Issue 66 (2019)

Grigorii Konstantinopolskii: Russian Psycho (Russkii bes, 2018)

reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic © 2019

russkii besEarly on in his film Russian Psycho, director and screenwriter Grigorii Konstaninopolskii has his Faustian anti-hero Sviatoslav Ivanov state that he wants to live a full life (zhit’ odnoi dushoi). So begins Sviatoslav’s series of cackling confessions to the audience. Are we being flattered or insulted by this elfin wisp of a figure? Certainly, the actor Ivan Makarevich’s pencil-mustachio grimaces and unsubtle mugging don’t help us find the film’s center of gravity. Is Konstantinopolskii’s ham-fisted approach to febrile diabolism à la russe a genuine attempt to forge something contemporary and new from the warnings about corrosive hegemonic pride or besovshchina, which were famously articulated by Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tiutchev, and Sologub? Or is the entire film an elaborate ruse that is very much not à la russe? Does it merely promise an uncompromising examination of national self-images while actually delivering a spectacle of slow-mo ultra-violence and abasement of women that could come from exploitive cinema in any part of the globe? In other words, is Russian Psycho a film about literary texts or is it a film about movies?

russkii besPerhaps we can begin to answer these questions by considering Sviatoslav as a man who embarks, like his historical namesake Sviatoslav—the last resolutely pagan prince of Rus—upon an ambitious and risky expansion of his domain.  In Moscow, our lumpen-proletarian protagonist, an art and architecture student, murders his way to material success and the embourgeoisement promised by his fiancée Asya’s wealthy family. Later on, we’ll circle back to consider the toxic status of Sviatoslav’s higher education, and to his choice of a career path that radically diverges from it.His future father-in-law, the insufferably hale and hearty banker Piotr Aleksandrovich—played by the always reliable Vitalii Kishchenko, in a performance suggestive of a well-groomed orc eying prey over his cappuccino—has extended Sviatoslav a hefty loan to open up a high-end Stalin-themed restaurant in a disused warehouse. No daughter of mine will marry a down on his luck student—no nameless nobody, or nishchii for her! Or so we’re led to believe, from Sviatoslav’s expansive chattering and gesticulating to us, his viewers. In a manner that distinctly references Mary Harron’s feminist film adaptation (2000) of Brett Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, we see that Sviatoslav is himself something of a film director, positioning his performers to speak lines that are actually almost exclusively his own.

russkii besLike Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, whom Bret Easton Ellis explicitly references in his novel American Psycho, and Marcello Clerici from Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist, Sviatoslav takes pleasure in abasing himself before the social betters whom he envies, and perhaps even secretly aspires to become. Konstantinopolskii makes full use of the cinematic device of a charming rogue taking an audience into his confidence, used in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) and John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Russian cinema has generally avoided full-throated identification with problematic protagonists. One of the films that come closest to such morally compromised solipsism is Vladimir Vilner’s Benya Krik (1926), whose full identification with its legendary gangster figure from Isaac Babel’s stories is, however, limited by the presence of intertitles that ultimately function as an estrangement device.

russkii besAnd yet Russian Psycho is quite a different animal from its genre relatives at home or abroad. The deceptively affable “come here” patter of Michael Caine’s charming predator Alfie sounds positively cherubic next to Sviatoslav’s lurid verbalized fantasies of casual misogyny and class revenge. Sviatoslav yearns to experience life fully (odnoi dushoi), which for him means to live unburdened by the natterings of conscience. As he tells us at one point in the film, “[spiritual] truth is pleasure (istina—naslazhdenie!)”As it turns out—and as Sviatoslav explains to the priest Father Grigorii at the climax of the film, in a scene that is reminiscent of the nihilist Verkhovensky’s confession to Tikhon in Dostoevsky’s Demons—unbridled rapacity and lust are imbued with an experiential simplicity and purity that religious piety can never truly achieve. This is Pushkin’s “Demon” filtered through the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy of the Bedroom, with acquisitiveness taking on the affective qualities of jeering misanthropy (neistoshchimoi klevetoiu) as well as lust. This is Verkhovensky grotesquely trading places with Tikhon as the figure of moral authority.

