Issue 70 (2020)

Pavel Ruminov: Success (Uspekh, 2019)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2020

uspekhPavel Ruminov’s cinematographic portfolio is an eclectic grab-bag of formats and genres that include art-house horror (Dead Daughters [Mertvye docheri], 2007), “new pornography” (Love Machine [Mashina liubvi], 2016), and a slasher movie (Dislike, 2016). The director has also made mainstream commercial flicks, such as the sentimental drama I’ll Be Around (Ia budu riadom, 2012), which won the main prize at Kinotavr, and the romcom Status: Available (Status: svoboden, 2015). Ruminov’s latest offering, Success—funded by Russia’s Film Fund (Fond Kino) and rated “12+”(for audiences older than 12 years old)—is a new foray into the world of formulaic, “Disneyesque” fairy-tales, complete with easy pacing, predictable subplots, “kid power,” and the requisite happy ending.

Success is set in a musical milieu familiar to the director from his own work with the band “Sherlock Blonde” that he founded in 2012 (several of the tunes that appear in the film were recorded by “Sherlock Blonde,” while Ruminov also penned the songs’ lyrics). The film is a tale of a rock band nuclear family: Mom Liza (played by Iuliia Snigir’), Dad Artem, a Kurt Cobain-wannabe (played by Roman Kurtsyn sporting a bleached blond long-haired wig), and their 12-year-old daughter Vita (Mariia Lobanova). Artem and Liza launched their budding musical career in 2006 when they formed a group with the symbolic name “The Prouds” (a derivative of Artem’s last name Gordeev, from the Russian word gordyi, proud). The couple’s brief eminence in the music world comes to an end when Liza becomes pregnant with Vita. We jump forward 12 years and see that Liza is frustrated with her life and openly resents motherhood’s role in stymying her musical career. So Liza decides to abandon the family and heads off to the US in search of renewed rock-n-roll glory.

uspekhUnlike much of Russian cinema of the 1990s and early 2000s with its defining motif of fatherlessness, Success depicts a family whose central problem is an absent mother. Indeed, the Gordeev father, Artem, is nearly ever-present, appearing in most of the film’s frames. Moreover, he is loving and nurturing, although at times a bit goofy and childish. While Artem and Vita learn how to live without mom, they forge their own musical identity by performing covers of Russian hits from the 90s. The father-daughter duo’s rendition of Igor’ Nikolaev’s 1995 pop song “Let’s Drink to Love” [Vyp’em za liubov’] (which, according to Vita’s possibly “tongue-in-cheek” comment, is programmed into every Russian’s “genetic memory”) soon becomes a YouTube sensation. The two subsequently land a contract with a big-time producer, Iurii Talisman (played by Aleksei Chadov), and embark on a concert tour across Russia. Meanwhile, we surmise that Liza’s US gambit is floundering when we catch a quick scene of her singing in a Las Vegas dive bar.

uspekhEven though Vita and her dad are a hit on the Russian music scene, what the girl wants most is to see the family reunited. In an attempt to reach out to her mother, Vita closes every concert with one of her mom’s favorite songs that happens to express the theme of mother-child separation (“Song of the Baby Mammoth” [Pesenka mamontionka] from the 1981 Soviet cartoon Mom for a Baby Mammoth [Mama dlia mamontionka]). Peculiarly enough, apart from wishing for her mom’s return and performing the above-mentioned song, Vita does not take any actual steps to determine her mother’s whereabouts. Unlike the 6-year-old Vania from Andrei Kravchuk’s film The Italian (Italianets, 2005), who overcomes countless obstacles and hardships on his real and symbolic journey to find his birth mother, Vita simply puts her faith in the magnetic magic of familial bonds. Indeed, Success presents the family, writ both small (the nuclear family) and large (the nation, epitomized by picture postcard scenes of fireworks over Moscow’s modern skyline), as an irresistible unifying force. All of the film’s characters (and, most importantly to Vita, her mom) are bound to return to their true center, be it their family’s rock band or the motherland itself. The only notable obstacle to Liza’s homecoming is Artem’s brief attempt to keep his wayward wife away from their daughter. But, as befits this film’s benevolent universe, where all problems easily and inexplicably fade away, Artem relents because in this filmic world, family unity is a categorical imperative. Sure enough, Success ends with a happy reunion as the prodigal mother rejoins the tribe’s band on stage for a rousing concert finale.

