Friday, 20 May 2016

Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky: You I Love -Я люблю тебя (2004)

Directors: Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky
Stars: Damir Badmaev, Lyubov Tolkalina, Evgeniy Koryakovskiy

Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky are both independent artists and film makers whose films have enriched the parallel cinema with new themes. Their latest film takes place in contemporary Moscow, in the world of young and hip people working in the media. Vera, a prototype of modern times, a beauty working as a TV news presenter, meets advertising executive Tim and begins a relationship with him. They lead quite an ordinary life, until the day that Tim hits the handsome and wild Uloomji with his car and takes him home for some first aid. Before long, a strange, bisexual love triangle begins, and on the day of their first anniversary, Vera finds Tim in bed with Uloomji. The roots and traditions of the Kalmyk Uloomji (Kalmykia is an autonomous Russian Republic and the only European Buddhist nation) are reasons for additional troubles. His peasant family cannot accept the fact that he is gay and things seem to spin out of control for all of them. Though made in the traditions of the parallel cinema, the film stays a pleasant romantic comedy with a happy end. The style is young, slick and cool, the film language attractive and recognisable for a young audience.

You I Love is the official English title of this film, which in Russian is called simply I Love You. It is not clear what the authors meant to express with the transformation of the simple declarative statement of the Russian to the convoluted and ambiguous English version. This strange combination of simplicity and complexity is emblematic for the film as a whole. It has been billed as Russia’s first real example of gay cinema, but the sexual orientation per se of the characters receives relatively little attention or analysis in the course of the action. It is almost lost within a mixture of the most various themes, ideas, images, jokes, and textual and visual references that threaten to disrupt any artistic or ideological unity in the film. This is a film that ultimately doesn’t seem to know what or for whom its message really is.

The three main characters are introduced at the beginning of the film, two of them first as disembodied and anonymous voices. As the young Uloomji, an undocumented resident from the periphery of the former Soviet empire, seeks work in Moscow, we hear Timofei―the creator of television advertising campaigns―doing market research by telephone and Vera―a well-known television news caster―reporting on the growing problem of undocumented workers in the capital. While Uloomji tries to find his place in a city that does not welcome him, the viewer has an equally difficult time placing the mechanically mediated voices speaking from beyond the screen. This introduction sets up the configuration not only of the cast of characters, but also to a large extent of the larger social environment that will structure the drama to come.

Vera and Timofei soon meet and begin a relationship. One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way it aesthetically captures the lifestyle of the young cosmopolitan generation of yuppie-like denizens of a no longer post-Soviet Moscow. The glossy surface and the empty content of modern life is communicated in a relatively small set of dramatic sequences. Vera and Timofei live in a world that is completely constructed by the mass media, which they themselves produce and in which they work. This is underscored not only through a recurring series of ads marketing a western-style soft drink as the fulfillment of all human aspiration, but also in the self-conscious way film itself repeatedly frames its characters as if they are speaking lines in one of Timofei’s video clips.

In this way, You I Love is one of the most striking examples of a film that actually grapples with the new reality of 21st century urban Russia, at least with its cash-drenched new elite. Yet the film is frustratingly coy in its evaluation of this new reality. Technology and urban life give individual identity a kind of amorphous character that has never before been conceivable in Russia’s history. This fluidity of identity is neither celebrated nor mourned, but rather put on display in a way that is half play and half manipulation. Timofei’s supposed discovery of his bisexuality and his developing relationship with both Vera and Uloomji are perceived, on the one hand, as a kind of personal liberation to be sure, but he repeatedly shows himself incapable, on the other hand, of stepping out of the prison house of media images that condition the role-play through which he experiences real life. Vera, too, is at once both a true celebrity in her role as TV newscaster and a prisoner of a system that turns her physical body into a battlefield in the war for ratings.

The film’s narrative voice is likewise diffuse and indeterminate. At several points in the film, Vera’s off-screen voice weaves itself into the action to describe her feelings and small epiphanies. At times we seem to be hearing the story of Vera’s path to a kind of Buddhist enlightenment, a developing ability to see beyond the limitations of the material and social world in which humanity tries to exist. But this narrative voice is not sustained, nor is Vera the focal point for the larger storyline. For much of the action, Vera is pushed far to the sidelines and left to observe the developing relationship of the two men. But on an extradiagetic level, Vera’s subject position continues to organize the film’s point of view, even when her voice does not narrate. As she struggles to understand what is happening with the man she loves, she seems to join the viewers at a place where the inner content of Timofei’s psyche remains completely inaccessible. While we see brief manifestations of strong emotional trauma, Timofei remains very much a cipher, a person with no defined history who keeps his authentic personality tightly locked so deep in the closet that it has become inaccessible even to him. He remains a mystery to us even more: just how novel were his feelings of attraction for Uloomji? to what extent is his bisexuality a new discovery? how long was he in the West and what traces of that experience remain with him after his return to Moscow? what kind of unspoken signals pass between him and his boss in their workplace interactions? The viewer is shut out in the same way that Vera feels herself shut out as she asks helplessly “What is going on here?” Neither she nor we ever get a final answer to this question.

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