Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 1 
3 Sept
2001

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Karlovy Vary festival posterKARLOVY VARY
Rich rewards in simpler forms
Russian films at the 2001 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

A wide range of Russian films was presented at Karlovy Vary this year, encompassing everything from intense auteur films to lighter genre pieces. Andrew James Horton surveys what was on show.


Recent history might give the impression that the Russian influence on the Czech Republic has been almost exclusively negative. Certainly, the latter country, which still has the bitter aftertaste of the 1968 invasion in its mouth, is not leaping up and down to assert its links to the erstwhile Communist superpower. But it only takes a visit to the opulent and picturesque spa town of Karlovy Vary to realise that there is another face to Russian involvement in Bohemia.

Even when the town's film festival isn't playing, the Russian presence is noticeable. There are direct flights in from Moscow, there are occasional signs and notices in Cyrillic and the mother tongue of Pushkin can frequently be overheard as you walk along the famous Mlýnská kolonáda. Moreover, the restoration of the town to its full 19th-century glory, after years of neglect under Communism, has largely been funded by roubles rather than korunas.

It's little wonder, then, that the international film festival the town hosts represents Russia particularly well. This year, some nine Russian feature films and additional documentaries and shorts played at Karlovy Vary, making the festival something of a mecca for Russian film fans who don't want to go through all the bureacratic hassles and inconvenience of trying to get to the festivals in Moscow or Sochi.

Partying with the Borgias

 Karen Shakhnazarov's Iady, ili Vsemirnaia istoriia otravlenii (Poisons or a World History of Poisoning, 2001)
Blood bath: Cesare Borgia relaxes after a poisoning
One of the most prominent Russian films in the festival was Karen Shakhnazarov's Iady, ili Vsemirnaia istoriia otravlenii (Poisons or a World History of Poisoning, 2001), which was officially selected for the competition. The film grabbed festival-goers' attention not least by a distinctive full-colour advertising hoarding for the film—depicting Cesare Borgia sitting in the open carcass of a bull—that was sufficiently bloody to upset the delicate sensibilities of one of the town's plusher hotels, which requested that it be removed from outside its premises.

The plot centres around an actor, Oleg, who appears to be in a state of domestic bliss with his wife, Katia. One evening, a neighbour, Arnold, drops by to introduce himself, and Oleg, although not enthusiastic, has no objections when Arnold invites himself in. Similarly, Arnold's request to put on some music seems to Oleg too reasonable to refuse, whatever he himself might think. As does his desire to dance with Katia. Or take her off to the bathroom for five minutes to "say a few words to her"...

Karen Shakhnazarov's Iady, ili Vsemirnaia istoriia otravlenii (Poisons or a World History of Poisoning, 2001)
Lessons in poisoning from a friendly murderer
Driven into jealous despair, Oleg is at his wits' end, when a stranger in a bar recognises his plight and recommends that Oleg follow his example and resort to poison to resolve his marital problems. To illustrate his point, the amiable wife-murderer starts giving Oleg lessons in poisons and poisoning throughout the ages that take Oleg back in time to meet characters such as Cesare Borgia and Caligula.

The mixing of different time frames is a feature Iady shares with Shakhnazarov's previous film Den polnoluniia (Full Moon, 1998), which won three major awards at Karlovy Vary three years ago. However, whilst the narrative devices are in common for the two films, the degree of success is not. Iady failed to garner any awards, and some who saw it had some harsh words to say about it.

Cesare Borgia: Ready to kill again
Whilst it is certainly true that the relevance and power of some of the flashbacks into history and fantasy are questionable, the film overall is engaging and refuses to behave quite in the way you expect it to, with an ending that is as disarmingly offbeat as it is life-affirming. For this reason, I found Iady to be a highly enjoyable film and not without its rewards.

Dreaming the new Russian reality

Another film making energetic flights into fantasy was Liubov i drugiie koshmary (Liubov and Other Nightmares, 2001), the debut feature by Andrei Nekrasov, who can boast of having served as assistant director to Tarkovsky. The fantasies this time are more of an erotic nature, and emerge from the mind of Aleksei, a reflective, womanising techie geek, from whose point of view and from whose dreams we experience the film. The Liubov (a woman's name which also means "love") of the title is a bisexual contract killer who saves Aleksei from being killed by a new Russian whose wife he has been having an affair with.

Liubov i drugiie koshmary (Liubov and Other Nightmares, 2001)
Liubov: a gender-bending, "honest" assassin
Narrated in an aphoristic style ("I fuck, therefore I am", "I love my country, but she loves someone else", "It's never too late to change for the worse") and exploiting the kitsch inherent in avant-garde film-making techniques, the film presents cod philosophical musing delivered with a fair dose of irony. It's a bleak, self-referential musing on Russia since the fall of Communism and the old dichotomy of East vs West. As Nekrasov explained to NRW Magazin:

My country has obviously changed during the past ten years. But the overall view is that this ideal Western civilisation didn’t bring us much. I am concerned about how Russia is tending towards conservatism again. Our national soul longs for a strong leader.