uspekhThe film’s theme of broken but happily restored family ties arises more than once: for example, while Vita is dreaming of her own mother’s return, she helps their producer Talisman reconnect with his estranged teenage son (played by the director’s son, Milosh Ruminov). Talisman, at least initially, is a bit of an odd-man-out in this feature. Playing the part of the “pushy capitalist” producer, he is the closest this fairy-tale comes to providing an archetypal “evil” character. However, Talisman’s heart isn’t really into any serious villainy. He is depicted as a basically “good” human being, save for his career-driven egoism and self-promotion, epitomized by wall-sized photos of himself that adorn his office. When Talisman reunites with his son, the former undergoes an epiphany. He tears down his own photos from his office walls, ditches his career as a producer, disavows his public image as a “Talisman,” and joins the Gordeev family band as a humble but happy sideman. Just like the “reformed” version of Talisman, all the protagonists in Success appear to be empowered by a nearly Prelapsarian innocence: nothing, neither money, nor fame can even begin to corrupt them. The benign force of the family unit makes the characters impervious to all temptations and deleterious social influences. Each individual protagonist becomes stronger and happier through being (or becoming) part of a larger family collective, which is Success’s apparent definition of true “success.”

uspekhWhile, at least on the surface, most of this “12+”-rated film appears to exude oodles of innocence, some viewers might wonder if the script occasionally flirts with a less sanguine view of Russia’s showbiz world. For example, how is one to interpret a scene in which Talisman – who is essentially a complete stranger to the Gordeev family – carries the sound asleep 12-year-old Vita to bed? Could one perceive a sinister (albeit perhaps unintentional) subtext in Vita and her producer’s relationship or is this a nod to the film’s utter naiveté, reminiscent of Volka and Genie’s innocent interactions in Gennadii Kazanskii’s Soviet film Old Genie Khottabych (Starik Khottabych, 1956)? Another misfit moment in the film’s overall anodyne tone is a homophobic innuendo based on Talisman’s sudden announcement that he is “coming out.” However, as his male counterpart Artem is clearly relieved to learn (hence the homophobia), the “coming out” merely refers to the producer’s plans to exchange his grasping impresario persona for that of an honest musician: Talisman’s true love is music, not money (or, for that matter, Artem). At some point, one begins to wonder if the entire film—with its guitar-smashing, wig-wearing, Halloween rock musician protagonists performing their 90s era one-hit-wonder—is nothing but a self-referential spoof, not only of showbiz and today’s music scene but also of the mores of conventional filmmaking.

Around the time of the film’s release social media chatter contended that the producers had significantly shortened Success (supposedly by trimming a good 60 minutes from the original director’s version; see Ruminov 2019; Snigir’ 2019). While it remains unknown what (if anything) the missing moments of the original footage would have added to the film’s narrative valence, the released 95-minute version of Success comes across as an escapist family entertainment where the storylines are thin, the music is lively, the characters lack depth, and the ending is predictably happy. But then again, perhaps this sort of comforting fairy-tale is a fitting tonic for our dismal go-round of 2020.

Olga Mesropova
Iowa State University

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Works Cited

Ruminov, Pavel. 2019. vkontakte, 12 August.

Snigir’, Iuliia. 2019. Instagram, 10 August.

Success, Russia, 2019
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Pavel Ruminov
Screenplay: Pavel Ruminov, Sergei Bobza
Producers: Sergei Bobza, Georgii Mal’kov, Vladimir Poliakov, Mikhail Kuchment
Cinematography: Anton Drozdov-Shchastlivtsev
Production design: Asia Davydova, Alina German
Cast: Aleksei Chadov, Mariia Lobanova, Roman Kurtsyn, Milosh Ruminov, Nikolai Shraiber, Iuliia Snigir’
Production: Leopolis, Renovatio Entertainment

Pavel Ruminov: Success (Uspekh, 2019)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2020

Updated: 2020