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Vol 2, No 18
9 May 2000
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Oddball director
Lynch Pin?
The imagary of Aleksei Balabanov
Andrew James Horton

Two years ago, British audiences were surprised and thrilled with the discovery of Aleksandr Sokurov's Mat' i syn (Mother and Son, 1997). Ever since, interest in Russian cinema in the UK has been on the up, and this year has seen a marketing offensive of the films of Aleksei Balabanov.

Earlier in the year, his debut Schastlivye dni (Happy Days, 1991) had a short run at London's ICA and now Brat (Brother, 1997) and Pro urodov i liudei (Of Freaks and Men, 1998) are having limited releases in the West End. Critical response has been universally rapturous. Balabanov featured on Channel 4 News and the press have been falling over themselves to pile on the accolades.

None have been more enthusiastic than Roger Clarke of the Independent who not only called Balabanov "one of the world's great contemporary film-makers" but also labelled the director "Russia's David Lynch." Kino-Kino, the UK distributors for Schastlivye dni and Brat certainly agreed with the comparison, and used it extensively on their promotional material.

Such labelling of one director in terms of another is invariably useful for selling cinema (the hyping Sokurov drew heavily on his alleged indebtedness to Tarkovsky), but in reality can lead to some somewhat facile or even misleading connections being made. Is Clarke's description - so eagerly leapt upon by Kino-Kino - such a narrow-minded simplification, or does it offer some real insight into the director and his works?

Lost childhood

Balabanov's debut a tragi-comic tale of a wandering dimwit in search of accommodation, friendship and soup with parsley (played superbly by Viktor Sukhorukov), automatically marked him out as a director with an original vision and an interest in the underbelly of society. Shot in black and white, the film is a homage to Beckett and delightfully evokes a world of scrabbling for some sort of identity and desperately trying to claw back some degree of youthful innocence in a cruel world. (See Kinoeye's review of the film, No More Childhood for a full in-depth analysis).

Brat, the next of Balabanov's films to be distributed in the UK, took up rather different subject matter. Shot this time in colour, the film is a contemporary Mafia thriller, set in a decaying modern Russia.

The film's hero, a young fresh-faced Danila of gawky innocence, on arrival in St Petersburg seeks out his brother, Viktor (again Viktor Sukhorukov, this time with slightly less power). Viktor, living it up on the profits of crime, gives his younger sibling a wad of cash to stock up on clothes from Littlewoods and his first assignment in a lethal game of gang warfare, the assassination of a Chechen mobster who is squeezing Russians out of the market.

A killer on
the loose
Danila carries out the task with disturbing ease and it soon becomes apparent that his softly spoken claims to have spent his military service at HQ scribbling at a desk may be rather different from the truth. His continued activities in the underworld are carried out with similar efficiency and in between his criminal activities, he plays vigilante, goes in search of an ever-illusive Nautilus CD, expresses his disgust at the sex and drugs culture of modern youth (although he doesn't seem too adverse to taking part in it) and has an affair with Sveta, a married woman whose husband is in jail.

Rival gangsters eventually track him down and lure him to Viktor's flat by forcing the older brother to betray him. Danila effortlessly waltzes in picking off the hoodlums and is then able to pick up a briefcase stuffed with cash one of them has left lying around. Pausing only to forgive his brother, now reduced to a pathetic wreck of a man, Danila runs off with his new-found loot to persuade Sveta to run off with him.

Sveta refuses, her husband gets shot in the leg and Danila hitch-hikes out of St Petersburg with the money, with a stoic air of defiance at his rejection, riding over the pain as much as he did when he was shot.

A man of many talents?

Advertising Brat at an earlier Russian screening, Kino-Kino were anxious to point out that it was a totally different film and you would scarcely believe that it was by the same director. In terms of genre and texture this is certainly true, and such diversity could be seen as Lynchian.

But the real substance of any such claims to be a Russian Lynch is in the analysis of the undercurrents of contemporary society against a facade of normality. Again it is true that both directors do that. But an analysis of Brat in terms of Lynch can only go so far, as with other claims by British critics.

Phillip French of the Observer compared it to Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, but despite the connection with violence and guns there is little in common (and there certainly no epic quality as French seems to be suggesting). If contrast with another film is to be made, I believe it is with Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver - and I don't think it is a complimentary comparison either.

