Issue 33 (2011)

Ol’ga Subbotina: Pro Liuboff (About Love, 2010)

reviewed by Irina Makoveeva © 2011

liuboffOl’ga Subbotina’s feature film Pro Liuboff belongs to a group of visual narratives eagerly awaited by audiences because of the somewhat scandalous reputation of their literary sources but later deemed unsatisfying because the on-screen versions hardly manage to recapture the reading experience.[1] Even if these celluloid adaptations transcend their source material through excellent cinematic execution, their makers rarely receive credit for an artistically self-sufficient product—because these films are rarely “read” as visually-constructed creations. Indeed, audiences watch such films with a long-standing assumption of the source’s superiority, an assumption born during cinema’s early years, when the then-popular medium sought respectability by using high-culture—that is, well-known literary—texts. The case of Subbotina’s film, however, once again attests to this approach’s obsoleteness.

Significantly, Pro Liuboff is based on a pulp fiction book by Oksana Robski with the playful title Pro LiubOFF/ON, which fits perfectly into her series describing life in Russian business circles, with an emphasis on rich wives residing in the notorious district of Rublevka. The popularity of her first book Casual (2007)immediately established her as, on the one hand, a public figure familiar with the country’s nouveaux riches and, on the other, as a successful writer and businesswoman. A prolific author, Robski hardly deviates from the stereotypes circulating in the collective unconscious that predictably privilege the poor as the heirs to true values and condemn the rich as cynical and immoral characters luxuriating in materialism.

liuboffBoth Robski’s and Subbotina’s versions of About Love examine love’s role as a universally accepted tool for measuring human authenticity and nobility—at least in a genre such as melodrama. In linking the ability to experience authentic emotions with her personages’ social status, Robski inevitably falls victim to clichés (poor versus rich, lovers versus wives), which she attempts to veil with irony. The filmmaker, however, successfully avoids this trap. Instead, she transforms the story of a New Russian unfaithful to his idle wife into the somewhat tragic narrative of a philandering businessman deeply attached to a spouse suffering from her infertility. The shift in the two stories’ emphases results from rewritings in the script by Viktoria Evseeva, which presents characters as victims of their own or other people’s actions.

Dasha (Ol’ga Sutulova), a twenty-five year old speech therapist, shares a Moscow apartment with her buoyant friend, Rita (Mariia Mashkova), earning a living as a manicurist at a beauty parlor. Thanks to Rita, Dasha starts coaching a prosperous businessman, Vlad (Fedor Bondarchuk), who decides to improve his public speaking skills on his way to the political Olympus. Most of their sessions take place in his office or his car between his numerous appointments. Inseparable from her pupil, Dasha even accompanies him to his friends’ house where she meets Rublevka’s glamorous women, from whom she is clearly separated by a class abyss. Dasha is tested once again during the celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of Vlad’s marriage where she confronts his wife, Lada (Oksana Fandera), who is alarmed by the teacher’s constant presence. Aware of her incompatibility with Vlad’s circle, Dasha nevertheless succumbs to his charms and “devilish” voice. A post-Soviet Cinderella, invited to the ball and attired in an appropriate garment—in both instances, Vlad substitutes for the absent fairy godmother—the enamored woman spends a night with her prince. Yet an attempt on Vlad’s life and the murder of his secretary—a young woman present in his car—terminate the nascent romance. Although Dasha is denied her “everafter,” it is not unattainable for her friend, Rita, who not only becomes engaged to one of Vlad’s friends, but also becomes pregnant with his baby. Ultimately, the vengeance for the businessman’s egotism comes from the father of Vlad’s secretary.

liuboffYet this simple plot of the seduction of a woman from the provinces becomes more intricate as its second part exposes the actual reasons for Dasha and Vlad’s encounters, while focusing on his complex relationship with his wife. Following the literary source, the director allows Dasha to present her version of events first: her voiceover leads the first sixty minutes of the film. The rest of it, however, undermines Dasha’s credibility in interpreting Vlad’s demeanor and offers a disparate version of events that discloses his pragmatic rather than romantic interest in her. Such a juxtaposition of the conflicting viewpoints of a naïve single female and a seductive married male dually narrating the story of their brief romance adds some depth to the familiar paradigm of unhappy love.

