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A Not-So-Innocent Victim

A scene from Kirill Serebrenikov's Playing the Victim

By Vadim Rizov

"Russian cinema is in the ass," announces Valya (Yuri Chursin) at the beginning of Playing the Victim, Kirill Serebrenikov's third feature and second adaptation of a play by the Brothers Presnyakov. Then the film vigorously sets about disproving him. The first 20 minutes caused numerous walk-outs at the press screening, understandably so. The Brothers seems hellbent on being as shocking as a 13-year-old as his characters say "piss" and "shit" repeatedly, to generally unpleasant effect, and it's hard to tell whether they mean it or just want to put his viewers through an endurance test to kick things off and make us earn the good stuff.

Somewhere along the line, things settle down into a compelling routine. Valya -- ostensibly an actor -- has the bizarre day job of re-enacting the role of the victim in murders. The killer is brought in to re-create the whole thing for the cameras while Valya does his best to play dead, leading to an increasing number of logical absurdities. These absurdist set-pieces provide the comic fuel necessary to get through some of the more pretentious bits, like Serebrenikov's black-and-white animated inserts whenever Valya undergoes a particularly intense emotion or bad David Fincher-lite CGI shots through tiny crevices. Like seemingly every contemporary Russian movie ever made, the main public service performed by Playing The Victim is demonstrating to the world once again what an awful place it is, with a particular emphasis on the country’s inescapable racism. The most quotable example is at a sushi restaurant, the police chief yells "Shit! This isn't food, this is some kind of weird mindfuck." There’s also a persistent loathing of the country at work: When told that a murderer is repenting and wants to be sent to Siberia, the chief explains that he won't necessarily be sent there: "We have lots of places like that in Russia." Fans of this kind of morbid humor should check it out; everyone else might find it too shrill and consistently abrasive to handle. Par for the Russian course, really, but a definite highlight of the narrative feature competition.

Pascale Ferran's nearly three-hour D.H. Lawrence adaptation Lady Chatterley (cut down, frighteningly enough, from a 220-minute TV version) starts off impressively austere and, at some point in the duration, slumps into inconsequentiality. The story's no shocker -- the quiet, repressed title character (Marina Hands) discovers her sexuality and regains control of her life by fucking hubby's gamekeeper (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch) -- but Ferran avoids a lot of obvious traps. For example, the husband (Hippolyte Girardot) may be bourgeois, a repressive capitalist, and both symbolically and literally crippled, but he's not an abusive Restrainer of Sexuality, which prevents the movie from lapsing into rote Free Woman v. Society territory. Ferran gets a lot of mileage from her extremely understated sound design and nature photography, and she throws in a lot of sex scenes which manage to convey characterization via thrusting more successfully than 9 Songs could. Still, Ferran is unable to smother Lawrence, and the film eventually becomes both redundant and self-righteously hippie-esque. By the time Lady Chatterley and her animalistic lover are running free-spirited and naked in the rain, the spell has lifted. Still, for a good spell Lady Chatterley is a period piece that avoids the twin traps of fetishizing and/or reviling an era. If Ferran learns not to sprawl out and choose better source material, she might be brilliant.

Imagine Rushmore as a drab Swiss crowdpleaser minus Bill Murray and you'll get the rough idea of Vitus. Instead of Max Fischer there's the titular boy (Fabrizio Borsani as a 6-year-old, Teo Gheorgiu as a 12-year old), who nurses a genius IQ and a boner for classical piano instead of theatrical schlock. Saddled with cookie-cutter parents -- castratingly caring and stifling mom (Julika Jenkins), loving but not particularly attentive, career-oriented dad (Urs Jucker) -- Vitus turns instead to the obligatory cuddly grandpa (Bruno Ganz) for attention. The parents want the boy to be a prodigy, pushing him away from normal childhood, and therein lies the rub: For about an hour, Vitus is pretty insufferable -- visually indifferent, prone to every dramatic cliche on tap -- but it eventually digs into the ways parents can convince themselves that pressuring a kid to "live up to their potential" (the most loathsome phrase on the planet) can make them oblivious to when the kid's totally miserable. It's undeniably kind of a sluggish crowdpleaser of the blandest sort, but it got to this reviewer, who spent 11 years slogging through classical piano and nearly as many through the ludicrous concept of being "gifted and talented." Better yet, Borsani and Gheorgiu can actually play the piano -- Gheorgiu's a real-life junior prodigy -- making this the rare film to show hands playing the correct keys rather than cutting around them or using a stunt double. Like The Namesake, the value of the film as a formal object (minimal) will be outweighed by feeling of recognition for anyone who's been there. Sony Pictures Classics will probably make a minor killing on release.

