The New Russia is a lot like Old America. On the move, on the make, grab
your grubstake, and Satan take the hindmost. News reports from all the new
countries spawned by the breakup tell of runaway inflation, hard-currency
greed, prostitution, drugs, mayhem, homicide and a general suspension of
humanism. But how does that work in a particular life?
"A Friend of the Deceased" shows us the mechanisms that deprive
people of their values - and value. It is such a lucid demonstration of
a society turned inside out that it's easy to forget that it's also a nifty
thriller. Developed from the point of view of Anatoli, the story revolves
around the difficulty of making a decent living or even earning an honest
ruble. Anatoli's wife Katia seems to have less trouble than he does, partly
because she has adapted to the advertising business and has a clear eye
for the main chance. Her "leg up" only alienates Anatoli, who
sees the society around him as liars, whores and thieves.
Then he discovers the killers. In a hopeless turn of events, Anatoli makes
a strange suicide attempt by taking out a contract on his own life. The
snafu's that allow him to dodge death are very entertaining in a macabre
sort of way, and they readily reveal the distorted capitalism at work in
the Ukraine. This is formally what you might call an "education sentimental,"
as Anatoli goes from being a well-educated translator to a manipulator of
hired guns. Finding his place in this brave new world makes a man of him,
although not a better man.
Better than what? Implicit in this movie is a comparison with the way things
were. With Soviet Socialism, which nobody ever considered very successful.
Today it don't look half bad.
At one point in the film, Anatoli's old friend says, "Before we had
friendships. Now we have business relationships." Perhaps, although
I think that is wishful thinking. I spent several years in and out of communist
countries, and the one constant principle I observed was that there was
no such thing as friendship. Any "friend" could too easily be
turned against you by an absolute state, and blood was what counted. Hungarian
director Istvan Szabo once told me that all relationships in the East Bloc
were conditioned by "the knock on the door at midnight," namely
the local version of the KGB come to call and find out how they could strong-arm
you. Szabo also feigned total ignorance of everyone and everything, because
"information gets you in trouble," as he said.
I would love to talk to Mr. Krishtofovich and find out if this film corresponds
to his own experience, or if it is just an ingenious and convincing story.
It was written by Andrei Kourkov, who won an extremely prestigious European
literary prize, the Heinrich Böll Prize, and it feels a helluva lot
smarter than the world it portrays in that French way that Chabrol, for
example, can give a slick edge to a crumbly detective novel.
One note: all the girls in the film are flashy blondes. They look nothing
like the Ukrainian girls on the subways from the Russian enclave in New
York. If the blondes are an accurate reflection of a change wrought by capitalism,
then the women have benefited enormously - sartorially speaking. And I'm
not talking about Jean-Paul or existentialism. These chicks are not worried
about existence; they've got fashion on the brain. That may create some
existential problems for our hero, but that's his problem. He's a humanist
- and a has-been.
At almost every juncture "A Friend of the Deceased" takes an unexpected
turn, and the surprise at the end is surprisingly hopeful for such a vision
of materialism. French money has permitted the kind of production values
we take for granted in the West, and it's a pretty good guide for being
the friend and not the deceased.