The second part of the film lays bare the businessman’s ulterior motives. Desire to achieve a higher public approval rating before elections and the encouragement of his PR manager prompt many of Vlad’s actions, including his affair with Dasha. Unlike Dasha, who remains oblivious to her pupil’s manipulative demeanor, the audience sees the true nature of events through the filmmaker’s use of split screens. For instance, Dasha’s misconception of Vlad becomes apparent from a shot juxtaposing the young woman poetically describing the power of Vlad’s touch with a shot of him having sexual intercourse with a television anchor. Additionally, what initially seems Vlad’s noble, caring gesture in finding time to personally deliver rare fruits and expensive food to a sick Dasha turns out to originate from his unwillingness to wait idly while his driver changes a tire in the courtyard of her apartment building. Furthermore, Vlad’s seemingly innocent invitation to a reception, which she refuses to attend, ends up being an invitation to death. Vlad’s secretary is accidentally murdered in the attempted assassination organized by the same PR manager as a way of evoking voters’ compassion.

liuboffHowever, the adaptation refrains from stereotyping the male protagonist as a merely vicious New Russian by underlining his devotion to his disturbed wife. The film’s emphasis on their love somewhat thwarts the cliché by introducing a Dostoevskian twist foreign to Robski’s novel. Subbotina’s Lada is portrayed not only as victimized by male dominance but also as different from other Rublevka wives. Deviating from the original, the film suggests that her infertility results from an abortion initiated by Vlad. Several scenes highlight Lada’s dissimilarity by graphically positioning her outside the circle of wives sitting together—and not coincidentally, she is the only brunette among them. In this respect, she is closer to Dasha, whom, in fact, she sees as a younger version of herself. An additional tragic stroke is added by her loneliness: unlike her prototype in the novel, whose long phone conversations with her female friend reveal their striking shallowness, the screen Lada is deprived of any friends but her husband. In short, Subbotina’s version alters, albeit not consistently, the simplistic opposition Robski establishes in her book between “us” (ordinary people) and “them” (Rublevka’s inhabitants) in order to condemn wealth’s immorality.

liuboffWhat makes Subbotina’s adaptation even more appealing than its written source is that it is a skillfully crafted story. The camera becomes a palpable participant in the narration. Orchestrated by an experienced cameraman, Mikhail Agranovich, its movements externalize the characters’ inner states and thus direct the viewers’ perceptions.[2] For instance, the scenes showing the protagonist’s lover-to-be are frequently filmed by an incessantly moving camera, which emphasizes his mobility as a successful businessman. At the same time, her excitement in his presence is conveyed either through a dynamic camera or a sequence of close-ups capturing emotions reflected in her facial expressions. Agranovich’s camera never ceases to assist the spectators in deciphering the plot’s construction and the director’s conceptions underlying it. Indeed, the camera’s movement governs both the story’s beginning and its end. The film opens with a compelling tracking-in shot of Dasha standing with children behind an orphanage’s window and ends with a similar shot, this time displaying her behind a café’s window, unable to prevent what will happen to her former lover in the street. The cinematic eloquence of such a circular composition invites appreciation of the camera work on this film—which reviewers unfortunately overlooked in their focus on its content.

Irina Makoveeva
CIEE, St. Petersburg State University

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1] Previously, Subbotina directed mostly television productions, one of the most noteworthy being the series Fotograf (2008).

2] During his long cinematic career, Agranovich worked on such prominent films as Little Tragedies (Malen’kie tragedii, 1976), Repentance (Pokaianie, 1987), The Kreutzer Sonata (Kreitserova sonata, 1988), Mother (Mat’, 1993), The First Circle (V kruge pervom, 2006).

Pro Liuboff, Russia, 2010
Director: Ol’ga Subbotina
Script: Viktoriia Evseeva, Oksana Robski
DoP: Mikhail Agranovich
Composer: Gleb Matveichuk, Andrei Komissarov
Production Design: Maksim Fesiun, Marusia Parfenova-Chukhrai, Andrei Vargotskii
Producers: Igor’ Tolstunov, Anna Kagarlitskaia, Vera Vilenskaia
Cast: Ol’ga Sutulova, Fedor Bondarchuk, Oksana Fandera, Mariia Mashkova, Evgenii Stychkin.

Ol’ga Subbotina: Pro Liuboff (About Love, 2010)

reviewed by Irina Makoveeva © 2011

Updated: 06 Jul 11