Free Floating [Свободное плавание]
Despite (or in continued reaction against) its not-unearned reputation as primarily a verbal medium for much of the Soviet period, Russian cinema is consistently striking for its economy of dialogue. The effect can be even more compelling when accompanied by an equally disciplined visual and narrative economy: contemplative long takes, slow pans, small casts, simple (though not simplistic) plots, and meticulously arranged mises-en-scène and blocking. Recent examples of such “quiet” filmmaking in Russia include Petr Lutsik’s Outskirts (1998), Aleksandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997), Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (2003), Ivan Vyrypaev’s Euphoria (2006), and Khlebnikov’s own Koktebel (co-directed with Aleksei Popogrebskii, 2003). Khlebnikov’s second feature, Free Floating, is in this same quasi-tradition.
The protagonist is a young man, Lenia (Aleksandr Iatsenko), who lives in a provincial Russian town on the Volga and who has just started working at a factory. After work one day, he and two friends bicycle to a nearby village discotheque, where Lenia dances impassively with a series of seemingly random girls in a sequence which, like the title itself, foreshadows the rest of the film, which follows episodically his attempts to find lasting work after the factory is closed down by its new American owners.
First he is taken under the wing of a market-stall shoe seller, who praises him for his natural sales skills, but Lenia does not show up for a second day of work. Next he is hired as a plasterer through the local job center, but quits before plastering anything when he cannot bear being the only male on the job. He finally seems to find a “career” on a pothole crew run by a potential mentor/father figure named Roslov (Evgenii Sytyi). He even finds time to strike up a characteristically un-verbose romance with an old schoolmate, Khriusha (Dar'ia Ermasova), before the narrative floats quietly but hypnotically into dream mode.
Throughout it all, Lenia maintains his impassive countenance and impressive lack of outward enthusiasm, which is not at all akin to the practiced, performed indifference of disaffected urban youth so common in Western (and some Russian) cinema, but rather is coded as symptomatic of contemporary life in the “other” Russia, far not only from the twin capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but even from regional cities such as Yaroslavl' and Nizhnyi Novgorod.
“Set in an unnamed town, but shot mainly in the small Volga towns of Kashin and Myshkin, Free Floating is sensitive both to the recent history and to the enduring values of this part of Russia. Khlebnikov’s evocation of the different tempo of provincial life recalls Barnet’s Outskirts (1933). On the one hand, the town is shown as mired in the Soviet past, untouched by the giddy possibilities introduced by contemporary Russian capitalism. The old sources of employment are passing and not being replaced. The grandly named birzha truda [labor office] has damp, peeling walls, a singular absence of furniture, an indifferent employee, and no jobs to offer. The town’s young men and women are free to wander the streets, dressed in sad parodies of the fashion of late Soviet years—baggy trousers for the boys, laced jeans for the girls, fashions which they discuss with the little enthusiasm they can muster. Bereft of skills, they are unlikely to find jobs, and thus Roslov can represent the prospect of Lenia being called up to the army (something that contemporary big town Russian youth do everything they can to avoid) as a fate to be envied. The potholed streets of the town are almost entirely empty of human or vehicular traffic. So it is understandable that this town is also a place that Lenia is eager to leave, from his unsuccessful early job as plasterer, which he warns his mother will take him “daleko,” far away, to his final, fantastical journey down the Volga.”
Julian Graffy, Review of Free Floating in Kinokultura 15 (January 2007)
Boris Khlebnikov was born in Moscow in 1972. After partially completing a degree in biology, he worked in a variety of jobs, including laboratory assistant, clothing seller at the Luzhniki market, and foundation-pit digger. In 1997 he graduated from the film criticism faculty of the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) in Moscow. Khlebnikov directed several shorts before co-directing his first feature-length film, Koktebel, with Aleksei Popogrebskii, in 2003.
1997 In Passing (documentary short; co-directed with Aleksei Popogrebskii)