Issue 31 (2011)

Ramil' Salakhutdinov’s Who Wasn’t There (Kotorogo ne bylo, 2010)

reviewed by Chip Crane © 2011

“My parents told me, when they were young they loved the tune ‘Rio Rita.’ Dad used to joke that had it not been for ‘Rio Rita’ I wouldn’t have come into being. What if they had liked ‘Podmoskovnie vechera?’ Would I be a different person?”

Ramil' Salakhutdinov’s second film, Who Wasn’t There,offers an inquiry into the nature of identity, the inevitability of death, and the human condition in the twenty-first century. As in his debut, Spinning Inside the Ring Road (2006), Salakhutdinov, a student of Marlen Khutsiev and Aleksei German, engages these grand existential issues with a sincerity that sometimes seems strangely anachronistic (see Dolgopolov). The film, despite its billing as a “fantastic drama,” is unapologetically demanding of its audience, crafting its intellectual, art-house appeal with a plodding pace, bleak visual aesthetic, haunting soundtrack, and a complex, episodic, symbol-laden narrative.

salakhutdinovWho Wasn’t There is the story of Andrei (Sergei Iushkevich), a middle-aged meteorologist overwhelmed by fear of his own death. Because of a palm-reading performed by a mysterious woman long ago, Andrei expects to die within the year. In a desperate attempt to change his fate, Andrei persuades a scientist (Juozas Budraitis) working on a secret program to use him as a test subject in the procedure he is developing. The procedure radically alters a person’s identity, which, according to the scientist’s theories, is determined by a multitude of the smallest details—including even the songs to which one’s parents listened. By subjecting the person to special rays, these details are changed, creating “a person who wasn’t there, but who could have been.” In undergoing this procedure, Andrei abandons his lover, Katia (Polina Agureeva), and his job, informing them that an acquaintance would arrive to take his place.

who was notAfter the procedure, Andrei is reborn as Ivan (now played by Dmitrii Podnozov): a man with a radically new appearance and, perhaps, a new fate. Ivan attempts to reinsert himself into his old life, but with unexpected consequences. Equipped with some of Andrei’s memories but not others, Ivan is locked out of Andrei’s work computer after repeatedly entering the wrong password. Ivan has an allergic reaction to the nuts in Andrei’s favorite candy. Ivan is now repulsed by the same scent that once drew Andrei to Katia. Ivan’s imperfect attempt to slide seamlessly into Andrei’s life reaches a breaking point when he crashes Andrei’s car (Ivan doesn’t know how to drive) and flees the scene of the accident (he doesn’t have a driver’s license either). The police, having traced the car, arrive at Andrei’s apartment just as Katia is accusing Ivan of murdering Andrei (why, she wonders, has Andrei never mentioned Ivan? Why has he left all of his clothes?).  Ivan flees the apartment, only to develop an overwhelming attraction to a schoolteacher (Ekaterina Golubeva) he encounters in a cafe. He compulsively begins to follow her, discovers her name (Daria) from her students, begins living in a crawlspace in her building, and eventually makes a copy of the key to her apartment. In the final moments of the film, Ivan enters her home and finds a photograph of himself posed happily with Daria in one of her photo albums.

At this moment, when Andrei/Ivan’s new identity seems to gain traction through this history, this connection, Ivan has a fatal heart attack, his physical form reverting back to Andrei’s. Was Andrei simply unable to avoid his fate, or did he bring it about through his attempt to change it? 

who was notThe film is shot quite strikingly, underlining its solemnity with a bleak, washed-out color palate. At several key moments, this grayed-down  tone beautifully moves beyond establishing the mood to create resonances between the actors and their context. When Andrei’s corpse is discovered, for example, the muted pinks and blues of his lifeless face perfectly match the tones of the wallpaper behind him, quietly blurring the boundary between the person and his surroundings. This subtle reinforcement of the film’s insistence on the fundamental significance of the relationship between individuals and their environment occurs repeatedly throughout the film: the red and brown of Andrei’s accordion blends into the red and brown sheets wrapped around Katia; the white of Andrei’s shirt fades into the stark architecture of the scientist’s lab.

In contrast to the film’s subdued visual aesthetics, its dialogue is oversaturated with content. Every scene is packed with metaphors, significant details, and philosophical discussions. In addition to the long discussions on the nature of identity and the inscrutability of the future, which have some direct relevance to the major themes of the plot, Who Wasn’t There features extended meditations on the relationship between knowledge and understanding, on the nature of human attraction, and the role of art in the digital age.

Salakhutdinov’s multitudinous construction continues in his deployment of imagery. Who Wasn’t There is aggressively structured around a number of visual metaphors. For example, on several occasions Salakhutdinov interrupts the narrative with shots of Andrei riding a rollercoaster. This motif, simultaneously suggestive (perhaps too obviously) of Andrei’s trajectory and the film’s, makes its final appearance near the end of the film (and Andrei’s life) with a first-person shot of the rollercoaster car pulling into its dock. These trajectories are also represented through photographic images of weather systems taken from a satellite, and tracking shots moving sideways along a barrier of impenetrable fog.

who was notNor is the film content to remain within a single genre. The film begins like a police procedural. Daria, the schoolteacher, returns home and goes about her business routinely until she discovers a dead body in her living room. The only suggestion that Who Wasn’t There will be anything other than a straightforward detective film is Daria’s remarkable unhelpfulness as she is interviewed by the inspector: she has no idea who the man is, how he got into her house, or why he was there. Following this introduction, the film glides back and forth between a mysterious science-fiction plot, occasionally reinforced by eerie glowing doors, and a fairly standard contemporary art-house depiction of alienation and loneliness in a modern urban landscape.

The film’s rejection of singularity does not, in the end, result in a loss of unity. Instead, we are subtly signaled that everything is meaningful, every conversation or symbol carries weight, and that the complexity of the story is carefully, perhaps masterfully, organized by an auteur’s hand.

Chip Crane
University of Pittsburgh

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Who Wasn’t There, Russia, 2010
Color, 107 minutes,
Director: Ramil' Salakhutdinov
Scriptwriters: Ramil' Salakhutdinov, and Elena Dolgopiat
Cinematography: Leonid Iliukhin
Artistic Director: Vladimir Rodimov
Cast: Sergei Iushkevich, Polina Agureeva, Dmitrii Podnozov, Ekaterina Golubeva, Iuozas Budraitis.
Producer: Arsen Gotlib
Production: Metronome Film with the participation of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema of the Russian Federation

Ramil' Salakhutdinov’s Who Wasn’t There (Kotorogo ne bylo, 2010)

reviewed by Chip Crane © 2011

Updated: 14 Jan 11