Issue 72 (2021)

Mikhail Segal: Deeper! (Glubzhe!, 2020)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2021

glubzhe“It’s like Tarkovsky, only interesting.” That’s what the film’s protagonist Roman Petrovich (played by Aleksandr Pal’), a young theater director, Chekhov connoisseur, lover of Holocaust cinema and the Stanislavski method, hears from his buddy Andrei (played by Denis Vasil’ev). The compliment in question refers to Roman Petrovich’s debut porn video, a project that the unemployed director has agreed to take on out of desperation. Just a few months before his foray into the pornography industry, Pal’s character had been fired from his directorial position at the “Main Theater of the Country” where he was staging a modern-day adaptation of Chekhov. Roman Petrovich’s deep psychological approach to theater has been replaced by a glitzy and superficial reading of the 19th century classic under the guidance of a trendy new director (played by a recent Runet sensation, actor Anton Lapenko). But it turns out that the protagonist’s infusion of Stanislavskian techniques into a series of banal porn videos has elevated this low cultural product to the heights of the “new genre” of “deep Russian porn,” an instant success that becomes a world-wide phenomenon as well as Russia’s new “national doctrine.”

Such is the plot of Mikhail Segal’s most recent film Deeper!, a witty absurdist comedy, filled with the director’s trademark “penchant for deadpan and irony” (Wilmes 2019) and witticisms that are likely to enter the Russian vernacular, characteristics reminiscent of Segal’s earlier film, Short Stories (Rasskazy, 2012). Deceptively simple at first reading, these two films can be described by Kira Muratova’s oxymoron as “deeply superficial.” Both draw their humor from the overlapping of “multiple post-Soviet realms, each with its own language (or lack thereof)” (Lipovetsky 2017: 242). In this vein, the viewer might remember Liubov’ Aksenova, who plays Lera the porn actress in Deeper!, as the young female lover in the fourth novella of Short Stories, “Inflamed.” In “Inflamed,” Aksenova’s character and her older male lover embody two different and, eventually, mutually incomprehensible worldviews: the duo comes from different generations (Soviet- vs. post-Soviet-born), different degrees of education and cultural sophistication (“Soviet intelligentsia” vs. “post-Soviet glamour girl”), and have diverging aspirations (spiritual vs. consumerist). Despite enjoying the excellent sex, the 2012 novella’s male protagonist becomes disillusioned with his young lover: the differences between the two are so strong, that he ultimately prefers to spend time with a female colleague from his own cultural and generational background, with whom he can discuss profound historical matters or indulge in playful banter concerning such things as Trotsky and ice axes.

glubzheWhile in Segal’s 2012 film, the wild sexual encounters between the two protagonists expose their individualities (by highlighting their insurmountable differences), in Deeper! pornography becomes the eraser of memory, history and culture. One illustration of porn’s power to efface is a poignant episode in which Roman Petrovich stages a Chekhov medley at the “Main Theater of the Country” (the formerly disgraced director has been invited back, now as the Theater’s Artistic Director, thanks to the meteoric success of his pornographic videos). Here the director, attempting to interpret Chekhov through the “deep porn” genre, commands his actors to remove their clothes. He then invites a group of young drama students (who are watching the rehearsal) to join the theater’s “old guard” on stage. A long shot of the darkened stage filled with silhouettes of naked actors, young and old, appears to suggest the “levelling” or “reduction” of individuals into a faceless mass, stripped of any signs of individuality or recognizable collectivity, be it cultural or generational.

glubzheWhile satirizing the absurdist degradation of Russian high culture (albeit in hackneyed manifestations, embodied by such classics as Chekhov and Stanislavski) to the lowest “depths” of the “trash” culture of pornography, the director also seems to make another tongue-in-cheek statement regarding high culture’s potential to elevate low cultural forms. In this vein, once the lead actors of the aforementioned “deep porn” videos (played by Aksenova and Oleg Gaas) begin working with the Stanislavski method, they are inspired to read Russian classics and learn more about Russia’s past. Similarly, in the film’s finale, the now “enlightened” Aksenova’s and Gaas’ characters hijack the roles of the classically trained theatrical actors. As the latter are preparing to betray Russian theater and perform a soft porn version of Chekhov in the nude (an act eagerly anticipated by a prurient paying public), they are mysteriously whisked away. The young porn stars then suddenly appear on stage and deliver Chekhovian dialogue (which actually are playfully postmodern lines a-la-Chekhov that Segal claims to have written as an “abstract concoction of Chekov’s cliches”; Bobrova 2020).

glubzheBy “saving the day” (and Chekhov’s play), the two porn actors represent, in Segal’s own words, “good, kind porno.” While further exploring pornography-as-metaphor, Segal suggests that “bad, evil porno” reveals itself in such formats as media culture and politics (not to mention crass consumerism). Segal notes that “common sexual porno is child’s play compared to the porno of politics and the media” (KinoTV). In the film we see this idea developed when the pornographer director-protagonist is recruited to work with a prominent host of a political talk show (played by Sergei Burunov), Russia’s Minister of Culture (played by Igor’ Vernik) and, in another throwback to Short Stories, a beneficent Russian president (played by Igor’ Ugol’nikov). All of these storylines come together in the film’s closing scene, when “the boss”—a young social media magnate (played by Semen Treskunov) who commissioned the first porn video at the beginning of the film—fires the Russian president.

In light of the film’s finale, could one interpret Deeper! as Segal’s anti-authoritarian exposé of Russian political corruption (intimated by such sarcastic comments as “What does a director in Russia have to fear?”)? Perhaps Russian film critic Anton Dolin (2020) is correct when he labels the film “an accurate diagnosis of the stagnation in contemporary Russian cinema.” Or perhaps the film makes the more sweeping assertion that artists, journalists, politicians, and social media stars are all performing various forms of pornography – some just “deeper” than others. Deeper! went on to compete at the 2020 Kinotavr film festival where it received a special prize for “Humor, Civil Courage, and Love for the Viewer.”

Olga Mesropova
Iowa State University

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Works Cited

Bobrova, Elena. 2020. Interview with Mikhail Segal “Motsart na pitching provalilsia.” Rossiiskaia gazeta 29 October.

Dolin, Anton. 2020. “Glubzhe!” – komediia o teatral’nom rezhissere, kotoryi ostalsia bez raboty i idet snimat’ porno.” Meduza, 18 September.

KinoTV. Interview with Mikhail Segal. October 20, 2020.

Lipovetsky, Mark. 2017. “Lost in Translation: Short Stories by Mikhail Segal.” In: Mark Lipovetsky. Post-Modern Crises. From Lolita to Pussy Riot. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 240–47.

Wilmes, Justin. 2019. "Mikhail Segal’s Elephants Can Play Football." Review. KinoKultura 64.

Deeper, 2020
Color, 109 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Mikhail Segal
Cinematography: Eduard Moshkovich, Evgenii Ermolenko
Production Design: Ol’ga Tsyba, Natal’ia Nesterova
Cast: Aleksandr Pal’, Liubov’ Aksenova, Oleg Gaas, Igor’ Ugol’nikov, Igor’ Vernik, Sergei Burunov, Anton Lapenko, Denis Vasil’ev
Producers: Anastasia Kavunovskaia, Andrei Kretov, Aleksandr Kushaev
Production: Bubblegum Production
Release: 22 October 2020

Mikhail Segal: Deeper! (Glubzhe!, 2020)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2021

Updated: 2021