The latest disappointment from once-promising director John Dahl, You Kill Me situates itself at the presumably edgy intersection of alcoholism, gang wars and ethnic rivalry; remarkably, it comes out as bland as a family comedy (maybe something called Are We Dry Yet?, with no disrespect intended to Ice Cube). Ben Kingsley is a hitman whose increasingly crippling drinking problem makes him of no use to his Polish employers; sent to dry out in San Francisco, he discovers strength through AA and love interest Tea Leoni. Kingsley is too dour to do deadpan without killing the joke, although in combination with either Leoni or AA sponsor Luke Wilson the cast has the ability to sound better than the script, even if the sole joke behind Wilson’s character seems to be how hilarious it is that this paragon of frat-boy straightness is playing someone gay. The crappy digital lensing fails to impart snowy noir gravitas (a la The Ice Harvest) to the Buffalo gangland of the poles or any kind of distinct texture at all to San Francisco. The results are zippy enough and forgettable even while you're watching.

Perhaps it's time to start treating the increasing "treasure trove" of rediscovered Soviet films as camp classics instead of trying to pretend that formal accomplishment trumps the ludicrously didactic ideological content. Shot by Sergei Urusevsky -- most famous for his undeniably stunning work on I Am Cuba -- The Forty-First does about the best possible job of filming the desert in Academy ratio, despite the undeniable, after-the-fact proof provided by Lawrence of Arabia that CinemaScope is a must. Urusevsky plays with the desert by itself and in contrast with fire and water (Tarkovsky would've been thrilled). Still, Grigori Chukhrai's film is a mostly ludicrous attempt to graft USSR propaganda onto a fairly basic story about an army unit marooned in the desert. Hero Martyushka (Izolda Izvitskaya) is a Red Army sniper in the days of the revolution who's bagged 38 kills already as the film opens. Left to die by the White Army, her straggling unit picks up a high-ranking White officer (Oleg Strizhenov), who Martyushka guards and eventually falls in love with. Vistas can't obscure howlers like an officer yelling at his soldier (after the man crosses himself) "There is no God! How many times do I have to tell you?" See also: Martyushka rejecting the lovelorn officer's offer of life on his country estate with: "You want me to lie in bed and eat chocolates with you. Chocolates smeared with blood!" Play this at the Sunshine at midnight and watch the crowds roll in.

The Tribeca catalogue talks up Gerard Blain's second feature The Pelican -- apparently never before screened in the U.S. -- as in the rigorous realm of Dreyer and Bresson. Aside from the simple fact that Blain cuts more often in the whole film than those masters might've in their entire bodies of work, he's not nearly as cogent a thinker. The simple story of a jazz pianist (Blain) who goes to jail for nine years while his son is only two years old and comes out trying to connect with him again is visually expanded to somehow include musings on obsession, voyeurism, economic jealousy and memory. Unfortunately, the impressive master shots only serve to bring out the film's latent shallowness rather than helping create depth. It doesn't help that the whole thing is redolent of '70s cheese (were the '70s or the '80s the most unfortunate decade to try to film in without succumbing to dated fashions?); it's hard to take a villain seriously when he's sporting a thick Burt Reynolds mustache and a gaudy bathrobe. The best sequences find the pianist peering over the fence into the yard of his wife's new family, complete with rich husband; the creepy P.O.V. shots observe the banal routines of bored rich people as they play cards and listen to their 8-track recorder (it's 1973, after all).

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Playing the Victim
Lady Chatterley
The Pelican
You Kill Me
The Forty-First

Posted at April 25, 2007 12:01 AM

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