Issue 72 (2021)

Kseniia Ratushnaia: Outlaw (Autlo, 2019)

reviewed by Dinara Garifullina © 2021

outlawBorn in 1989, Kseniia Ratushnaia belongs to a cohort of young filmmakers (Aleksandr Khant, Kantemir Balagov, Daria Zhuk, and Boris Akopov) who were children during the collapse of the USSR, and now, in their first feature films, strive to come to terms with the post-Soviet reality. Amongst the films that deal with this period—Khant’s How Viktor The Garlic Took Alexey The Stud to the Nursing Home (Kak Vitka ‘chesnok’ vez Lekhu ‘shtyria’ v dom invalidov, 2017), Balagov’s Closeness (Tesnota, 2017), Zhuk’s Crystal Swan (Khrustal’, Belarus, 2018), or Akopov’s The Bull (Byk, 2019)—Ratushnaia’s Outlaw, with its unabashed depiction of transgender and homosexual characteries and stories, emerges as a distinct picture that, unsurprisingly, scandalized the Russian public. My focus in this review, however, is not the controversy that erupted around the film, but rather how Ratushnaia’s exploration of transgressive sexualities shatters the conventions of historicism in cinema.

Two parallel stories, each of which inhabit different times, unfold in the film. The first is about a General who falls in love with a cross-dressing performer named Nina during the late Soviet period. They see each other in a restaurant, and when the couple starts to pursue their passion further, they are separated by the General’s father-in-law (a high-ranking military official) and a mysterious man (we will discuss him later). The second story is about a group of contemporary high-school students that indulges in sex, drugs, and petty crime. Alpha, the leader of the group, becomes the love interest of Nikita, a new boy in class. Nikita, a slender boy with delicate features and a dainty manner, seeks various outlets for his desire for intimacy with Alpha, an intimidating and imperious figure, including: taking photographs of Alpha’s muscular torso, masturbating with these photographs, sharing a smoke with Alpha, and, while having sex with a woman during group sex, not averting his eyes from Alpha who is also having sex with a woman.

outlawHow do we know that the first story takes place in the late Soviet period and the second today? The construction of different epochs deliberately evades verisimilitude for the sake of representing an artificial alloy of indices and symbols. The Soviet era in which the first story takes place is represented by red velvet drapery and crystal chandeliers in restaurants and hotels that are accessible only to bureaucratic elites, who drive iconic black Volgas (a Soviet luxury car brand). These spaces are contrived and dream-like. The contemporary period in which the second story takes place is depicted as a concoction of clear markers of the current moment, such as uniform and bleak tower blocks on the outskirts of big cities, iPhones, and social media. The overall instability of time in the film is underscored not only in the narrative but in the film’s form as well. For instance, cinematic time, especially in the depiction of Nina, arbitrarily accelerates and decelerates.

Since Ratushnaia’s film does not attempt to recreate a realistic environment for either of the stories, some of the temporal indicators are cleverly distorted. Specifically, Alpha and his friends are outfitted in Adidas apparel, a staple in films about the post-Soviet period. However, unlike the counterfeit products that inundated the newly opened market in Russia in the 1990s, Alpha and his friends don the real thing: expensive wear made by the hip fashion designer Gosha Rubchinskii, who is famous for reinterpreting the fashion codes of the 1990s. Furthermore, Alpha and his buddies work out in an abandoned building, which recalls a cliché in films about youth gangs of the 1990s who exercised in dilapidated gyms with homemade equipment (as depicted in Akopov’s The Bull). However, in Outlaw, the gym equipment is brand new. Coincidentally, Sergei Dvoinikov, who played both in The Bull and Outlaw, gives the viewer a chance to compare the two cinematic worlds situated on different poles of temporal authenticity: The Bull is a period piece, which is preoccupied with historical accuracy, while Outlaw draws attention to history as represented in cinema. 

outlawThe borders between the two epochs are leaky: the General’s father-in-law orders oysters in the restaurant, the discarded shells of which Nikita sees at the wild party, and the cold water from the hose that is used to torture Alpha in the next shot becomes the rain that refreshes Nina as she walks in the forest. There is a lot of mirroring between the two periods in question: Nina’s adoration of the poetic language of Vladimir Nabokov reverberates in the recital of Pablo Neruda’s poetry in the second plotline. The late Soviet and contemporary time periods are interconnected to the extent the distinction between them is obliterated, which, in turn, creates a sense of temporal stasis. This stagnation of time is reflected in the fact that superficial changes do not lead to structural changes: for example, the portrait of a virile Putin in sunglasses that hangs in the office of the supermarket security guard does not seem to differ functionally or culturally from the portraits of Soviet military bigwigs that hang in the office of the General’s father-in-law. The parallel presentation of these powerful men highlights what seems to be a perpetual need in Russia to venerate an autocrat, whatever his proverbial stripes. 

The main linking element that stitches the two epochs together is Outlaw herself. Outlaw is a semi-magical protagonist who is ruthless and violent and, as it is clear from her name, does not abide the law. She is able to kill people with impunity and is expected to organize kinky orgies involving gerontophilia, zoophilia, and many other sexual transgressions. Her master is the mysterious man mentioned above. We do not know his identity—the viewer is just led to believe that he is a sinister éminence grise—but we see him in numerous scenes with the General and his father-in-law, so we assume that he is of the late Soviet period. Outlaw visits him at one point, but it is not evident in what era the meeting takes place. In moments when the contemporary period is evoked, the éminence grise reaches Outlaw by phone and sends a Soviet car (but with present-day license plates) to fetch her, which troubles any fixed notion of historical situatedness the viewer may (wish to) have. His temporal fluidity endows the mysterious man with omnipotence: he is able to wield power over the contemporary world from the past, which invites us to contemplate contemporary political elites in Russia whose origins are in the Soviet epoch.