Like most films about the new Russia, however, the film comes over as self-indulgent, and the endless stream of dreamlike images soon tires the viewer. This is particularly the case in the last section of the film, set in the West, which doesn't quite connect with the rest of the film. Perhaps it is a film which requires repeated viewing to appreciate the levels on which it works (or even just to untangle the plot strands), but in alienating the audience it is not a film that warmly invites repeated viewing.

A capital film

Aleksandr Zeldovich's Moskva (Moscow, 2000)
Blood on the imperial legacy
Aleksandr Zeldovich's Moskva (Moscow, 2000) also attempts to portray the new Russia and has a similar mix of high-mindedness and partial success to it. Ostensibly a gangster film, Moskva largely bypasses its own plot (concerning a missing stash of dollars and a mobster's attempt to track down who is responsible for their theft) and instead explores the dialogue of what Zeldovich phrases the "new totalitarianism." Indeed, the film's "conceptualist" screenplay—by enfant terrible of the Russian literature scene Vladimir Sorokin—was nominated for the Russian Booker Prize when it was first published.

As with Liubov i drugiie koshmary, the film contrasts images of the old regime and the new order to depict post-1989 Russian society. It's an adrenaline rush of rich images, reference-filled music and layered meaning of words, but ultimately this is dampened by the film's own cynicism and removal from the realm of everyday reality.

Winning freedom

Of all the Russian film directors to have tackled post-Communist realities, perhaps the most successful has been Artur Aristakisian, with his graduation film Ladoni (literally "Palms" but officially translated as Hands, 1994), a mesmerising feature which elevates beggars and cripples to a level of spiritual and moral purity. As well as its heightened social sense, the film boasts novel formal characteristics that give it a mystical-religious intensity. Mutterings in the Russian press that the film should be banned only served to increase its allure.

Artur Aristakisian's Mesto na zemle (A Place on Earth, 2001)
Searching for spiritual freedom in poverty
Aristakisian's second feature, Mesto na zemlie (A Place on Earth, 2001), therefore, attracted much attention at Karlovy Vary. Whereas Ladoni apotheosised the disinherited of Chisinau, Mesto na zemle turns to Moscow. The action largely takes place in a commune, and is constructed using improvised dialogue based on real events that Aristakisian observed at Moscow's Bulgakov House squat. In this "temple of love," there are "common children" who are everybody's, a relished meal might consist of half-eaten scraps ("food devoid of its virginity") and a half-crazed ideologue urges the women that they should make love to cripples.

The film's perspective constantly shifts and at different points any one of several characters could be considered the central one. The supposed idyllic environment is undermined through a series of personal and collective crises: the police brutally raid the house; the ideologue, frustrated at his inability to express his vision, castrates himself; a baby is accidentally killed; and all the while the traumas of free love are evident.

This makes the film a rather different one to Ladoni. Whereas Aristakisian's debut attempts to be spiritually uplifting in its presentation of the absolute purity of destitution, Mesto na zemle is rather more circumspect. The elements of spirituality are not those that are inborn and innocent, they are what is strived after but never achieved. Thus the protagonists of Ladoni are unaware of crises of the body or the soul. In Mesto na zemle, the characters are highly aware—often painfully so—of both bodily and spiritual matters.

The film draws a line between those who choose to live on the fringes of society and those who are forced there. Particularly important in the latter respect is the character of Maria, one of the few named characters, who observes the goings-on of the squat in a detached way. Aristakisian also focusses on the children playing at being adults, perhaps hinting that they are doing it rather better than the grown-ups themselves are.

"Perhaps" is the operative word, however. The film is less clear cut than its predecessor and it is often not obvious what the director is aiming at: documentation, admiration or criticism. This combined with a serious loss of control over the film's pace in the second half have added up to many observers considering the film a pale imitation of the director's stunning first film. It was, thus, to some people's surprise that the film won the Freedom Prize (ironically sponsored by arch-cancer-peddlers Philip Morris).

As disappointed as I was with the second half, I still found that some days after the festival had ended the images and music (by Robert Wyatt) of the film recurred in my mind continually, often popping out from nowhere when I was thinking about something else. This haunting quality of parts of the film would seem to vindicate the jury's choice.

Cutting out the bull

Another director whose reputation proceeded him was Aleksandr Sokurov, this year represented by Telets (Taurus, 2000), the second part of his proposed tetrology depicting world leaders. This part is devoted to Lenin recuperating after his first stroke. He veers constantly between lucidity and senility and is utterly helpless as he watches himself shunted onto the political sidelines.

Sokurov, even before he started the tetrology, had attracted international attention, including flattering comments from the likes of Martin Scorsese and cult singer Nick Cave. He is often seen as the natural successor to Tarkovsky's artistic legacy, something reinforced, perhaps misleadingly, by the mutual admiration the two directors have had for each other.

