Issue 47 (2015)

Anna Melikian: The Star (Zvezda, 2014)

reviewed by Masha Kowell© 2015

“Russia is doing it under strict government. It’s happening here all by itself...
Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we’re getting more and more the same way.”—Andy Warhol (1963)

zvezdaIn her film The Star, the director Anna Melikian not only reflects on the existential dilemmas of the three protagonists—the 15-year old teenager Kostia (Pavel Tabakov), his striking future step-mother Rita (Janušauškaite), and his love interest Masha (Dalakishvili)—but also issues a larger verdict on the hyper-materialist, superficial values of contemporary Russian society. In this society, where everything is subject to commodification, including one’s life and death, “the economic activity is barely there,” “ecology is destroyed,” and “the nuclear arsenal is ample.” Melikian maps her exposé of moral decay and thorn-ridden redemption onto the surreal, post-modern Muscovite landscape, collaged out of craggy terrain of construction sites, pristine modernist spaces of the wealthy, decrepit quarters of the poor and claustrophobic sets of decadent nightclubs. By making her protagonists confront death face-to-face against this dystopian urban background, Melikian attempts to delineate the defining terms of cultural heritage. She explores the issue through the symbolism of two opposed notions: depth and surface. In her film, cultural heritage epitomizes the sum total of meaningful, original “imprints” that individuals leave behind for posterity. Castigating the virtualized reality of the digital age, she valorizes the socio-cultural contributions of manual labor and validates the significance of intimate human touch—a vanishing phenomenon among atomized Russian citizens.

Melikian offers a story of mistaken identities that revolves around Kostia, the son of an oligarch, and Masha, an aspiring actress from the provinces. Masha attends numerous auditions where her ability to cry is valued as much as the shape of her legs. Already thin and tall, Masha wants to fit the industry-defined formula of beauty. She creates a “wish list” of physical alterations, which comprises surgery on her lips, breasts, legs, and ears. She works odd jobs to save enough money for these expensive plastic surgeries. Her corporeal transformations occur in parallel to her developing relationship with Kostia, whom she meets at a nightclub where she entertains the guests as a grotesque mermaid in an enormous water tank. Ashamed of his wealth, Kostia works as a day laborer at the nightclub instead of attending school. During her first rehearsal as mermaid, ignored by everyone else, Masha nearly drowns. Kostia witnesses Masha’s struggle and offers her his hand. The life-saving touch of his outstretched arm, bereft of materialistic motives, appears extraordinary amidst the self-absorbed, myopic society. Subsequently, Kostia introduces himself as a thief. At first slightly uncomfortable, Masha begins to accept the crumpled cash that Kostia transfers from his hands to hers.

zvezdaKostia’s father lives with his girl-friend, Rita, whose main aspiration is to get pregnant by him and ultimately get married. Kostia despises Rita’s acquisitiveness. Rita attempts to construct the image of herself as a family-oriented, philanthropic woman. Additionally, she shuttles between the pristine, transparent spaces of the oligarch’s mansion and the analogously cool, crystalline architecture of a hospital, where she takes the oligarch’s feces every day for testing. The humiliation of handling someone’s bodily refuse (she consistently checks its warmth) does not faze Rita, for whom this testing constitutes a part of the couple’s in vitro fertilization process.

zvezdaDuring one of her visits to the laboratory, Rita finds out that she is sick with a rare, degenerative autoimmune disease. Her prognosis is grim: she has a month or two to live. Faced with death, Rita cannot continue betraying the remnants of her consciousness. During her “scheduled” intercourse with the oligarch, she announces that she despises him. In response, the oligarch strips her of all the material trappings (the yellow Porsche, credit cards, and the house). Rita finds herself homeless, wandering the streets aimlessly with her forty-thousand-Euro purse in hand. By a twist of fate, she and Masha, the two women in Kostia’s life, end up rooming together. Kostia asks of Rita not to disclose to Masha his true identity. Dispossessed of everything and facing the impending end, Rita begins to reconsider her priorities. At various points, she assumes the role of a de facto mother to both Masha and Kostia—a sign of her growing emotional attachment. For instance, Rita fearlessly throws herself onto two men who mercilessly beat Kostia. She startles them with a scream: “I am his mother!” The messiness of contact, the friction of uncontrollable bodies, and the reflexive desire to save another human being contrast sharply with her controlled and detached former self.

