Issue 61 (2018)

Nikolai Khomeriki: Selfie (2017)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes © 2018

At first glance, Vladimir Bogdanov seems to have an enviable life. Hailed as “the voice of a generation” for his debut novel Bones years earlier, Bogdanov (Konstantin Khabenskii) has since written two sequels and hosts his own television interview show. His massive celebrity is matched by a rapacious appetite for the fruits of Moscow high society: elite nightclubs and parties, incessant imbibing, and a smorgasbord of beautiful women. Cracks quickly emerge, however, in this portrait of success. Drinking and women are an obvious salve for Bogdanov’s crumbling family life and growing sense of irrelevance as a writer. Already estranged from his ex-wife (Anna Mikhalkova), he forgets his daughter’s birthday. His publisher reaches him at a nightclub with an ultimatum: it’s been a year since his book advance and his time is running out. At this critical juncture, Bogdanov begins to see flashes of a doppelgänger, a physical copy of himself named Vladimir Danilin (also played by Khabenskii), and a psychological thriller ensues.

selfieFollowing in the tradition of double narratives by writers such as E.T.A. Hoffmann, Fedor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov, the appearance of Bogdanov’s doppelgänger explores his deep duality. Danilin seems to embody everything the hero lacks: sobriety, reliability and devotion to family. As the imposter annexes more and more of his life—hosting his talk show, moving in with his ex-wife and daughter, playing cards with his friends—Bogdanov desperately attempts to expose him and lands in a mental hospital. Selfie is interlaced with ambiguities and clues, playing upon what literary critic Tzvetan Todorov called the “fantastic hesitation,” and leaving the viewer perpetually questioning: is Danilin a bona fide stalker or the product of Bogdanov’s disordered imagination?

In the context of new Russian cinema, Selfie is striking for its sleek, stylish production. Arthouse-turned-blockbuster director Nikolai Khomeriki teams up with the talented cinematographer Vladislav Opeliants—known for his recent work on Serebrennikov’s The Student (Uchenik, 2016)—to create a neon- and techno-infused noir that recalls Nicolas Refn’s cult hit Drive (2011). Innovative aesthetics and a talented cast highlighted by Konstantin Khabenskii, however, cannot save this film from its problematic conception and script. Overwrought with twists, shallowly explored themes, and cinematic clichés, the film ultimately fails to deliver on its initial promise.

selfieAs Bogdanov fights back against the usurper Danilin, he uncovers a conspiracy between the imposter and his own assistant Zhanna (Iuliia Khlynina). Having been in love with Bogdanov for years and ignored, Zhanna plots with the doppelgänger Danilin to seduce and drug him and frame her own accidental murder. Bogdanov’s best friend Max (Fedor Bondarchuk) doesn’t believe his story at first, but ultimately realizes its truth when he notices a flaw in the impersonator: the trademark coin he spins in his fingers is not the same coin as before. Instead of a coherent and compelling backstory, the script borrows liberally from Hollywood clichés: Bogdanov traces Danilin back to an “eerie cabin in the woods,” replete with disfigured dolls and a wall covered in his photographs. The plot culminates in a fencing duel, a not-so-subtle echo of the dueling parts of Bogdanov’s psyche (or the duel between him and his imposter).

The sheer number of plot holes and unmotivated actions—thrown in, as it were, for sophistication—strains credibility. Why, for instance, does Bogdanov have flashbacks of strangling Zhanna if the murder was framed? If we take the psychological, rather than the realist, interpretation of events (which is perhaps more interesting), then why do all of the other characters ultimately see and affirm the double’s existence? If the realist view, then why does the film end with the shot of the empty hospital room, suggesting yet again that Danilin was imagined? While the genre hinges on such ambiguities, these and other contrivances draw far too much attention to the script’s unwieldy construction.

Nonetheless Selfie, through its eponymous trope, reflects an interesting and salient theme in Russia and the world today: narcissism and externalized culture. In one of his late-night sessions, Bogdanov writes:

Selfie. I was liked, therefore I am. That is the psychology of today. In the selfie you can correct anything you don’t like. The angle of your face, the wrinkles, add all sorts of filters, and there’s your photograph. Only that’s not entirely you. Rather, it’s another person much better than you. You know this, you know that it is a lie, and others also understand this, but they like, like, like, because a cool selfie with a bunch of computer filters will gather more likes than the most honest photograph of your bloated face.

