Issue 68 (2020)

Dmitrii Astrakhan: The Game (Igra, 2018)

reviewed by Rachel Stauffer © 2020

igra“Someone asks himself a question/Someone hangs in a noose/Someone does not smoke/ Someone does not drink/ Someone is at rock bottom…/Someone works/Someone is in love/ Who is this person?/It is I”. These lines are from the rather germane, but catchy Russian poem composed by Iurii Vladimirovich Platonov, played by Viktor Vasil’ev, who recites poems throughout Dmitrii Astrakhan’s The Game. This one opens the filmas Iurii recites the lines in his head while driving his perfect Rolls Royce SUV through Moscow’s streets. Inexplicably, in the scene that immediately follows, the same Iura says goodbye to a group of rural villagers, holds a sobbing blonde in his arms, and drives away in an old Moskvich claiming he has to go see a man about a cow. The villagers sorrowfully hug and kiss him, wistfully waving goodbye until he is out of sight. Seconds later, the villagers slowly lower their waving hands, check their watches, collect their things, and board a bus, like workers at the end of the day. The disorientation continues as just a few seconds later, Iura ditches the Moskvich for a chauffeured caravan of black Mercedes SUVs waiting for him not far from the village. Again without context or explanation, the motorcade drops him off next to a private plane, which flies him back to Moscow, where he enters a banquet hall for his 40th birthday party.

igraAt the lavish party, we meet Iura’s wife, Marina, his son Sasha, and his best friend and publisher, Oleg. Iura’s father, Vladimir Platonov, a well-connected and wealthy businessman, is played by Oleg Vasil’kov, of Brother and Burnt By The Sun 2. It becomes clear that Vasil’kov’s character has curated his son’s entire life, handpicking Iura’s friends, securing his professional achievements, and hiring an actress to marry Iura and have his son. Of course at the outset of the film, Iura believes his life is the result of merit and persistence. All the same, he feels as though it has all been a little too easy, saying to himself over and over that he has a happy life without any sort of problems. Meanwhile the people around him--actors selected and paid for by Iura’s father and overseen by a director known as Uncle Lëva--sustain the narrative that Iura unnecessarily complains about a life that by all indications, is very good. The story suggests that the only non-fictional relationships in Iura’s life are those with his father and his son. Subsequently, the film has a distinctively patriarchal tone in which the women are easily discarded, and simplistically perceived as gold-digging, untrustworthy, and without substance. It is normal, and in fact part of the happiness his father has constructed for him, that Iura has a wife and a mistress. In response to criticism about the distrust of women in The Game, Astrakhan admitted, “Women really are not shown in the best way, I talked about this to Oleg Danilov. To which he replied to me that Chekhov described them even worse” (Anon. 2019). Obviously, Astrakhan and Danilov do not feel particularly bad about the way women are depicted in The Game, but they should. This particular aspect of the film is difficult to adequately excuse with Chekhov in the 21st century.   

igra The perception of women in the film is bad, but there are other problems. For one, the striking similarity of The Game to two other films, namely, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) and David Fincher’s identically-titled The Game (1997). Russian reviewer Petr Kabanov notes this, citing the star of The Truman Show, Jim Carrey, who said: “Imagine that you suddenly begin to understand that everything around you is a scenery, and people are actors pretending to be who they seem to you” (Kabanov 2019). Carrey’s quote captures the general essence of Astrakhan’s film. Iura’s life is not broadcast for the public, but his father uses mobile cameras and boots on the ground to constantly watch him, a practice that Iura later invites into his own life to interfere in his own son’s life. Iura discovers his father’s interference when, after another visit to his mistress in the village, he realizes something is off. From the cockpit of his private plane, he sees the villagers getting into a bus and leaving. He calls his mistress to find out where they’re headed, but she says she’s at home doing laundry. Confused, he asks one of his father’s minders to find out where the bus is headed. In The Truman Show, the main character is witness to similar gaffes in the execution of secrecy such as an industrial theater light that falls mysteriously from the sky. Astrakhan himself does not admit to any borrowing or intentional similarity between his film, Weir’s The Truman Show, or Fincher’s film of the exact same title. In an interview with Krasnodarskie izvestiia, Astrakhan responds to a question about the similarities by saying “None of those films have the same idea as our film…this is a completely different, completely realistic story about raising a son” (Anon. 2019). In the interviews with Astrakhan about The Game, comments such as these serve as a defense, but not a valid justification for an entirely new film with practically the same subject matter. If Astrakhan is suggesting that Russian familial culture is fundamentally invasive, and this film plays on that idea, it makes more sense. At the same time, the film does not successfully or overtly support this idea, as least not for this reviewer.