Brat has a number of interesting plot features in common with Taxi Driver. Both are about demobbed war veterans who have strong views about the nature of society and its disintegration. Like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, Danila is essentially something of a nerd with an inability to relate to mainstream society. His essential belief in good violence and bad violence is naive and misplaced and Danila's attempts to form a lasting relationship with Sveta are as bungled and inept as are Bickle's with Betsy.

Balabanov's view of Danila has none of the irony or ambiguity that Scorsese employs. His grassroots philosophy, simple-minded approach to vigilante violence and pathetic forgiveness of his brother for betraying him or designed to increase audience sympathy for Danila. This makes Brat a surprisingly adolescent film with an artificial view of modern Russian life which opportunistically glosses over the real issues behind Mafia violence and a dispossessed youth to make the film more "watchable." If this is not a description of cinematic cheapness, then I don't know what is.

Freak out

His most recently completed film Pro urodov i liudei is something of a return to the world of Schastlivye dni, with the same consciously imagistic cinematography of his debut. With a warm sepia toned finish to it, the film's visual beauty is a shocking contrast to its sordid subject matter - the origins of the pornography industry in turn of the century St Petersburg.

Men behaving badly
The young beautiful Liza lives with her father, her mother long since dead. The strict middle-class upbringing she has had has fostered in her secret desires and she spends her money on buying photos of attractive young women being spanked and beaten by a Russian babushka. Meanwhile, the steam engines (devices using the containment of pressure to produce ordered motion) running back and forward outside her window give her a yearning for release by travelling to the West.

The photos are sold to her by Viktor Ivanovich (yet another appearance by Viktor Sukhorukov, and by far the least convincing of the three) and manufactured in the studio of the stony-eyed Johann with the assistance of Putilov, a geeky young man so desperate to enter the world of photography that he has tied himself in debt to the sinister Johann.

The latter two men both desire Liza, although for rather different motives. Johann wants to control her to make money from her, whereas Putilov wants to save her from the seedy world into which she is descending. But it is not to be. Her father foolishly alters his will to give the maid - who is Johann's sister - financial power over Liza and her fate is sealed.

Meanwhile, Viktor becomes interested in the blind wife of Dr Stasov, Ekaterina, who seeks escape from their loveless marriage. Grunia, the Stasov's maid, is also a client of Johann's and the Stasov's adopted Siamese twins, Kolya and Tolya, attract the attention of Viktor's eye for making money. The twins to fall into Johann's grip, with one becoming an alcoholic and the other falling for Liza.

Such diversity could, perhaps, be seen as "Lynchian." However, within Balabonov's varied choice of styles, there is a remarkable thematic unity, with a number of common subjects and leit motivs, not to mention the restricted group of actors which are drawn on. It seems hard in this respect to support the claim that Balabanov's works seem as if they were made by different directors.

The principal unifying factor is a depiction of St Petersburg, whose streets and canals are portrayed with a remarkable unity considering the range of eras Balbanov has depicted. In all cases, the whole city becomes the incarnation of Gogol's vision of Nevskii Prospekt (St Petersburg's main street) as the street that lies. Not only does is lie, but it mocks cruelly; not in a passive way, but in a way that personifies the city.

The city lies

This is a constant undercurrent in Balabanov's work and in Brat becomes stated explicitly in the conversations between Danila and Hoffman, with the city described in terms of being a "dark force" that it "sucks you in" and that "the strong come here and become weak."

Hoffman, incidentally, is of German descent, and this is another recurrent theme in Balabanov. Schastlivye dni features Anna von Storkh, a German of aristocratic lineage who is reduced to prostitution to make a living, while Pro urodov i liudei has the enigmatic Johann as one of the protagonists. Balabanov, through the voice of Danila in Brat, asserts that the presence of Germans in the city is a good one, although the character is open about his disapproval of the Jews and the implication that the Chechen gangsters are taking over the Russians' patch also has racist overtones.

Balabanov constantly reminds the audience that St Petersburg - an artificial city not yet 300 years old - is formed of disparate people who have been "sucked in" from many parts of Russia and beyond, seeking riches, love, accommodation or just some sense of life. Recent arrivals to the city from far flung places are in all the films played off against more established residents, possibly also from afar. But both are equally mocked and both are equally out of place.

