Playing the Victim / Izobrazhaya zhertvu (2006) Dir. Kirill Serebrennikov
This is a unique movie that takes important features and themes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and smartly plays with them, placing them in a contemporary Russian context.
The story follows a young man Valya (Yuri Chursin) in a big city who plays murder victims during police reconstructions. Yes, he plays the dead for a living, however absurd that sounds. There is method to this madness. Thanks to the reconstructions he sees the world around him almost through the eyes of dead people. He also listens to life stories that the murderers tell. The motives are ancient: love, jealousy, anger. Yet, the reconstructions are ridiculous and hilarious (the virtually experimental attitude to recreate the exact crime puts Valya right into harm’s way which is absurd in itself). Then, there is Valya’s private life. He lives with his mother and her new husband (his uncle); his father died not long ago; he has a girlfriend, but he couldn’t care less about her. The family sequences are full of bitterness and secret revenge — his private life seems tasteless and boring to him. In contrast, his work is fascinating and even enjoyable. Every day is a new story, a new crime of passion.
In an intelligent way, this movie presents the collapse of a family and a society. We get to know the stories of people either after they’re dead, or after they have killed somebody. While they testify how the particular crime was committed, they tell about their motives and feelings, likes and dislikes, all of which are pretty much down-to-earth and common. The picture of a corrupt society starts to disclose. Interestingly, all the faults of the society apply to Valya’s family, a signifier of the society — the greed and lust, lack of kindness and wanting more, wanting too much. They apply to his mother and his uncle, who wants him out of the family picture so that he may live happily ever after with Valya’s mother. They apply to Valya’s girlfriend who wants to get married, ignoring the fact that Valya doesn’t care about her. He sees the hypocrisy and the depravation surrounding him. By suppressing his own needs, or pretending to do so, he goes along with his mother’s plan to marry the girlfriend. While everybody’s attention is off guard, he strikes. The ending could not be more grotesque and Hamlet-like: he murders his mother, his uncle, and his new bride. Even more, he watches them as they eat the deadly dish only to watch them die a few moments later. Then, his work and private life meet — he testifies to the police how he killed them. Only this time someone else plays the victims. He is finally in the center of the attention since he is the murderer. Finally, everybody listens.
At the end, the whole movie appears to be one big testimony of a life, or rather of a living death. Death follows Valya everywhere. He had a near-death experience in the past that sticks with him. Although it is a traumatic memory, it is one of the memories about his late father. It becomes both horrific and precious. Death also follows him literally. His father visits him a couple of times. The visits are loaded with pain and longing, but also with guilt. Valya feels he needs to defend his father’s name especially in front of his mother, who remarries (she tarnishes the father’s names, becomes unfaithful). And he acts as he sees fit — he matches the punishment to the crime. Does the punishment commensurate with the crime is yet another question.
“Playing the Victim” is an example of Russian cinema that is smart and successful in giving us a Shakespearean adaptation. It’s successful in avoiding being banal and overtly attached to the text it’s based upon. At the same time, it does Shakespeare (and us, the viewers) justice.
Long days, pleasant nights,