Sunday, 6 March 2011

Kirill Serebrennikov: Playing the Victim - Изображая Жертву (2006)

Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenplay: Oleg and Vladimir Presniakov
Cinematography: Sergei Mokritskii
Art Director: Valerii Arkhipov
Animation: Roman Sokolov
Cast: Iurii Chursin, Vitalii Khaev, Anna Mikhalkova, Liia Akhedzhakova, Marat Basharov, Marina Golub, Andrei Fomin, Maksim Konovalov, Igor' Gasparian, Elena Morozova, Fedor Dobronravov

The film Playing the Victim, a darkly amusing modern take on Hamlet by Russian director Kiril Serebrennikov, has been named Best Film at Rome's inaugural film festival (2006).

First came the stage. The production of Playing the Victim, based on the play by Oleg and Vladimir Presniakov, was staged by director Kirill Serebrennikov in the Moscow Art Theater (Chekhov). That was two years ago. A year and a half later, the same director transferred the performance onto the screen, inviting two of the stage actors to take part in the film. Produced by Natal'ia Mokritskaia, Ul'iana Savel'eva, and Leonid Zagal'skii for the New People Film Company and Vega Production, the film was awarded first prize at the Kinotavr national film festival in 2006, as well as the prize of the Guild of Russian Film Critics, and it received varied and conflicting reviews that reflected the contradictory reactions of viewers.

It could not have been otherwise. I am referring to the recognition extended by the festival elite and the puzzled reaction of the general public. Despite its external appearance as a popular burlesque in the style of the “Blue Blouse,” with its comic episodes and vulgar dialog, the film unquestionably winks at viewers who have read a lot and seen a lot of movies, and who are inclined towards complex culturological reflection.

Obviously, Hamlet flickers inside the carcass of the plot. Val'ka, the main character—a skinny, young guy with long locks and a pronounced Adam’s apple—hates his mother and her fancy suitor, his natural uncle, Petia. He suspects that his father, a naval officer, did not die of natural causes and that uncle Petia was somehow involved. His dead father, a stern man in the uniform of a captain of the first rank, appears before Val'ka at night and at crucial moments in the film. Val'ka is having an affair with a young woman, Olia, who is as pitiful and defenseless a being as Ophelia. And at the end of the film, this post-Soviet Danish prince will settle scores drastically with Gertrude and Claudius, and also with the unfortunate Ophelia, putting a tragic end to his relations with the world.

Shakespeare is enacted superficially, schematically, without immersion into the abyss. The film also uses the ethical code of heroic solitude amongst the samurai—to which Val'ka aspires—just as superficially, commercially, on a pedestrian level. Essentially, this is the programmatic yardstick of the director’s vision: to slide along the outermost layers of actual cultural myths. I make this point without the least shadow of any judgment. According to Anna Akhmatova, art can be made from any bit of trash, from any material at hand; this is especially true of art in the surfeited epoch of internet accessibility, in which all of the achievements of the past is nothing but a string of sites at the mercy of a simple “click.”

As a matter of fact, the film’s structure is also constructed using the canons of fractured computer consciousness, when texts, images, pop-up ads, impertinent intrusions of spam are all jumbled together into one pulsating heap. The task facing new demiurges is to organize this already assimilated space in accordance with their artistic goals. Playing the Victim can be compared to a skewer onto which various formats of reflected reality have been strung. Like a masterful cook of shish-kebabs, Serebrennikov uses three primary and very tasty ingredients in his directorial kitchen; tasty, of course, only if such sharp and spicy food is to one’s palate.

The first—most effective and fertile ingredient—is amateur video filming—more precisely, its painstaking imitation. The film begins with an episode of such filmmaking even as the opening credits roll. And it ends with another such episode. The screen becomes narrowed: on one corner of the frame is the “record” icon, on the other a time code is running. All in all, if I have not miscounted, five such fragments flash before the viewer, magnificently shot by cameraman Sergei Mokritskii.

The video-camera is used without any special cleverness, but very diligently by a policewoman “Dziga Vertov,” a full-figured young woman with epaulets and a round, artless face. The role of Liudmila, the camerawoman, is played by Anna Mikhalkova (daughter of Nikita Mikhalkov), who, no matter how strange it might seem, is very successful in capturing simple and earthbound heroines. Her character is filming the testimony of suspects and witnesses for legal reasons: the investigation team drives out to the scene of a crime in order to recreate it and this process is video-taped. But until the moment the stern and eternally frowning captain of police gives the order “Roll it!,” Val'ka, the irrepressible mocker keeps trying to force his way into the view-finder in order to make faces. At the very beginning of the film he delivers a tirade to the police video-camera, which should be quoted without any censoring: “Russian cinema is in big shit. Russian cinema is in big shit. Only Fedia Bondarchuk is a cool guy. Fedia is cool… His father got an Oscar. And he’ll get one. He’ll get stronger and get one for sure.” While Liudmila chews him out for the “shit,” the ensuing lexical feast treats viewers to such a well-selected dish of obscenities that it is, in fact, the scriptwriters and the director who should be chewed out—and how! Or, perhaps instead of being chewed out they should be praised and applauded for the “great and powerful” Russian foul language (mat), which has finally been legalized and made sense of conceptually. ...

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