Issue 32 (2011)

Alla Surikova: A (Wo)Man from the Boulevard des Capucin-oks (Chelovek s bul’vara KaputsinoK), 2009

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova © 2011

capucinesAt the opening of Alla Surikova’s A (Wo)Man from the Boulevard des Capucin-oks, two construction workers philosophize about the deplorable state of cinema. Their grievances repeat almost verbatim Rudolf Arnheim’s 1933 denunciation of the “complete film”: sound and color have ruined silent cinema, robbing it of its artistry and turning it into a banal reproduction of reality. Arnheim claimed that technical limitations would bring out cinema’s art; the workers’ recipe is to cut off all money supply to filmmaking: “no one should ever be paid.” To be fair, Surikova’s film both displays signs of a shoe-string budget and does not refer to reality in any meaningful way. The only reference is to Surikova’s own 1987 A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines,[1] a parody of a Western starring Andrei Mironov in his last cinematic role, alongside a dozen other heavy weights of Soviet cinema on the eve of its collapse: Nikolai Karachentsov, Oleg Tabakov, Mikhail Boiarskii, Lev Durov, Galina Pol’skikh, etc.

It makes sense then to examine both plots side by side in a kind of Proppian morphology of the wonder tale trajectory. An idealist outsider (Mister First in the 1987 film; his American granddaughter in the 2009 version) arrives to a community plagued with corruption, violence and meaningless existence (the American Wild West; a post-Soviet provincial town). The hero(ine) suggests an alternative activity (watching silent films; making a Soviet film). Though skeptical and hostile at first, the community (American cowboys; Russian mobsters) gets swayed by the magic of cinema (Lumière shorts; Soviet films). A few obstacles present themselves but the community undergoes a collective re-education. Here the parallels end. In the late Soviet “prequel,” cowboys equally eagerly take to trashy slapstick and fall back on their old ways. Mr. First leaves town with two re-educated citizens: a former burlesque dancer and a wild frontier man, Black Jack (Mikhail Boiarskii). In the 2009 sequel, former thugs, pimps, prostitutes, swindlers and migrant workers—who seem to come straight from the “trashy” early post-Soviet slapstick films—joyfully pour onto a truck and set off along the bumpy country road to make their next Soviet film. Cinema triumphs over reality and common sense.

capucinesSurikova’s film has amassed so many bad reviews[2] that it suffices to outline the most salient features which make the film practically unwatchable. Acting is amateur, costumes are bizarre, every aspect of the script betrays sloppiness, and cinematography and editing are worthy of a Drankov film.[3] Many reviewers in fact note that Surikova’s film looks exactly like the film that her characters would, in all likelihood, make (Goriacheva). The only way A (Wo)Man from the Boulevard des Capucin-oks makes sense is as a symptom: having bottomed out, Russian cinema has nowhere to go—but up. Start from scratch.

But this optimistic thought is hindered by the film’s very premise. It is a one-idea film, of the kind prominent in 1990’s Russian cinema, and this idea—the comic re-education of a community which seems beyond repair and redemption—which worked in the ironic perestroika-era film falls flat in the 2009 sequel. Part of the problem is the difference between revealing the absurdity in the world via a wild narrative premise and an absurd premise. The American granddaughter of Mr. First (played by the actor’s daughter, Maria Mironova) brings to the glorious town of Murom $5 million not to watch Soviet cinema but to make a Soviet film. The filmmakers (inside and outside the film) seem not to be bothered by the fact that post-Soviet television schedule abounds in Soviet-era films and the A Wo(Man) was preceded (and most likely will be followed) by numerous remakes: Irony of Fate-2 (Ironiia sud’by, Timur Bekmambetov, 2007) , The Return of Three Musketeers (Vozvrashchenie mushketerov, Georgii Iungval’d-Khil’kevich, 2009), and most recently Office Romance-2 (Sluzhebnyi roman, 2011). None of these had any effect on the condition of Russian cinema or Russian society. Surikova’s film has an answer: television and film industry are all Moscow-based, and as the characters repeat half a dozen times, “We don’t like Moscow.”

capucinesThe original film parodied a Western, but much of its dialogue referred to contemporary Russia. This allegorical angle was enjoyable enough to compensate for the weak script and cardboard characters. When Black Jack declared that “This country will be ruined by corruption!” or “This is a country which has lost its way. Blood, sin and greed tear us apart,” the Soviet viewer got a healthy dose of double-speak. The distinctive features of the new version are new Russian patriotism and old Soviet nostalgia, all in one flask.

Life in the Russian provinces is actually quite good. The waitress warns the American girl to lay off with her democracy: “We have stability here.” The prostitutes remark that “the country is on the rise” (strana na pod”eme), while the local Godfather’s daughter refuses to study in the West: “Harvard is total bullshit (polnyi otstoi). London is a big village. I love my motherland.” And indeed, what’s love if not the much-hated Muscovites, dressed in the snow-white alien garb, quote Immanuel Kant and the local gang (outfitted for a Hawaiian vacation) answers them with lines from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra?  The only thing missing in this tropical paradise is a communal, kolkhoz-style lunch and a script about “a real Komsomol love.”

capucinesThe Soviet cinematic Golden Age is located in the Thaw. Masha First wants to make a film “with a human face”; the Godfather (Aleksei Buldakov) gets his re-education after watching When Trees Were Big (Kogda derev’ia byli bol’shimi, Lev Kulidzhanov, 1961); one of the gangsters-turned-actors, nicknamed DeNira, has a vision of a personal idyll next to a tractor, and the turning point in the production of the movie is the replica “I want us to go to the Virgin Lands.” The line is delivered by Elizaveta Boiarskaia, the actual daughter of Mikhail Boiarskii (Black Jack) and the cinematic daughter of the local crime boss. Despite the utter absurdity of the scene, there is a tinge of something genuine (nostalgia?), completely out of tune with the rest of the amateur production in and outside the diegesis.  But this moment quickly dissolves into the kapustnik-style communal celebration in the town square, represented with the help of CGI as film-with-a-film. The reformed bratki and migrant workers are joined by the police and the city administration in a musical number led by the two pretty leading ladies (Mironova and Boiarskaia) with a cinematic family pedigree. One only wishes that their bonding over the inept acting of male characters would turn into some girl-on-girl action, to compensate for the visual onslaught of naked male butts at the film’s beginning. It would feel almost feminist.

Elena Prokhorova
College of William and Mary

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1] The original film was a box office leader of 1987, with over 50 million tickets sold.

2] See, for example, a devastatingly funny piece by Aleks Eksler

3] Alexander Drankov (1886-1949), a pioneer of Russian cinema, was notorious for cranking out a multitude of sloppily-made films.

Works Cited

Goriacheva, Dar’ia, “Bul’var ne vyderzhal dvoikh”;, 9 July 2010

A (Wo)Man from the Boulevard des Capucin-oks, Russia, 2009
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Alla Surikova
Screenplay: Eduard Akopov, with Sergei Plotov and Alla Surikova
Cinematography: Valerii Makhnev
Production Design: Ekaterina Petrashko
Music: Aleksei Shelygin
Cast: Maria Mironova, Aleksei Buldakov, Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Evgenii Miller, Nikolai Fomenko, Mikhail Boiarskii, Marina Golub, Leonid Iarmol’nik, Aleksandr Adabash’ian, Andrei Noskov, Aleksei Panin
Producer: Alex Potashnikov
Production: “Positiv-Film Studio”

Alla Surikova: A (Wo)Man from the Boulevard des Capucin-oks (Chelovek s bul’vara KaputsinoK), 2009

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova © 2011

Updated: 11 Apr 11