The libertine Outlaw is defined by sexual excess; but her orgiastic wantonness does not come cheaply. Outlaw’s master briefly reminds her that he saved her from prison in exchange for her outlandish sexual favors. The fact that she can traverse the two time periods in question means that she carries the trauma of historical sexual repression into the present. That said, sexual repression did not end with the Soviet era, but continues to contaminate the contemporary moment. One of the sexualities that was repressed in the Soviet Union was homosexuality: in fact, male homosexuality was outlawed from 1933 to 1993. Female homosexuality, when it was not ignored, was treated as a psychiatric disorder. In the film, we have a glimpse of forced incarceration (to a mental institution?) of the General as a punitive measure for his liaison with Nina. Notably, when Nina escapes the government agents who have just taken the General away, she hides in a closet. Eventually, Nina manages to evade direct reprisal from the state but has to burn her feminine possessions clandestinely in the forest in order to conceal her identity. The teacher, a closeted gay man, an aesthete, and a misogynist, is a curious character assembled out of the debris of the two epochs. First, he accidentally comes into possession of Alpha’s girlfriend’s bra, and later, Nina’s discarded red heels and raincoat somehow appear in his office (along with an apparition of Nina herself). He puts these feminine items on and, like the cross-dressing teacher in Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways (2012), elegantly walks away under the gaze of the speechless principal. Is this scene, where the teacher is liberated, meant to avenge the state’s violence against Nina? Or is it meant to show that the possibility of constructing one’s gender out of the scraps of another’s interrupted and ultimately unsuccessful attempt is doomed from the beginning? 

outlawThe film Outlaw does not offer a realistic portrayal of characters’ experiences of love; instead the film develops a discursive understanding of love. The concept of love is discussed by the teacher as a binary between two forms of Eros as described in Plato’s Phaedrus: celestial (love towards boys) and mundane love. You can die for celestial love, which the General and Nina share. Nina tells the General that many people are misled by the shock value of Nabokov’s Lolita, which in fact is a novel about love and not earthly carnality. Outlaw appears to replicate the book’s mechanism: to test its viewers if they can discern the love story through repeated images of gratuitous sex (such as, the mechanical sex between Alpha and his girlfriend, or between heartbroken Nikita—who has been denied the celestial Alpha’s love—and a faceless man). Passionless sex is opposed to the authentic love between Nina and the General, whose sexual activity in the car or in the hotel remains unseen in the film. 

The character Outlaw propagates an inverse theory of love: authentic love is not pure and celestial but animal, and thus, immoral (viz., preceding the curbing effect of civilization). However, this bestial sexuality must be epic—immoral love is not equivalent to earthly love as laid out in Plato’s dichotomy. By making a “beautiful animal” of oneself one becomes an “immortal god.” Outlaw kidnaps Alpha, and gradually, through torture and conversation, they fall in love with each other. Unlike the case with Nina and the General, whose love does not require an explicit sex scene to be affirmed, the sex scene between Outlaw and Alpha is elaborately staged. Porn is playing on four laptops situated on the corners of an oriental rug; the sounds of the porn actors having sex create an orchestral accompaniment to the lovers copulating on the rug: the raw, unrestrained, and exuberant sex that Outlaw and Alpha indulge in transports them into the realm of authentic love (which is an explicit inversion of Plato’s dichotomy).

There are other interesting temporal frameworks within the film. For example, the number Pi is: a passcode for Nikita’s phone, the number on the Soviet car plate, the hotel number where Nina and the General are staying, and the number of the garage where Outlaw is holding Alpha. The mythological timelessness also enters the film: the eyes of Outlaw’s minion are damaged like the eyes of Oedipus or Tiresias, and a Minotaur (a half-man/half-beast who preys on virgins) visits Alpha when Outlaw abandons him. Another temporal arrangement employs windows as an allegory of liminality. Windows can also reflect the personality of the character standing next to them: the glass school resembles a big terrarium where students are taught how animals multiply, the mysterious man meets Outlaw in a curtained sunroom, Nina’s window is stained-glass, etc. From these and other examples of temporal intricacies and entanglements in Outlaw, we can conclude that Ratushnaia eschews formal realism, historical accuracy, and nostalgic sensibilities towards the late Soviet period, in favor of metaphoric statements about the contemporary moment in which she created her film. Instead of producing a staid piece about sex (such as Nigina Saifullaeva’s Fidelity [Vernost’, 2019]) or about history (such as, Zhuk’s Crystal Swan), Ratushnaia (re)interprets history through sex in a whimsical and playful manner. Outlaw, the personification of unleashed libidinal forces, unsettles the neatness of linear time and places the late Soviet epoch and the late 2010s in an unruly correlation. Of course, Outlaw cannot stay with Alpha and live happily ever after. Her mercurial nature—the nature of desire itself—resists crystallization. 

Dinara Garifullina,
University of Pittsburgh

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Outlaw, Russia, 2019
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Kseniia Ratushnaia
Script: Kseniia Ratushnaia
Cinematography: Gevorg Markosian
Production Design: Ekaterina Dzhagarova
Costume Design: Tat'iana Platonova
Music: Andrei Romanov, Mikhail Barkovskii, Valentin Grudskii, Nikita Chipenko, Aleksandr Parkhomenko
Editing: Aleksandra Koroleva
Cast: Viktor Tarasenko, Elizaveta Kashintseva, Evgenii Shvartsman, Gleb Kaliuzhnii, Sergei Epishev
Producer: Kseniia Ratushnaia, Veronika Chibis, Aleksei Akimov-Peres
Production Company: Irony, Chibis Production

Kseniia Ratushnaia: Outlaw (Autlo, 2019)

reviewed by Dinara Garifullina © 2021

Updated: 2021