Issue 61 (2018)

Pavel Ruminov, Nigina Saifullaeva, Natal'ia Merkulova, Aleksei Chupov, Rezo Gigineishvili, Evgenii Sheliakin, Anna Melikian: About Love: Adults Only (Pro liubov’: Tol’ko dlia vzroslykh, 2017)  

reviewed by Olga Mukhortova © 2018

pro liubov 2As a producer, Anna Melikian has taken a risk in bringing About Love to the audience for the second time, in a new version Only for Adults. Speaking about love, this beautiful and funny film does not show any problems or difficulties of contemporary Russian life. Film characters as well as film viewers do not suffer throughout the film. They do not have to feel guilty, stressed, or anxious—or think about how to save a dying culture. Everything is fine in daily life—no crisis, no death, no pain. Finally, this is a new norm: the new Moscow, where everyone is fine and can deal with their problems. In the contemporary Russian cinema landscape, dominated by patriotic blockbusters and war films such as of The Battle for Sevastopol (Bitva za Sevastopol', 2015), Fortress of War (Brestskaia krepost', 2010), Panfilov’s 28 (28 Panfilovtsev, 2016), The Viking (2016), Salyut-7 (2017), and Going Vertical (Dvizheniie vverkh, 2017), this anthology film offers a reality in which the audience can enjoy and reflect on a happy everyday life. This almost meditative comedy, grounded in the present, feels like a political statement as well as a breath of fresh air after the long journey into the patriotic imaginary of the Russian twentieth century.

Following Renata Litvinova’s appearance in the first part of About Love, John Malkovich frames four nameless shorts about an interrelated group of smiling beautiful people in Moscow who are looking for their loves or trying adventurous methods to maintain their current relationships. Among Malkovich’s audience, and throughout the film, one can find the characters from part one of About Love, played by Aleksandra Bortich, Evgenii Tsyganov, Mariia Shalaeva, Iuliia Snigir’, and Ravshana Kurkova.

pro liubov 2Pavel Ruminov’s short narrates ways of embracing love in a changed culture. Ravshana Kurkova’s protagonist, of presumably Uzbek heritage, serves as a policewoman trying to get rid of the voices of her relatives who insist on keeping a traditional woman’s place separate from men. The male protagonist, D.J. Viktor, played by Aleksandr Pal', demonstrates the complete range of racist and sexist jokes widely used in everyday Russian discourse in his anxiety to get acquainted with a beautiful unknown woman. Such jokes work perfectly and Kurkova’s character falls in love and finds her groom. Recalling a runaway bride situation, the final scene insists that the bride should escape from her relatives and run directly to her promising first date. The director ironically plays not just with the rhetorical clichés about parents but also with the cinematographic representation of police and zombies in B movies and television series.

In the next short, Natal'ia Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov continue their investigation of modern sex life with an ironic story of the relationship of a long-term married couple: high school teacher Vera Vasilievna and her accountant husband, Boris. The couple decides to try “swinging” to save their family from boredom and cheating. The contemporary story develops under the influence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a gallery of unhappy Soviet unhappy female protagonists, and Alla Pugacheva’s 1977 song with its refrain “I am asking for happiness like everyone else.” Playing an ordinary middle-class family with Fedor Lavrov, Anna Mikhalkova reveals herself to be a great comedian in her reading of Maksim’s Gor'kii’s The Song of the Stormy Petrel (the verses least associated with sex in Russian culture) while using a BDSM whip on her former student. The scene climaxes with a healed marriage, a happy Vera, and what turns out to be a very jealous and loyal husband Boris. The short ends with a series of kisses from happy Soviet film couples, from Mikhail Kozakov’s The Pokrovsky Gate (Pokrovskie vorota, 1982), Vladimir Men'shov’s Love and Dove (Liubov' i golubi, 1985), and El'dar Riazanov’s Office Romance (Sluzhebnyi roman, 1977), all completed by a shot of Mikhalkova and Lavrov accompanied by the song from Leonid Kvinikhidze’s 31 June (31 iiunia, 1978).

pro liubov 2In the third short, continuing her portraits of contemporary young females, Nigina Saifullaeva investigates how a teenager finds love after a break-up and attempting to lose her virginity several times, being brave despite all the weirdness and anxiety about sex around her. The director shows Ania’s life in a regular camera frame as well as in the double frame of a teenager’s Instagram and Tinder accounts, referring to social networks as real and equal parts of modern life. They offer a space to meet new people not only to explore sexuality, but also to understand its fundamental role in human relationships, not just as pure desire. Playing Ania’s ‘vicious’ uncle, Gosha Kutsenko emerges as a brilliant melancholic comedian in a volatile relationship with his soon-to-be-wife girlfriend.