In the three films analysed here, the cities monumental nature is played off against the truth lurking in the backstreets. And in all three the imposing grandeur of a city trying to make itself immortal by casting itself in stone is contrasted with the monuments to mortality, with Balabanov's favourite location, the graveyard.

Social conscience or misogynist?

As well as the disturbing racist elements to Brat (are these reflections of Balabanov's own mind or is faithfully documenting contemporary reality as any moralistic artist should) the depiction of women also has a double-edged nature. Perhaps in this respect, Balabanov is at his most like Lynch.

Both asexual and exploitative
Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet is faintly reminiscent of Liza in Pro urodov i liudei and Balabanov, like Lynch, seems to linger a little too long on the suffering and debasement of women. Pro urodov i liudei is indeed a worthy exposure of middle class morality and of sexuality writhing beneath the straight jacket of rigid social mores, but it is always hard to tell Balabanov's stance on the sadomasochistic scenes we witness. The film is far too asexual to be pornographic, but the youth, wealth and beauty of Liza in her utter state of pure innocence and the total saturation of her mind in SM seem to be too much of a male artists wet dream rather than an incisive portrait of bourgeois female sexuality.

Similarly the rape of Sveta by "Roundhead" in Brat as a punishment for harbouring Danila has undertones which place it alongside Bobby Peru's psychological abuse of Lula in Lynch's Wild at Heart. Both are fundamentally not depictions of male sexuality, but of male powerlust transferred to a sexual contest.

Lynne Attwood in Red Women on the Silver Screen analyses at some length (and is somewhat scathing of) the glasnost craze for Russian films which depict youth alienation, rock music drugs and violence against women. Although the book was published in 1993, Balabanov's film could easily fit into her analysis and has many of the elements which she pinpoints (an indication that the film is in some ways ten years behind its time). Attwood notes that some critics have commended certain depictions of rape as illustrative of social and political frustrastions. However, she dismisses such arguments, pointing out that such films are in fact validating sexual violence and giving it legitimacy as a means of expression of frustration.

It is also interesting to note that for Balabanov women are powerless over their fates. In Brat, for instance, Sveta sings sweetly after her rape and leaves it Danila to avenge her violation and she also is locked in a loveless marriage, unwilling to change her destiny by leaving her husband but happy to cheat on him. Similarly, Liza's travelling to the West - a release symbolised by the whistle of steam she lets off in the driver's cabin of the steam train she leaves on - does not enable her to come to terms with her own sexuality.

Lynch or not?

Balabanov is certainly an interesting film-maker, but ultimately a disappointing one. His films have attracted increasing amounts of attention but have decreased in maturity and subtlety from his compelling debut. Furthermore he has become trapped in his own subject matter and it is not clear for how much longer he can sustain merely translating his limited range of ideas into new genres for new audiences.

He is currently working on a sequel to Brat, set in America, and it will be interesting to see if he is able to adapt his vision of St Petersburg to another country and to develop a range of themes which goes beyond those which he has already explored. Quite possibly not.

Balabanov could be said to share with Lynch his boyish obsession with the surreal and sexual violence and his slightly more interesting contrast between the way society functions on the surface and the way it truly works. (And perhaps as an aside it could be added that both directors have a very conscious use of non-diegetic music).

So, Balabanov may indeed be - as Clarke suggests - Russia's David Lynch, but for the most part only as much as Lynch can be considered an American Gogol - a man who explores the visions of the streets which lie.

Andrew James Horton, 8 May 2000

Other articles of interest:

Moving on:


EU Focus:
Mel Huang
Between Helsinki and a Hard Place

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungary Playing Hard to Get

Brian J Požun
Slovenia's Cities

Jens Boysen
German Hegemony

Rafał Riedel
Poland on Course

Robin Sheeran
Slovak Catch-up

Catherine Lovatt
Romanian Road to Reform

Jan Čulík
Anarchists on Parade

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Censorship

Oliver Craske
Britain Looks East

Andrew James Horton
Director Aleksei Balabanov

Elke de Wit
Football Flick

Wojtek Kość
Polish Sensation

Culture Calendar:

Sam Vaknin
Balkan Terrorists

Mel Huang
PR and Extremism

Czech Republic