-camera who the Russian man was, indicating that the audience had been watching the video alongside the protagonist’s husband (we notice her ring in the scene after she encounters the Russian). The latter then asks, “Are we okay?” as the short ends. 

crushPetr Buslov, the director of the first post-Soviet blockbuster, Bimmer (Bumer, 2003), contributes an especially dark piece to Crush. In “Urgent Repair,” a deaf cobbler living and working in a basement shop falls in love with a pair of white high heels.  From the vantage point of a window underground, he can only see the feet of his customers outside as they wait for his assistant, an old woman, to open the door. The woman with broken white heels remains only a pair of feet for the anguished cobbler and foot fetishist, until the final scene. With his assistant on vacation, the young woman appears outside through his shop window to claim her shoes. The cobbler, distracted by the presence of her feet through the window, catches his hand in the wheel and struggles several seconds before reaching the off switch. With a now bloodied and disfigured hand, he opens the door to meet his crush.  She enters the shop, only to find the cobbler inhabiting a veritable shrine to her white high-heel shoes. Dumbstruck, she takes her shoes and runs away, leaving the cobbler to collapse from loss of blood. While certainly more conventional and less subtle than the first two, “Urgent Repair” is not without interest. Buslov is also interested in the problem of looking and being looked at. Here, however, the act of looking signals isolation and abject fantasy, and the film does not assign power to the gaze. In fact, it is the very act of looking that further emasculates the cobbler in the final scene.

crushApart from this problematization of viewing positions and authorship that runs through the introduction and the first three contributions to Crush, the theme on its surface is the inability to communicate. Vyrypaev stated as much during a television interview that appeared on CTC’s coverage of Kinotavr. Examples of this theme are many, from the hooligan in “Shame,” who can do nothing to express his love except to write an offensive phrase. The Polish woman and Russian man in “Feel It” speak different languages, and his admonition that they can “feel each other” is lost on her. The shoe repairman in “Urgent Repair” is a deaf mute who, in the film, lacks any ability to express himself. And the title character of Aleksei German’s “Kim” inhabits the completely hierarchicalized space of a decaying mental hospital, where verbal communication between patients and the medical faculty is simply impossible. Kim develops a crush on one of the female doctors, but cannot even discover the reason for his internment at the hospital, much less emotionally connect with her. The staff releases him at the end of the film, but we have even fewer answers than we did at the beginning as to why he was there in the first place.

crushFinally, Serebrennikov’s eclectic conclusion to Crush, “A Prawn’s Kiss”, finds a young man dressed as a cooked crustacean in order to draw customers into a seafood restaurant located in a riverboat on the Moskva River. The protagonist seems incapable of uttering anything besides advertising copy, even when his words descend into the absurd. He resolves to entice potential patrons with a kiss, which results in increasingly violent reactions from joggers, policemen and naval recruits. Eventually, the bloodied, prawn-dressed man encounters a woman running from an abusive spouse, as she jumps into the river to fake a suicide. In pursuit, the prawn offers the same old slogans and a kiss to the abused woman. This time, however, he gets a response, and he leads her to safety aboard a barge for waste disposal. Thus, Serebrennikov ends Crush on happy note, albeit ironically, because the senselessness ties the consummated affair to the acts of violence that preceded it. The final emblematic shot of the film is an unambiguous close-up of the smiling young couple, now cleansed of their wounds as they sail on the barge after having been pulled out of the filthy river. 

crushLike the other pieces of Crush, “A Prawn’s Kiss” becomes part of an exercise to merge the diverse styles of contemporary Russian auteurs with the classical concerns of narrative cinema. In this respect, such an exercise references the original politique des auteurs of the 1950s-60s, wherein film critics identified the mark of the director through a film’s visual style, despite the maintenance of narrative conventions. Auteurism asserted that the play of stylistic innovation within the classical form established the space for ideological critique. I cannot assert that this was the intention of the directors of Crush, nor that it will be remembered long enough for critics to historicize. More than likely, the previous and future work of these five auteurs will overshadow this collaboration. Nonetheless, Crush is not without its merits, and certainly deserved its position at the front of the 20th edition of Kinotavr.

Joshua First
Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, Miami University of Ohio


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Crush: Five Stories about Love, Russia, 2009
Color, 95 minutes
Music: Petr Volkov
Producer: Sabina Eremeeva (Studio “Slon”)

“Shame” (Pozor)
Director: Boris Khlebnikov
Screenplay: Maksim Kurochkin, Ivan Ugarov, Boris Khlebnikov
Cinematography: Shandor Berkeshi
Cast: Aleksandr Iatsenko, Il’ia Shcherbinin, Irina Butanaeva

“Feel It” (Oshchushchat’)
Directed by Ivan Vyrypaev
Screenplay: Ivan Vyrypaev
Cinematography: Fedor Liass
Cast: Karolina Gruszka, Aleksei Filimonov

“Urgent Repair” (Srochnyi remont)
Directed by Petr Buslov
Screenplay: Andrei Migachev and Petr Buslov
Cinematography: Igor’ Griniakin
Cast: Ivan Dobronravov, Evgeniia Sviridova, Tat’iana Zhukova

Directed by Aleksei German, jr.
Screenplay: Konstantin Fedorov
Cinematographer: Evgenii Privin
Cast: Karim Pakachakov, Anna Ekaterininskaia, Pavel Sergienko, Aleksandr Bezrukov, Dmitrii Vladimirov, Dmitrii Voronets, Aron Mel’nikov, Nikolai Andreev

“A Prawn’s Kiss” (Potselui krevetki)
Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenplay: Andrei Khaas and Kirill Serebrennikov
Cast: Iurii Chursin, Iuliia Peresil’d, Alena Doletskaia, Andrei Savel’ev, Andrei Fomin, Vitalii Khaev, Psoi Korolenko, Anastasiia Golub, Svetlana Brilliantova

Boris Khlebnikov, Petr Buslov, Ivan Vyrypaev, Aleksei German Jr., and Kirill Serebrennikov: Crush: Five Stories about Love (Korotkoe zamykanie, 2009)

reviewed by Joshua First © 2009

Updated: 30 Sep 09