Issue 64 (2019)

Mikhail Segal: Elephants Can Play Football (Slony mogut igrat’ v futbol, 2018)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes© 2019

A perfectly laid suitcase. An office with a skyline view of Moscow. Morning exercises. Weekly soccer matches and trips to the banya. The esteem of friends. These are the trappings of Dima’s life, a middle-aged businessman at the center of Elephants Can Play Football, Mikhail Segal’s fourth feature film. Still, an emptiness seems to saturate the portrait. As friends celebrate their children’s accomplishments and take family vacations, Dima traverses lonely business trips and stilted office meetings, and insists on spending his free moments “looking out the window.” Adding to a certain Kafkaesque strangeness are the absurdities of the everyday—delays waiting for tech support, an overly persistent toilet salesman, constant tardiness of colleagues to meetings. In this film, director Segal’s penchant for deadpan and irony takes a turn to the existential, recalling Charlie Kaufman’s animated film Anomalisa (2015). The cool precision and alienation of Dima’s life gets a sudden injection of vitality when he meets Masha, the ethereal seventeen-year-old daughter of his friend who asks his advice about applying to university.

Here a disclaimer is in order. If the reader has not yet seen the film, I suggest to stop reading, and watch before going further. Not only because it is a worthwhile film, but because it relies heavily on a dramaturgical twist that this review must inevitably reveal.

elephants can play Coming up with various pretexts to meet, Masha and Dima spend hours together drinking coffee, talking about art, viewing the skyline from a rooftop, and riding a sailboat. On the final night of his trip in Odessa, Masha shows up at Dima’s hotel room, crying and wet from the rain, begging him to let her stay. Making her tea and tucking her in bed, he spends the night with her, safely separated by a thick comforter. Thus begins a pattern of borderline-illicit relationships with young girls, which imbue Dima’s life with a newfound élan, and linger ambiguously between eros and agape. Once back in Moscow, Dima meets Sveta, the adolescent daughter of another colleague, and bonds with her through a common interest in jogging. He later becomes close with Lika, a beautiful young girl who saves his life when he collapses in the street. 

For most of the film, the viewer is drawn into an uncomfortable erotic suspense, waiting for this modern-day Humbert Humbert to reach out and seize his prey. Indeed in interviews the director Segal cites Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) as an intertext—playfully setting up this dramatic misreading. Only near the end of Elephants do we realize that Dima’s interest is something entirely unerotic, which in fact prevents him from reciprocating the romantic interest the girls all develop for him. It is for something else entirely that he craves their company. He feeds Lika the dinner he cooks for her (a conveniently ambiguous gesture—erotic or fatherly?), takes care of her when she catches cold, and ultimately begins calling her his “daughter.”

elephants can playThankfully the director spares us from merely watching a banal “father fantasy,” obfuscating and problematizing Dima’s real motives. In the end, he remains somewhat inscrutable to us and yet there is something human, universal, relatable about his search for vitality and connection in modern life. In seeking the company of young girls, he starts to take on their interests. Dima begins jogging after Sveta tells him, “When you jog, it seems that something could change. Life becomes more interesting.” He starts to use their creative turns of phrase. When asked for his preference of tea, he quotes Masha’s quirky reply: “Any kind. Something fattier” (chto-nibud’ pozhirnee). The film’s title comes from another of Masha’s whimsical replies—“Right, and elephants can play football!”—which in an interview the director remarked was a sort of “key” to understanding the film’s meaning (“Dnevnik festivalia” 2018).

As in a long line of philosophical fiction—including Nabokov’s Lolita, the novels of Witold Gombrowicz, vampire fiction, and so on—the vitality of youth, with its beauty, creativity and spontaneity, is the subject of the film and the object of Dima’s relentless pursuit. The alienation and automatism of Dima’s life is brought to life only through the inspiration of the young, their interests, phrases, and points of view.  Unlike most novels and films in this tradition, however, Segal subverts viewer expectations to craft a relatively benign, metaphorical tale about existential loneliness and craving platonic connection. Having been tricked into cynical assumptions about Dima, we perhaps find him all the more sympathetic when we realize his actual motives. Such twists and generic subversion are becoming a trademark for Segal, who does something similar at the end A Film About Alekseev (Kino pro Alekseeva, 2014). Segal’s postmodern play with conventions of genre seems to explore the creative potentials of storytelling, while the relatively serious, even sentimental themes his films explore are closer to artists of New Sincerity—the aforementioned Charlie Kaufman again seems an apt comparison in that regard.

elephants can playThere was relatively little fanfare in the production or release of the film. It competed in the main competition of the 2018 Kinotavr Festival, but did not win any prizes. It was well-received by critics, many of whom regard Segal as one of the most promising and unique rising directors of Russian cinema. In multiple interviews Segal lamented the limited resources with which he had to make the film, which caused him to rush the filming process and prevented sufficient repetitions and retakes – even going so far as to say: “In the future I might need to cease being a director and work in another area because the opportunity to do something new and interesting [in Russian cinema] may dry up” (“Oranzhevoe utro” 2018). Considering that Segal is a celebrated music video director for prominent groups such as Spleen, Bi-2, Kasta, and Mashina Vremeni, and even is a performing musician himself (“Filipp Veis…” 2015), another artistic migration seems entirely possible. I for one will hope Segal continues to make movies of the caliber of Elephants Can Play Football, few of which are coming out in Russia today.

Justin Wilmes
East Carolina University

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

“Dnevnik festivalia – Arctic Open Film Festival.” YouTube (19 December 2018).

“Filipp Veis i Mikhail Segal ‘Dezertir.’” YouTube (15 January 2015).

“Oranzhevoe utro – Mikhail Segal.” YouTube (5 November 2018).

Elephants Can Play Football, 2018
Color, 106 minute
Director and Scriptwriter: Mikhail Segal
Cinematography: Eduard Moshkovich
Production Design: Natalia Beliakova
Music: Mikhail Segal
Cast: Vladimir Mishukov, Sof’ia Gershevich, Varvara Pakhomova, Aleksandra Bystrzhitskaia
Producers: Andrei Novikov, Aleksandr Kotelevskii, Sergei Chliants, Igor’ Esin
Production: Ivanada Film
Release: 18 October 2018

Mikhail Segal: Elephants Can Play Football (Slony mogut igrat’ v futbol, 2018)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes© 2019

Updated: 2019