zvezdaThe oligarch tries to convince Rita to return to him. Rita’s refusal finalizes her dismissal of superficial, materialistic interests. Instead, she decides to donate her organs, an internal corporeal matter, to the clinic for medical research. The gesture represents the ultimate sacrifice of the body, transcending her defense of Kostia in the mêlée, as a result of which only her skin suffered bruises and abrasions. At the hospital, however, she finds out that her medical results were mixed up with those of Masha. The doctor apologizes for the confusion and announces to Rita that she is pregnant. Rita runs home to tell Kostia about Masha’s state, while a sequence of scenes indicates that Masha had been aware of her condition all along. Masha thus embodies a catalyst that sparks the entire chain of the protagonists’ physical and spiritual transformations. Her personal, ruinous restructuring not only exemplifies superficial acts dictated by the fickle laws of pop culture, but also constitutes a desire to avenge the treasonous body—the body that has failed her. Masha’s character therefore represents a complex signifying site where moral shallowness becomes telescoped onto the profundity of thinking—a condition that suspends the seemingly opposed notions of depth and surface in a dialectical limbo.

Indeed, Melikian frequently problematizes the boundary between surface and depth. When the infatuated Kostia asks Masha to marry him at his extravagant house in the presence of his father, Masha refuses his proposal. In turn, she proclaims that she will take his money to cover the last procedure on her legs. The camera lingers on her despondent eyes as she wraps her arms around Kostia’s neck. As the narrative continues to unfold, her seemingly callous rejection converts into a selfless concern for Kostia’s fate. His marriage to her would mean a marriage to a terminally ill woman. Here, the decision-making of the plastic-surgery-obsessed Masha is based not on the longing for instant gratification (an immediate point in time), but rather on the consideration of the long-term consequences (a projection into the future).

Working through various forms of urban garbage, Melikian searches for a stable definition of culture amidst eroding artistic, moral, and societal standards. Her film attempts to find answers to such questions as: what does a human being leave behind after passing as an individual and a constituent of a collective? Is it possible to leave a unique, permanent trace on a society built on ever-shifting taste (large breasts are in one day and out the other, as Masha realizes at one of her auditions), disposable relationships, infinitely proliferating digital (as opposed to indexical) imagery, and constant mediation of human interaction (flat screens, camera phones, and sleek planes of architecture)? The pessimism of Melikian’s critical analysis coexists with the optimism of possible redemption, which she partially locates in manual labor.

Melikian’s constant insertion of scenes that feature workers (builders, maids, gardeners, and genitors, etc.) continues her exploration of the depth/surface dualism. She most frequently imbricates shots of migrant laborers at construction sites, replete with rubble, scaffolding, rocks, mud and heavy machinery. Shown performing tedious tasks, digging and shoveling, these marginalized figures articulate the central thesis of the film: valid cultural heritage is premised on the individual’s tangible contributions to society. The workers’ signifying purpose comes into relief when a cantankerous collector explains to Rita that the main difference between animals and human beings lies in the ability of the latter to leave a “trace” for posterity after their passing: they continue to live through these traces. Culture, then, represents an accumulation of such visible, unique imprints, whether through art, architecture, or other significant human achievements. The collector enacts his own worldview. A seemingly extinct social type, this intellectual inhabits a Stalin-era apartment. Crammed with books (an obsolete medium of expression), the space is a symbol of a temporal drain. Here, then, the collector’s compulsive scribbling by hand in an old notebook signifies a desperate attempt to stave a sense of physical disappearance by producing an original contribution both in content and in form.

Melikian disinters the workers from the conventional social oblivion. Indeed, in the film, the construction workers leave deep, literal marks (if not scars) on the face of the city, whether through the process of demolition or building. Not unlike the collector, they “write” their work onto the urban surface with their shovels and rakes. Melikian’s strategic exposition of labor obscures a sense of progress, articulating the sites of labor as a ruin—the traditional Romantic symbol of entropy that reminds of the past, refers to the present, and points to the inexorable future. Thus these derelict places emerge as an ultimate allegory of Masha’s gradual corporeal de-composition, as well as an expression of Moscow’s formal disintegration.

zvezdaBy incorporating figures of mute workers through frequent close-ups, Melikian bares their arduous efforts in a society whose laws and racist public opinion—the majority is from Central Asia and the Caucasus—make them particularly vulnerable to the arbitrary application of power. This unearthing of the forgotten human apparatus of the city represents a striking moment of Realism in Melikian’s cultural critique. Not surprisingly, the depth of Masha’s humanity comes into sharp focus during her interactions with the workers. One wintry, cold morning she decides to embrace the passing day laborers. She embraces them tightly, one by one, as they head to work. She encourages Kostia to do the same: “I have a good morning and they do not…C’mon, share!” She and Kostia virtually throw themselves onto these alienated workers, producing a sense of uncomfortable and unexpected closeness. On the one hand, the implied thud of the colliding bodies instantiates an unmediated interaction and brings attention to these formerly invisible productive forces. On the other, Kostia and Masha’s behavior violates the workers’ personal boundaries, thereby emphasizing their defenseless positions.