Though a film of a different artistic caliber, Andrei Zviagintsev's Loveless (Neliubov’, 2017) also employs the selfie trope to explore a similar thematic preoccupation. Absorbed in the pursuit of their own personal gratification, the protagonists of Loveless neglect their son, leading to a tragic outcome. In a critical scene—meticulously shot and placed in the center of the film—the camera pans an elite Moscow restaurant and zooms in on a group of glamorous blondes who pose dramatically for a selfie and toast “to love.” The recurring metaphor of the selfie in recent Russian cinema serves as both an object of satire and an encapsulation of ever-expanding egotism and narcissism of the individual.

selfieWhile not billed as such, one could view Selfie as the third part in a trilogy by scriptwriter and novelist Sergei Minaev. As in his previous two films Dukhless (2012) and Dukhless 2 (2015), Selfie is adapted from a Minaev novel, Dukhless 21st Century: Selfie (Dukhless 21 veka. Selfi, 2015). Though not a direct continuation of the Dukhless plot, Selfie occupies a similar space and milieu. Like Minaev’s previous hero the corporate executive Maksim Andreev, the novelist Bogdanov revels in the excesses and glamour of the Moscow elite (impliedly led astray by global capitalism and materialism) before ultimately rejecting them for a more “soulful” path. Considering the scriptwriter’s oeuvre and biography, it is difficult not to view Selfie with a healthy dose of irony and as a sort of sad meta-fiction.

Sergei Minaev broke out as one of Russia’s most commercially successful writers in 2006 with his debut novel Dukhless: Tale of an Unreal Man (Dukhless: Povest o nenastoiashchem cheloveke, 2006), which sold millions of copies in Russia and the CIS and was subsequently adapted for the screen as Dukhless 1 and 2 (2012, 2015). While successful at the box office, the films were met coolly by most critics who remarked attractive but psychologically shallow characters, political and aesthetic conformity, and intellectual pretensions (Seans 2012; Stepanov 2015). Perhaps most memorably, Putin appears in both films to encourage and exhort the hero on to greater deeds. Furthermore, Minaev himself has been criticized by intellectuals over the years for his conformist, pro-government actions, including the airing on his NTV television show of the documentary The Anatomy of a Protest (2012), which attempted to discredit the Bolotnaya protest movement (Mostovshchikov 2012). At the risk of overindulging in authorial fallacy, the parallels between Bogdanov and Minaev are difficult to ignore: writers-turned-television hosts, political compromises for self-preservation, and a highly commercial franchise of novels. 

In this context, Selfie views like an autobiographical exploration of the author’s own self-doubt and justification. Each successive book in Bogdanov’s Bones series is more derivative and uninspired than the previous. The Chekhovian theme of a celebrated writer questioning the meaning of his work is transposed onto the contemporary context of pervasive branding and commercialization. Unfulfilled by the indulgences of celebrity, Bogdanov ultimately “kills off” this part of himself and chooses a quieter life as a family man, away from the limelight. One cannot help but wonder: has Minaev himself finally rejected the path of commercial celebrity for something more authentic? Ultimately, as in the Dukhless films, Selfie’s critique of commercial and capitalist values rings a bit hollow, looking more like the postmodern branding of progressivity than its genuine expression.

Justin Wilmes
East Carolina University

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Works Cited

Seans 2012. “Dukhless. Pressa o fil’me.”

Mostovshchikov, Egor. 2012. “#NTV_Lzhet.” The New Times (27 March):

Stepanov, Vasilii. 2015. “Dukhless 2: Zachem tebe Solntse, esli ty kurish’ Shipku?” Seans (5 March 5) 

Selfie, Russia, 2017
112 mins, color
Director: Nikolai Khomeriki
Scriptwriter: Sergei Minaev
Cinematography: Vladislav Opel'iants
Editing: Ruslan Gabdrakhmanov
Score Composer: Igor' Vdovin
Producers: Petr Anurov, Fedor Bondarchuk, Dmitrii Rudovskii, Grigorii Stoialov
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Iuliia Khlynina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Anna Mikhalkova, Severija Janušauskaite

Nikolai Khomeriki: Selfie (2017)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes © 2018

Updated: 2018