Aleksandr Sokurov's Telets (Taurus, 2000)
Lenin: Declining powers and distorted vision
As with many Russian films at the festival, Telets screened at the small cinema in the Imperial Hotel. Badly ventilated on an exceedingly hot day, massively overcrowded (with people sitting on every available space in the aisles) and punctuated by latecomers arriving and those with no patience leaving, the screening I attended was not exactly a comfortable one. This is a shame, given that the film is one that demands uninterrupted concentration, and as a result of not having that at the viewing I attended I feel particularly badly qualified to talk about Telets.

However, it is clear that the tetrology is largely uninterested in political and historical documentation, or even personal biography, and seeks instead to dissect the existential dilemmas of leadership and power. Telets has attracted less attention than Moloch (1999), the tetrology's first installment, which is given over to an afternoon with Hitler at his mountain-top retreat. This is partly due to the fact that portraying Lenin as a mentally deficient idiot is rather less controversial than claiming Hitler was unaware of the existence of Auschwitz. Furthermore, the philosophical framework of the tetrology has already, for the most part, been set up and the film continues in this rather than breaks out of it. Not until the final two parts of the tetrology are completed will we be able to judge whether Telets is a rewarding and vital part of the impressive philosophical arch the four films will (I hope) form.

Light relief

If the relentless intellectualism of films such as Telets, Mesto na zemle and Moskva is too much for you, there can be no better film to watch than Oleg Yankovsky's Prikhodi na menia posmotret' (Come Look at Me, 2001). This chamber comedy concerns a dying mother who is certain that she will depart "any day now." She expresses her grief that she has not lived to see her only daughter, Tania, get married or have children. A chance knock on the door by a wealthy entrepreneur bearing champagne and roses who has the wrong apartment block for a date gives Tania a sudden flash of inspiration to put a happier spin on the surely imminent and sad demise of her beloved ma. The man, played by Yankovsky himself, decides with some bemusement to go along with the scheme.

Oleg Yankovsky's Prikhodi na menia posmotret' (Come Look at Me, 2001)
In too deep: Tania's "daughter" gets her into trouble
Much to Tania's horror, not only does the stranger start to relish his role rather too much, but her mother's self-prognosis for survival has now increased to "only a matter of weeks." As Tania tries to extricate herself by bringing in a phoney long-lost illegitimate daughter, she only gets herself into more trouble and unwittingly extends her mother's life expectancy with the delight she is giving her.

Although this is Yankovsky's directorial debut, he is already something of a household name in Russia as an actor. Previous appearances have included roles in such important films as Tarkovsky's Zerkalo (The Mirror, 1974) and Nostalghia (1983). There were certainly a respectable number of middle-aged women to ask him for his autograph when he turned up to introduce the screening of his film.

It might be easy for hardened festival-goers to dismiss the obviousness of the romantic comedy genre, but Yankovsky's acting shows he has fine observational skills, and the script is far more intelligent than a Hollywood analogue in the same genre would be. It might not be a profound film, but it is highly watchable and anything but vacuous.

Updating the genre

Andrei Kravchuk and Yuri Feting's Rozhdestvenskaia misteriia (Christmas Mystery, 2000)
The magical and the mundane mixing
Andrei Kravchuk and Yuri Feting's Rozhdestvenskaia misteriia (Christmas Mystery, 2000) is a further example of a debut whose director has worked closely with a revered Russian master, this time Aleksei German, who has spent a number of years at Lenfilm Studios advising young directors. The film concerns a failed puppeteer who lives in Italy pretending to lead the successful life of fame and fortune which he seemed destined for when he left. The expectations rested on a magic puppet which could fly, but when Maxim leaves his childhood sweetheart, Masha, to chase glory and recognition, the puppet's powers vanish. Unknown to Maxim, Masha was bearing his son, and, distraught at his departure, raises the boy to hate the absent father. When Maxim returns to his village to fulfill the promise he made to give a school performance on New Year's Eve, an angry confrontation with his son leads to a family reconciliation and the puppet's powers return.

Internationally, the reputation of Russian film rests on extreme auteurs. Rozhdestvenskaia misteriia, like Prikhodi na menia posmotret', proves that great talent exists also in genre film, which is usually derided by connoisseurs. Kravchuk and Feting take an age-old formula, the fairy tale, and transplant it into a modern reality, freely mixing elements of fantasy and social observation and keeping hold of the narrative pace of the film by telling the story in interwoven time frames. If you can stomach its sentimental Christmas spirit and the ending that such a romance demands, the film is surprisingly interesting viewing.

None of the Russian films at Karlovy Vary were masterpieces in their own right (although Telets will probably come to be considered one in the context of Sokurov's tetrology). That is not to say that this was a bad year for Russian cinema: the evidence is clear that the country's strong and distinctive film-making tradition is still surviving despite adverse economic circumstances. However, the more rounded films this year were generally speaking the less philosophically ambitious ones. Perhaps it is time for Russian film buffs to turn away from the intensely individual works of the high auteurs and start evaluating works in a more straightforward style.

Andrew James Horton

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About the author

Andrew James HortonAndrew James Horton is Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye and Culture Editor of Central Europe Review. He also writes on central European culture for a small number of other journals and edited the e-book The Celluloid Tinderbox: Yugoslav screen reflections of a turbulent decade.

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