Evgenii Sheliakin’s short reveals another type of love, concerning a fan’s love for an adored star. The director parodies Russian celebrity culture in several ways. In the beginning, he introduces Maksim Matveev as the highly paid film star Nikita Orlov (on the posters to the film Finist), who appears as a parody of Danila Kozlovskii and the film The Viking (produced by Nikita Mikhalkov’s Three T Studio). The status of John Malkovich as a celebrity and an international film star is ‘undermined’ by the appearance of Orlov, who attracts everyone’s attention and gets a round of applause. However, Malkovich’s character does not know him. The ambiguity of Orlov’s star status also emerges in a scene with a parliamentary deputy performed by Fedor Bondarchuk and the deputy’s wife played by Viktoriia Isakova (who are more famous than Maksim Matveev in Russian filmmaking). This married and well-known couple wants to have children. However, the ‘ugly’ husband insists that the father should be handsome Nikita Orlov. For that reason, the wife kidnaps Orlov during a charity dinner and asks him to collect his sperm in a container. As it turns out, they do not care about the celebrity status of an actor but want to use him as a body/donor. This plot zigzag completely ruins Orlov’s /Kozlovskii’s star status and his self-admiration by leaving a regular frightened person in front of “real stars” who are deeply in love with each other. The director not only mocks movie star life but also presents all of the filmmaking industry in a very sarcastic manner, including such professions as producers, actor agency managers, and star assistants. However, Sheliakin presents fan culture and a fan’s love for a star as cheerful, welcoming, and full of excitement about stars as celebrity figures.

pro liubov 2In the closing story, Rezo Gigineishvili constructs his narrative around John Malkovich as celebrity author Edward, who has been invited to give a lecture on psychology and love. He has been married for about two decades to Liz, a subtle and aristocratic blond woman around fifty, played by Ingeborga Dapkunaite. Ed is cheating on her with a young unpredictable brunette. A question about sex arises when Liz asks him for permission to have sex with a young man. Ironically, in Ed’s lecture, he insists that for a woman, sex always turns out to be more than just sex because it is based on relationships, not just on attraction between bodies.  The director demonstrates a type of relationship that appears very rarely on the Russian cinema screen, mature and long-lasting relationships of people over fifty and sixty. Gigineishvili proves that such people exist in Russian society. Moreover, they look beautiful, successful, and happy, and, by the way, they have sex while maintaining loyalty to each other and understanding how fragile they can be. They have lost any hysteria or carelessness in relation to each other. They value and care for their stable, calm, and strong life-long ties.

The issue of star and celebrity culture appears as a core element of the film’s content and form. Structurally, the film demonstrates admiration for several Russian celebrities. It connects Soviet film stars, favorite contemporary actors, and famous writers of the twentieth century such as Leo Tolstoy, Maksim Gor'kii, and Carlos Castaneda. In their turn, the directors reveal themselves as fans of certain films and books, joining the film audience in this love and admiration. In some ways, this collection of stories also appears as a tribute to Soviet star culture as well as to the literary pillars of Russian society. The glimpse of contemporary star culture offered in the film allows viewers not only to experience love and feelings of belonging, but also to reflect on post-Soviet human archetypes and social models to follow. On some level, these five film stories reveal or produce horizontal social bonds that evoke a sense of national unity. The film offers a wide variety of social models and variations on ways to love and to be loved, which is extremely rare in recent Russian cinema, as it demonstrates a multiplicity of models for developing the more state-approved feelings of patriotism and self-sacrifice. This anthology collection suggests that the emotional palette can be enriched and structured in a variety of ways if we are talking about a person’s private everyday life.

Olga Mukhortova
University of Pittsburgh & University of Hawai’i at Manoa

Comment on this article on Facebook

About Love: Adults Only, Russia, 2017
Color, 108 minutes
Directors: Pavel Ruminov, Nigina Saifullaeva, Natal'ia Merkulova, Aleksei Chupov, Rezo Gigineishvili, Evgenii Sheliakin, Anna Melikian
Script: Anna Melikian, Pavel Ruminov, Aleksandr Tsypkin, Roman Kantor, Evgenii Sheliakin, Natal'ia Merkulova, Aleksei Chupov, Nigina Saifullaeva, Liubov' Mul'menko
DoP: Mark Zisel'son
Music: Dmitrii Iemel'ianov, Mikhail Morskov, Artem Fedotov
Production Design: Asya Davydova
Editing: Mikhail Igonin, Timofei Shalaev, Andrei Gamov
Producer: Anna Melikian, Valeriia Kozlovskaia
Cast: John Malkovich, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Tina Dalakishvili, Fedor Bondarchuk, Viktoriia Isakova, Maksim Matveev, Anna Mikhalkova, Fedor Lavrov, Luker'ia Il’iashenko, Vladimir Iaglych, Ravshana Kurkova, Aleksandr Pal', Iasmina Omerovich, Gleb Kaliuzhnyi, Gosha Kutsenko, Alisa Khazanova, Marusia Zykova, Kirill Komarov, Mikhail Kuriaev, Saida Otarova, Evgenii Tsyganov, Aleksandra Bortich, Iuliia Snigir', and others
Production: Magnum, Fond Kino, Megafon

Pavel Ruminov, Nigina Saifullaeva, Natal'ia Merkulova, Aleksei Chupov, Rezo Gigineishvili, Evgenii Sheliakin, Anna Melikian: About Love: Adults Only (Pro liubov’: Tol’ko dlia vzroslykh, 2017)  

reviewed by Olga Mukhortova © 2018

Updated: 2018