At the end of 2011 Sergei Loban’s film Chapiteau-Show, consisting of four novellas, got into Russian distribution after having premiered at the Moscow IFF in June. The four novellas titled “Love”, “Friendship”, “Respect”, and “Cooperation” can, according to the filmmakers, be watched in any order. A conversation on serious matters is announced: about relationships shared by all mankind, which cannot be challenged under any circumstances. The faith in such relationships is the only thing that unites all of us, irrespective of our cultural or ethnic background, of citizenship and social status. Before us we have something the titles of manifestoes of new moralists, which feel a bit like the era of Enlightenment. The chapter titles also stand in apparent dissonance with the film’s title. The word chapiteau, apart from its literal meaning of a travelling circus, has a rich semantic field in Russian. In ordinary speech it is often used as less vigorous synonym for such terms as “buffoonery” (balagan) or “chaos,” “mess” (bardak). This is about a world where everything is upside down, where there is no order, where nobody takes anything serious, where chaos and irresponsibility reign. In the semantics of the word “chapiteau” the comic accent is foregrounded. Apparently, then, we are dealing with a frank and cheerful game, which does not demand from the actors what Boris Pasternak has called “full destruction seriously”. So it is appropriate to consider theatre as a metaphor for this world, but not in the Shakespearian sense—“the whole world is a theatre, and the people in it are all actors”—but in the sense of Aleksandr Blok’s play The Fairground Booth (Balaganchik), where Pierrot exclaims: “I’m dying! I’m bleeding cranberry juice!”. However, before us we have a different part of the Great Game: the circus, which is also governed by a set of given circumstances—very extreme circumstances; yet within those circumstances the artist has to live not his role and a conditional life, but he has to take a real risk, putting at stake such human attitudes as love, friendship, respect, and cooperation. It is no coincidence that it was precisely the circus that excited the great humanists of the last century, Charles Chaplin and Federico Fellini.
Each protagonist has to perform his number in this fairground booth, and they are all directly connected to the world of game: to the imagined and genuine realities of theatre, cinema, and television. Vera is a graduate of the Theatre School; the pioneers’ leader is a student of the Theatre Institute and a pupil of Petr Nikolaevich (Mamonov), the cult actor and musician; other members of the group work for television; there are sound producers and a deaf baker who participates in the vocal show; Aleksei and Roman work as stagehands at the theatre; Nikita, the son of Petr Nikolaevich, dreams of becoming a film director; Sergei Popov is a producer. But as participants of this performance of life they play the roles of losers: the witty project conceived by Sergei Popov of a “substitute star” fails; the link that has been formed in the virtual world between Vera and Aleksei cannot develop into real affinity; the deaf man does not belong to the world of those who can hear; the game of “dad the guru and the son-pupil” nearly ends in the death of both. The symbol of the “unsuccessful show” has become the “chapiteau-show” itself, staged by a director who constantly exclaims how he has raised the benchmark, but in his circus acts tightrope-walkers fall down and trapeze artists fly off into the audience.
Why does that happen? Apparently the heroes play different games, in which they are directors both of their own and other peoples’ lives, using others as characters in the performances they direct. In the first novella, “Love,” Vera and Aleksei take a risky step when they meet each other, leaving the cosy the limits of their virtual world and planning a journey together. They genuinely try to guess each others’ desires, but nothing comes of it. Their dialogues go around in circles all the time: “Maybe we’ll go for a walk?”—“Do you want to?”—“I thought you wanted to”, which gradually leads to a collapse of communication that ends in hysterics. In the second novella, “Friendship,” the deaf hero also genuinely wants to change his life, find new friends, live by different rules, leave the limited circle of his deaf-and-dumb community, but he cannot be part of the strange world of the “pioneer group”, where everything is relative: it is not clear who is gay and who is straight, who is a friend of whom, and who is the lover. His old friends play their own game of true Indians and swear eternal friendship to each other. He returns, kneeling down when begging for forgiveness. In the third novella, “Respect,” the son honestly and industriously tries to live up to the model that his father creates for him, but he doesn’t know the script. Yet it is clear that the role of a true man, a hunter and rock-climber, a man of courage and macho, is not for him. The father, too, it transpires, is no macho, but an aging actor who is forever captivated by illusions and who—in a moment of creative crisis and fear of old age—needs the son as a character in his play with the title “return of the prodigal father.” Finally, in the novella “Cooperation,” the motive of manipulation of someone else’s life becomes transparent. The ambitious producer-debutant Sergei excitedly initiates his game, in which the carpenter Roman and amateur songwriter “à la Tsoy” is given the role of a Tsoy-double. When Sergei’s creation—the protagonist of his show—Roman breaks off his links and signs a contract with the director of the Chapiteau-Show, that is—exits the game, Sergei’s concept about pleasure derived from being just a copy is smashed into smithereens.
Reviewed by Tat’iana Kruglova, Liliia Nemchenko in KinoKultura