zvezdaAffected by her conversation with the collector, Rita returns to the apartment that she shares with Masha and decides to produce a record of her body. Rita and Masha cover their naked bodies in deep blue and reddish pink paint. The two women roll out large sheets of white paper, against which they press themselves, creating unique traces of their figures. In addition to a symbolic recovery of the outdated indexical film form premised on the imprint of an image on celluloid, this wild cinematic tableau represents a joyful, color-saturated dance à la Matisse. The women’s sincere euphoric creativity reinstates a sense of human warmth—a possibility of unadulterated happiness. Subsequently, Rita sells the artwork to a contemporary gallery owner. Unbeknownst to her, the artwork would double as an archive of Masha’s last physical trace.

Melikian wires her multifaceted discussion of the state of contemporary culture through the surface/depth opposition to the ruminations on a socially accountable cinematic device. After all, film and photography are the media of mechanical reproduction that purportedly document and therefore immortalize the present. After having gotten her minor breakthrough role in a film, she and Kostia watch the episode in a dark movie theater. Kostia watches the same filmic outtake after Masha’s passing on his computer screen. This seemingly insignificant recording, in addition to a recording of Masha during Kostia’s first encounter at the mermaid tank, serves as a vital source of memory preservation. In the state of mourning, Kostia is able to commit Masha to memory continually and to bring her to life by re-watching these cinematic passages. The discourse on the mnemonic capacities (if not responsibilities) of film is directly linked to Melikian’s interest in the indexical film form. Similar to her valorization of manual labor, as a kind of an obsolete occupation, Melikian favors celluloid film over digital media, which she sees as the engine behind the misguided, superficial tendencies of contemporary culture.

Throughout the film, numerous handheld digital cameras record recklessly, for the sole purpose of capturing sensational moments, regardless of the moral repercussions. After Kostia catches Masha kissing another man, he decides to commit suicide. As he stands on a bridge, barely holding on to the railing and preparing to jump, the driver of a passing car notices him. The driver yells at Kostia to wait—an action that at first appears like an attempt to stop Kostia from the final leap. Upending Kostia’s (and by extension the viewer’s) assumption, the man takes out his cellular phone in order to film the moment. Kostia begs him to put it down. It was not human compassion that motivated the man to save another individual, but an insatiable craving for a provocative recording, a tempting possibility of converting death into celebrity status. Here, the camera does not emerge as a mechanism of perpetuating life or a socially motivated cinematic form, but rather stands on the side of death and impermanence.

A complex collage of commentaries on Russia’s contemporary world, The Star emerges as a powerful Realist manifesto, especially with its focus on issues of labor and production. Melikian also draws on the pop art ideas of Andy Warhol, although without a hint of Warhol’s irony. It seems that Warhol is ever-present in the film through the director’s preoccupation with surface and depth, death and memory. Moreover, his presence is symbolically denoted through the magenta pink color (often used by Warhol) that covers the apocalyptic facade of the nightclub and suffuses the blinking lights of the city. However, in the age of digital reproduction and post-Soviet commodification, Melikian’s nostalgia for material, reified traces of human activity dramatizes Warhol’s attack on the impossibility of the “original.” Unlike Warhol, perhaps, Melikian decides to transcend the boundaries of art and delves into the realm of messy human relationships. According to her, once stripped of materialistic intentions, social bonding—emotional or physical—constitute the last medium of authentic gestures.

Masha Kowell
Norton Simon Museum

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Warhol, Andy (1963). “What is Pop Art?” Interview with G.R. Swenson, Art News 62: 26; quoted in Thomas Crow (1998), “Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol,” Modern Art in the Common Culture, New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 50.

The Star, Russia, 2014
Color, 129 minutes, 1:1.85, Dolby Digital 5.1
Director Anna Melikian
Scriptwriters Anna Melikian and Andrei Migachev, with participation from Viktoria Bugaeva
DoP Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Production Design Ul’iana Riabova
Costume Design Anna Chistova
Music Alina Orlova, Anna Drubich, Igor’ Vdovin
Sound Kirill Vasilenko
Editing Dasha Danilova, with participation from Pavel Ruminov
Cast: Tina Dalakishvili, Severija Janušauškaite, Pavel Tabakov, Andrei Smoliakov, Juozas Budraitis, Alexander Shein, Gosha Kutsenko
Producers Ruben Dishdishian, Anna Melikian
Production Film Company Magnum

Anna Melikian: The Star (Zvezda, 2014)

reviewed by Masha Kowell© 2015

Updated: 29 Dec 14