Issue 40 (2013)

Sergei Kal'varskii: Martsefal’ (2012)

reviewed by Theodora Kelly Trimble © 2013

martsefalThe music clipmaker Sergei Kal'varskii began working on the film Martsefal’ in the mid-90s, when most of the footage was filmed in the framework of the Gorky Film Studio’s low-budget plan. Production was halted due to a lack of money and the film was completed only in 2012, when it premiered in the Russian program of the Moscow International Film Festival; it was then screened at the Amur Autumn Film Festival. What makes the film interesting is Sergei Dobrotvorskii's script, which was completed by his pupil Konstantin Murzenko. This film is, indeed, a product of the 1990s rather than the new age of Russian cinema. As Ol’ga Shervud succinctly finds, it is a “gangster comedy/ironic thriller of the era that Balabanov would later laugh at sarcastically in Blind Man’s Bluff” (Shervud 2013).

martsefalDJ Jeff (Mikhail Efremov), a disillusioned radio host, is taken on an unforeseen hallucinatory adventure through Petersburg in Sergei Kal'varskii’s Martsefal'. The film, both crime and black comedy, combines chernukha tropes with music video aesthetics in order to portray the criminal milieu of the early 1990s. This agenda is reinforced by the film’s preoccupation with music, distinguishing it as a representation of the 1990’s MTV craze.

The film begins in DJ Jeff’s radio station studio. His mixed soundtrack—rapper Eve’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” and Jennifer Lopez’s “Ain’t It Funny”—is punctuated by a shot of his disorganized CD collection. Jeff’s music schizophrenia, in combination with the station control panel’s red light “error” reading, sets the tone for the disjointed plot. The film’s use of abruptly changing tracks as a foreshadowing device is further defiled by superimposed flies and cockroaches crawling over the opening credit sequence. Jeff’s announcement to his listeners—“Let there be music and everything will be alright” [Pust' budet muzyka, vse u vas budet khorosho]—adds an ironic, humorous twist to the way he deals with the phone calls from his nagging wife: a dose of cigarettes, booze, and of course, music.

martsefalThe film’s lack of any real plot is buttressed by a peppering of what the viewer expects from a sketch of Petersburg in the 90s. The DJ is forced to slap his professional wingman, passed out drunk on the radio station floor, in order to wake him up. Jeff hitchhikes with his middle finger. He has a collection of American boy band music. There are car crashes, sketchy business exchanges, but even the explosive devices do not always detonate. What holds the story together is martsefal'—an ephedrine mixture, the drug that spawns Jeff’s hallucinations, in prisoners’ jargon designating any surrogate pleasure. Just as the film’s quirks play off of their sick humor, the appearance of martsefal' tows this line, through the naughty nurse (Tat'iana Nazarova), for example, or a moment in the middle of the film with the appearance of martsefal' syringe darts.

martsefalThe color palette also adds a twist to the film’s general disposition. The use of bright colors, especially against the blackness of the city night, provides a unique pop art flare. This is achieved through costuming choices and various objects that add to the general sarcasm. An abundance of balloons, red lipstick, and a BMW convertible are all a reminder that the rainbow infusion is anything but genuine—more as if Insane Clown Posse vomited across Nevsky Prospect and then Andy Warhol’s remains were sprinkled all over Petersburg.

What ultimately makes the film disjointed, however, is its similarity to the structure of a music video. This is unsurprising when one considers the director’s professional history. Kal'varskii has traditionally been involved in the production of other visual media, including, primarily, muzykal'nyi teleformat, which explains the film’s attentiveness to music, but also its discord. Just as the music video’s tendency is to use narrative devices to create interest rather than to construct a coherent plot (Vernallis, 12), the film plays with this practice and realizes it through both camera work and the soundtrack. Interesting, unexpected shots—like a half-sunken ship at sea—are followed by the same shot of the ship with Jeff and the unnamed nurse; they pique the viewer’s interest, but are never explained. They are there, instead, to reinforce the hallucinations, the images of the sinking Soviet order, the drowning Russia of the early 90s, and the general pessimism that seeps through the ship’s bow.

martsefalEven more interesting is the use of music itself as an overlay to the film’s disjointed visuals. Not only is DJ Jeff’s music collection a hodgepodge of pop hits, but the film’s soundtrack is just as dysfunctional. The combination of diegetic and non-diegetic track changes is enough to give the viewer radio whiplash. But the film makes use of more than just music disorder. The attention to sound is manifested in the way even the most insignificant noises are heightened. The conflation of sound and visual disarray recalls music video narrative methodology and contributes to the hallucinatory narrative thread.

martsefalThe general entertainment of the hallucinations is reinforced by the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the still early acting careers of several well-known faces. The viewer is entertained by appearances of a relatively young Mikhail Efremov, Fedor Bondarchuk, and Aleksandr Bashirov. And there is no doubt that Martsefal' is “one of those films about Russia in the early 90s.” While it is literally and figuratively a film from a different era, this is precisely what makes it important. Rather than casting it as a blast from the past, it has to be recognized as part of the chernukha repertoire, which was not in the right place at the right time. The film ends, after all, back at DJ Jeff’s headquarters, where the hallucination is over and he is more disillusioned than ever. He dials his wife, they have a pseudo-screaming match, and he disdainfully explains that he will be home in the evening after work. He repeats his radio routine, puts his face in his hands, and the film closes with a black-and-white, rap-infused, visual tour of St Petersburg.

It provokes questions, furthermore, about the place that chernukha occupies in Russian cinema. While the film is anachronistic in many ways, the audience response to these kinds of films raises more questions about the present place of chernukha in cinema than anything else. If the general goal of chernukha was to provoke audience discomfort through pessimist black humor, then Kal'varskii’s work can be contextualized as a film that succeeds at revisiting early 90s cultural anxieties.

Theodora Kelly Trimble
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Vernallis, Carol, Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context, NY: Columbia UP, 2004.

Shervud, Ol’ga, “Martsefal’ vernulsiq,”, Sankt-Peterburgskie vedomosti 22 January 2013.

Martsefal', Russia 2012
Color, 77 min.
Director: Sergei Kal'varskii
Script: Sergei Dobrotvorskii, Konstantin Murzenko
Cinematography: Vlad Opel'iants
Composer: Nikolai Devlet-Kil'deev
Cast: Mikhail Efremov, Tat'iana Nazarova, Fedor Bondarchuk, Aleksandr Bashirov
Producers: Sergei Kal'varskii, Andrei Goncharenko
Film Company: Merkurii

Sergei Kal'varskii: Martsefal’ (2012)

reviewed by Theodora Kelly Trimble © 2013

Updated: 14 Apr 13