russkii besOver the course of the film, Sviatoslav increasingly revels in his abuse of libertine kindred spirits. As he tires of them, every friend or lover is replaced by another who closely resembles him, thereby offsetting his reflexive misanthropy: Asya by a wealthy married woman named Masha who mirrors Sviatoslav’s entitled and instrumentalist attitudes towards others; her nameless husband who, with his well-groomed beard and unctuous manner, seems likes a more successful hipster version of himself; and finally the Porfirii Petrovich-like police investigator who turns out to be as predatory and violent as Sviatoslav himself. By the end of the film, we see that this restless serial doubling of the unsympathetic protagonist is very much at the center of things. Konstantipolskii seems to regard his project as a double itself, of any number of films and literary texts. In a highly Baudrillardian vein, the film would seem to suggest that there is no original identity, and that we are all copies of something that exists only in a “desert of the real”. Yet, what saves Konstantinopolskii’s film from utter banality and derivativeness is its focus on the passing of a particular concrete reality of post-Soviet life, from the “wild nineties” to the harsher employment realities of an increasingly neoliberal economy within the Russian Federation. Sviatoslav is a man out of time, a resourceful predator who would have been much more at home in the era of uncredentialed amateurs who make good—among the academics, dentists, and mid-level bureaucrats (among others) who became wildly successful speculators and oligarchs during the early nineties in particular, and very much in spite of their original professional profiles. As this film presents things, the nineties were a glorious era of people enriching themselves outside of their normal career paths, and of working ne po professii (not by profession).

russkii besDuring the second half of the film, we hear Sviatoslav increasingly pine for this particular style of unfettered capitalism in post-Soviet Russia. A callow twenty-something with the hint of peach fuzz on his face, Sviatoslav of course has no living memory of the nineties. Like his historical namesake the pagan outlier Prince Sviatoslav, the protagonist of Russian Psycho stubbornly continues to hold onto cultural values that are on their way out. At the end of the film, Konstantinopolskii reinforces this doubling of the protagonist with the religiously recalcitrant tenth-century Prince Sviatoslav during his confrontation with the police investigator, who calls Sviatoslav un-Christian and vile (poganyi) after seeing the room with the naked blood-spattered bodies of his victims.

russkii besAnd what, exactly, are the Christian values in the social world of this film? As the Orthodox priest Father Grigorii explains to recently engaged couple Asya and Sviatoslav at the beginning of the film, forgiveness of others is only necessary among individuals. But, Sviatoslav asks him, if we can forgive this or that person, why can’t we do the same for the enemies of our country, whose economic sanctions are responsible for the weakening of the ruble? Grigorii explains that countries possess a unitary identity that a person never does, and that we must always bear in mind the “unity” of consciousness that exists among our enemies abroad (edinstvo nashikh vragov). Grigorii acknowledges the mercurial, if not serial, nature of personal identity as the quality that makes it easy for us to forgive. After all, perhaps you are no longer the same person now as the one who wronged me, but a copy of something else? This is a concept of forgiveness that is contingent on ease, and the minimum of cognitive effort on the part of the injured party.

russkii besFather Grigorii seems to say that professional and national identities are fundamentally separate from personal ones: by all means forgive an individual, but never forgive the injury they committed in their capacity as the member of a corporate entity such as a hostile nation or a market competitor. By the end of the film, Father Grigorii emerges as yet another double of the protagonist, and a person who takes Sviatoslav’s values several steps further. In the dénouement of Russian Psycho, we see the film’s protagonist pushed into a realm of compartmentalized morality and unforgiving utilitarianism that he neither anticipated nor properly understood. The facts that the priest’s Christian name is the same as the director’s, and that Konstantinopolskii himself plays the role of Sviatoslav’s hipster doppelgänger, only serve to throw into sharper relief the film’s portrayal of what the Polish feminist Joanna Zylinska recently characterized as the “downsizing process of disruptive semiocapitalism,” which moves toward a self-referential “subjectivity that is pinned to a competitive, overachieving, and overreaching masculinity” (Zylinska 2018, 59). It is not the world that this particular demon imagined, nor one in which he is capable of surviving.

Alexandar Mihailovic
Bennington College

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Works Cited

Zylinska, Joanna. 2018. A Feminist Counterapocalypse. Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Russian Psycho, Russia, 2018
Dolby 5.1, 16:9, color, 120 min.
Scriptwriter and Director: Grigorii Konstantinopolskii
Director of Photography: Matvei Stavitskii
Production Design: Ekaterina Dzhagarova
Musical producer: Grigori Konstantinopolskii
Editing: Anna Matskova
Cast: Ivan Makarevich, Grigorii Konstantinopolskii, Liubov’ Aksenova, Vitalii Kishchenko, Viktoriia Isakova, Iuliia Aug, Timofei Tribuntsev, Aleksandr Strizhenov, Kseniia Rappoport, Maksim Vitorgan, Mikhail Efremov
Producers: Andrei Novikov, Grigorii Konstantinopolskii
Production: Film Company ARTLIGHT, Film Company Invada Film

Grigorii Konstantinopolskii: Russian Psycho (Russkii bes, 2018)

reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic © 2019

Updated: 2019