igraThere are more problems with The Game. Unlike Weir’s The Truman Show, which masterfully integrates story and cinematography, The Game’s cinematography, editing, and acting fail to successfully carry an otherwise incohesive and meandering storyline. The genre is constantly in flux. Is The Game a horror movie? A mystery? A melodrama? In a fairly anemic interview with Rossiiskaia gazeta, Astrakhan uses the term “psychological thriller” (Mazurova 2018). Thriller or detektiv, The Game is woefully lacking in sophistication, particularly for someone with Astrakhan’s years of experience. For example, in several scenes filmed in dance clubs, the dancing actors’ feet can be heard tapping on the dance floor over dialogue and background music. The performances by Vasil’kov and Vasil’ev are satisfactory, although Vasil’kov’s performance is distinctly more intriguing and more engaging than Vasil’ev’s performance of the film’s main character. The seedy underbelly of Vasil’kov’s early life is revealed in flashbacks, explaining his large facial scar and the disappearance of Iura’s mother (who did not die when Iura was three as he was made to believe, but who, in a typical Astrakhan trope, emigrated to the West with another man).

igra Perplexingly, the film’s story ultimately requires the viewer to redeem Vladimir, despite his criminal past and questionable invasiveness and deception toward his own son. In many ways the film feels like a soap opera with impossibly unrealistic twists and turns, rather than a serious work of cinema. In fact, there are melodramas currently on Russian television that are probably better than The Game. Whereas in Astrakhan’s melodramatic Everything Will Be OK (Vse budet khorosho, 1995), the story’s loose ends are predictably, but tightly tied, The Game is substantially less satisfying in this regard. The film concludes with Iura complicit in his father’s “game”, opting to interfere in his own son’s life in the same way. Overall, the film suggests, rather disturbingly, that it is better to live falsely, but with ease, rather than suffering through difficulties or the consequences of mistakes. In this regard, The Game is a stark contrast from Astrakhan’s popular 1990s films. In Everything Will Be OK, Astrakhan depicted both the suffering of those who conformed to systemic norms with little return as well as of those who bucked the system for prosperity at high personal expense.

igraThe Game suggests that Astrakhan wants the viewer to believe that no one is ever satisfied, that ignorance is bliss, and that it is more advantageous to submit to one’s circumstances, or follow one’s parents’ wishes, rather than to live true to oneself. As Astrakhan himself remarked about the film in relation to his own privilege, “This story is close to me. I grew up in a completely prosperous family of historians: my dad is a professor, my mother is a candidate of science”, adding “I’m sure that in many ways my determination in life - and I am a fearless person - is due to the feeling that there are people defending me. All my openness is the merit of a happy and protected childhood” (Anon. 2019). It is unsurprising, therefore, that The Game is so spectacularly out-of-touch. Despite the fact that there is much to criticize about The Game, for those who enjoy poetry, the verses written by Evgenii Al’shits and featured throughout the film offer a light reprieve from Astrakhan’s mystifying missteps elsewhere.  

Rachel Stauffer,
James Madison University

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Works Cited

Anon. 2019. “Dmitrii Astrakhan: Spasite khot’ odnogo cheloveka, i ia postavliu vam pamiatnik.” (Interview). Krasnodarskie izvestiia DOSUG 7 June. 

Kabanov, Petr. 2019. “Igra: shou Trumana po-russkii.”Oblagazeta 13 June. 

Mazurova, Svetlana. 2018. “Planeta Astrakhana.” Rossiiskaia gazeta 7 August.

The Game, Russia, 2018
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Dmitrii Astrakhan
Scriptwriter: Oleg Danilov
Director of Photography: Andrei Maika
Composer: Gleb Belkin
Producer: Aleksandr Vasil’kov
Cast: Viktor Vasil’ev, El’vira Bolgova, Oleg Vasil’kov, Mikhail Zui, Andrei Dobrovol’skii
Production: Solaris Promo Production, Mavr Studio, Belarusfilm

Dmitrii Astrakhan: The Game (Igra, 2018)

reviewed by Rachel Stauffer © 2020

Updated: 2020