A Film about Alekseev
[Кино про Алексеева]
Color, 95 minutes
In Russian with English subtitles
Director: Mikhail Segal
Screenplay: Mikhail Segal
Camera: Eduard Moshkovich
Music: Mikhail Segal
Cast: Aleksandr Zbruev, Aleksei Kapitonov,
Producers: Natal’ia Mokritskaia, Ul’iana
Savel’eva, Mila Rozanova
“All films can be divided into three categories: those about love, about war and about life. However, this is a film about Alekseev,” the young Alekseev himself (A. Kapitonov) alludes to the extraordinariness of his persona in a trailer outtake. As the narrative unravels, viewers get acquainted with multiple “Alekseevs” from the past, whose mischievous gaze appears in striking contrast to the pitiful old man hunched forward from the cold, attempting to sell some squash and buckets of potatoes that once served as a theme for a song cycle. The first impressions of Alekseev are deceiving, as it is difficult to dispute the hype around his phenomenality and past achievements worthy of a telegram invitation to a soundtrack.fm chat show.
Nonetheless, with every flashback bridging the time between present-day Tula/Moscow and the Soviet 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, director Mikhail Segal offers us insight into Alekseev’s personal history, painting an unexpected picture of a brazen Casanova. As the camerawork switches between the past and the present, viewers anticipate a wondrous metamorphosis that Alekseev must have undergone to have gained such wide recognition, yet the moment never arrives.
Alekseev would have remained an unremarkable, if not even a repugnant imitator without Lidiia Arkhipova’s (T. Maist) success in endowing him with a marvelous yet fabricated legacy that finally assigned meaning to Alekseev’s empty existence. The melancholic tone of the film is embellished by somewhat anecdotal incidents, which elevate the mood, yet which, upon the discovery of Arkhipova’s underlying scheme, on the contrary arouse compassion. Andrei Makarevich’s (lead singer of Mashina vremeni [Time Machine]) “fortuitous” visit to the studio at midnight reads as an ardent admirer’s fulfilled dream to meet his idol. Makarevich does not hold back his praise, comparing such a stroke of serendipity with his silly childhood wish to fly into outer space.
All of Arkhipova’s accomplices romanticize and eulogize the so-called hero and his creativity by constructing a nostalgic atmosphere that allows Alekseev’s own recollections of his past to be altered. A past that not only inspired love in the Soviet Union and “travelled” abroad with its collapse, but allegedly caught the attention of Bulat Okudzhava, the outstanding founder of the “author song” movement, as well as Iosif Brodskii who portrayed Alekseev as someone who was always swimming against the current.
Clarifying the gist of his film at the Kinotavr press conference in 2014, Segal differentiated between genuinely talented bards and those who were essentially singing the same song without cease. Alekseev, naturally, belonged to the latter category, as “Hello mom, I’m a deserter!” remained his only meaningful song. In addition to evoking ambivalent feelings about the Soviet-Afghan war, the provocative lyrics potentially foresaw his ensuing “desertion” from life due to being “stigmatized” by a forced collaboration with Soviet apparatchiks.
Infatuated with Olia, a girl also studying at the Tula Polytechnic Institute, Alekseev invites her out, attempting to make Olia abandon her opinionated friends. Alongside other cajolery, he cries out “I am well,” echoing
Gagarin’s recent report on circling the Earth. A second later, viewers see Alekseev being dragged to a local KGB office for interrogation. Condemned by the stern gazes from Lenin’s and Dzerzhinskii’s portraits, the future engineer barely escapes being convicted of treason thanks to the naivete of his songs, leaving him instead with a lifetime sentence of being a Soviet informer, something he would probably never forgive himself for, if only after the Godsent gift of Arkhipova’s ventures.
Alekseev’s love for women appears as superficial as the children’s choir’s interpretation of Serge Gainsbourg’s notorious erotic anthem “Je t’aime, moi non plus.” Invariably paraphrasing Tarkovskii’s understanding of love, which he overheard on the set of Andrei Rublёv (while filming part VII: “The Silence, winter 1412”), Alekseev passes off the idea of opposing the profanation of love as his own, thus establishing himself as a sage who has discovered the ultimate meaning of love. On the contrary, Alekseev’s entire life was devoid of meaning, consisting of a repetition of actions (train rides, haircuts before important meetings, seducing women with the same hackneyed flirting strategies) and a reiteration of seemingly profound or stolen phrases (“Good that we are in a pine forest. Cannot feel the autumn”; “Bard, that’s a funny word”; “Love is to understand what a person actually needs at a particular moment and to give him that”).
Accordingly, Alekseev’s existence mirrors the perpetual cycle of Saṃsāra that ends upon attaining Nirvana. When a stranger on a train asks Alekseev about Kurt Cobain’s sticker on a borrowed guitar, his alienation and lagging behind time become most visible as his understanding of Nirvana has remained “traditional.” This can be traced to the final shot, which features Alekseev on his way back home, having closed his eyes in an idyllic, albeit manufactured bliss while hugging the fake Melodiia vinyl with his credentials on it as an attestation of not having lived in vain.
Despite the director having promised viewers a film about Alekseev, its focal point appears to lie in Arkhipova’s altruistic master-plan through which she materializes and solves Alekseev’s inner struggles with his “adopted” utilitarian understanding of love. Segal’s witty transitions between scenes emphasize the spatial and temporal interconnectedness (e.g. Asia’s “Allo” to Alekseev in a phonebooth is answered by the present-day Arkhipova taking a radio listener’s call, or the mountain climbers’ collective greeting to Alekseev that ends in “his songs always ‘hit’ one’s heart” and cuts to a weapon testing scene).
Young Arkhipova’s tearful reaction to Alekseev’s cynicism and insensitive remarks after an interrupted intimate moment at the Grushinskii festival finds an ingenious culmination after Segal lets viewers in on the well-kept secret. “So, how do you love? Quietly, gently, just for yourself, right?,” Alekseev sneeringly provokes an answer from Lidiia before indulging in a patronizing explanation of love for the umpteenth time. Her intentions behind sobbing “I would, but a bit later” instantly transcend to a much higher plane in the concluding scenes of the film, enhancing the significance of Segal’s brilliant finale.
Mikhail Segal graduated from the directing department of the Orel Institute of Culture in 1994. He enrolled in the Russian State Institute for Cinematography in Moscow, yet soon abandoned his studies to start shooting video clips for well-known performers. Segal’s debut film Franz+Polina brought him wider recognition, as it won the FIPRESCI prize at the festival “Cinéma Tout Écran” in Geneva and the Grand Prix at the Cabourg Film Festival. In addition to directing, Segal has worked in advertising and published a collection of prose.