Tribeca Film Festival, NYC, April 25-May 6, 2007
Playing the Victim
Directed by Kirill Serebtennikov
Written by The Presnakov Brothers
Animation by Roman Sokolov
Starring: Yuri Chursin, Vitaly Khaev, Marina Golub, Anna Mikhalkova, Lia Akhedzhakova, Yelena Morozova, and Marat Basharov
My sister-in-law, who’s visiting from St. Louis, and whose taste in film is rather adventurous, asked me, about 15 minutes after I saw Playing the Victim, if I’d recommend it.
“I don’t know,” I said, realizing that this was not an easy question, and that I hadn’t even figured out if I liked it or not. The film, I told her, was certainly different, and it had its inspired moments of twisted post-Soviet comedic absurdity, to be sure (as well as its flaws, like subtitles that sometimes didn’t flow, making them difficult to read). It was, I said, a very freaky movie filled with allusions to Hamlet: the main character Valya (Yuri Chursin)—whose job is to act as the victim in police video reconstructions of murders—is visited by his father’s ghost, and he’s constantly dithering about what to do with his life.
But then I began to describe a scene: “Well, Valya’s in his bedroom, fucking his girlfriend, Olia [Yelena Morozova], you know, she’s riding him in the woman-superior position and she’s bitching about how they’re never going to get married and she’s going to be 33 and nobody’s going to want her, and she’s got a scarf wrapped around his neck to cut off the oxygen to his brain to enhance his orgasm (she’d read about this technique in Marie Claire), and then Valya’s mother [Marina Golub] walks in…she’s a piece of work, too…she might have poisoned his father and now she’s banging his uncle, who might have also had a hand in the murder…anyway, she starts talking to Valya like nothing’s going on, like his girlfriend isn’t even there. She wants him to go out and buy bread and they start arguing if he should get a regular loaf or pita bread, which she thinks is ‘more flavorful.’ But Valya refuses to buy pita bread because he’s afraid that terrorists have poisoned it. ‘What terrorists?’ the mother asks. ‘Those who bake the pita,’ Valya says, and then proceeds to pantomime the events of 9/11, showing two planes crashing into the World Trade Center, complete with sound effects. Then, as he’s having his orgasm, the movie switches to animation, with trains going through Valya’s skull and stuff like that. Well, maybe that was two scenes, but you get the idea.”
She did get the idea, I think, and it was after delivering this spontaneous soliloquy that I realized I must have liked Playing the Victim—and the more I thought about the movie, the more I liked it. Part of my problem, perhaps, was that it took me a while to figure out what the hell was going on. The opening scene is a murder reconstruction, as seen through a video camera operated by a less than competent policewoman, Lyuda (Anna Mikhalkova), who seems more interested in making dinner plans over her cell phone than concentrating on the job at hand. Apparently, a man has dismembered his girlfriend in a portable toilet outside a snack bar in a Moscow park. But who’s that guy sitting on the toilet making goofy faces at the camera and providing fart-like sound effects when the murderer says, “She farted,” in response to the chief detective’s (Vitaly Khaev) question, “What happened after you stuck the knife in her neck?”
Part of the film’s absurdity is that these murder re-creations—there are five altogether, and they’re all seen through the wandering, amateurish eye of the video camera—seem to serve no purpose whatsoever, beyond a vague explanation that they’re being done as an “investigative experiment” for legal reasons. The murderers are already in custody and they have already confessed (or have sworn that it was only an accident), sometimes on camera, sometimes dispassionately, sometimes hysterically.
But the real point of this film is to show the yawning chasm between Valya’s post-Soviet generation—a neo-lost generation, which he symbolizes with his aimlessness, his ambivalence, and his South Park T-shirt—and the older, more serious generation that came of age in the Soviet Union, symbolized by Valya’s boss, the middle-aged chief detective. All the detective’s frustration comes pouring out of him in the penultimate murder re-creation, a shooting in a Japanese restaurant. He delivers a fierce and eloquent Shakespearean soliloquy on the theme of “What the hell’s the matter with you kids today, shooting each other in the head over stupid insults…I had a wife and kids when I was your age.” And it has been set off by the detective’s distaste for sushi, which he sees as a symbol of all that’s wrong with the new, open and “democratic” Russia.
Impressively, Playing the Victim was shot on a budget of $750,000, and there is much to be learned from it—about the art of filmmaking and storytelling in general, and about black comedy in particular.
Yes, Cecilia, by all means, go rent it when you get back to St. Louis—if you can find it.
Playing the Victim
Thur., April 26, 4:30 PM, AMC Village VII-02, 66 Third Avenue (at 11th Street)
Fri., April 27, 8:30 PM, Regal Park Battery Cinemas 11-05, 102 North End Avenue (at Vesey Street)
Sun., April 29, 10:00 PM, AMC Kips Bay-13, 570 Second Avenue (at 32nd Street)
Tues., May 1, 10:30 PM, AMC 34th Street-09, 312 W. 34th Street (bet 8/9 Avenues)
Fri., May 4, 4:30 PM, AMC 34th Street-12
Sat., May 5, 10:45 AM, AMC 34th Street-14