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Avdotya Smirnova: Kokoko

Critical Review

The general opinion on the film among the critics is mildly favourable; the reviews vary from positively enthusiastic to caustically ironic. Whatever the shades of opinions may be, Kokoko is singled out as the most notable release of 2012. The first reason for that is the team. Mikhalkova comes from a long line of filmmakers, Troyanova is an acclaimed actress closely associated with the Russian new wave, and Smirnova is a popular journalist, TV presenter and screenwriter.

Kokoko is Avdotya (Dunya) Smirnova’s third feature. With a budget of $1,2 million the film grossed $440 thousand in 116 theaters. Metacritic.ru users gave Kokoko 65 points out of 100 based on 157 reviews.

Kokoko stars Anna Mikhalkova and Yana Troyanova. The film premiered at Kinotavr Film Festival in June 2012, and the leading ladies shared The Best Actress Award. The plot revolves around the unlikely and thorny friendship of two women.

Vika, an unsophisticated woman from the harsh region of Ural, is heading to Saint Petersburg. On a train, she encounters Liza, a Kunstkamera employee.  Liza (Mikhalkova) offers Vika (Troyanova) to stay at her place for some time. Due to Vika’s efforts, hard partying will shake up Liza’s routine, but the budding friendship will be shaken as well. 

The general opinion on the film among the critics is mildly favourable; the reviews vary from positively enthusiastic to caustically ironic. Whatever the shades of opinions may be, Kokoko is singled out as the most notable release of 2012. The first reason for that is the team. Mikhalkova comes from a long line of filmmakers, Troyanova is an acclaimed actress closely associated with the Russian new wave, and Smirnova is a popular journalist, TV presenter and screenwriter. In addition to this, even the negative reviews provide an excellent commentary on the film’s cultural and cinematic aspects.

What cannot be praised enough is the leading duo. Their seamless, impeccable performance is named among the major successes of the film, prompting Afisha to call the characters “vivid and life-like” which is not something Russian film industry hears on a daily basis.

Kokoko owns much of it lifelikeness to the fact that Smirnova wrote the script with Mikhalkova and Troyanova in mind, drawing the inspiration from the idea of the on-screen clash the two actresses could create.

“Despite the fact that Mikhalkova and Troyanova craft mostly caricature characters, one spends two hours crying and laughing not at but with them. The film is mesmerizing.” – Anatoly Yushchenko,Filmz.ru.

Konstantin Shavlovskiy, Seance, goes further by attributing Russian cinematic sensibilities to the protagonists: “hard-boiled poetics of the 2000s” (Troyanova) and “daddy’s cinema” adored by intelligentsia (Mikhalkova).[1]

The majority of critics accentuate the recurring motif of Smirnova’s films, which is “ruminations on Russia’s fate explored through juxtapositions”. It is love that used to be the case study (“Two Days”), now it is friendship.

Smirnova disagrees with such a comparison, “The analogy suggests itself but it’s faulty. The two films could not be further from each other in terms of style and delivery.” It is rather “a dialogue of two female souls or energies as it’s my conviction that the women's time has come.”

In the negative reviews, Kokoko is accused of being too on the nose (Anna Sotnikova, Afisha) and of using every cliché possible.

“Stereotype became her working method,” states Yelizaveta Simbirskaya, Kommersant, and then conveys the Russian film critics’ collective opinion on the film, “Kokoko is meant to be a straight blow on a trivial locus – interaction of opposites.”

Kokoko addresses acute social class issues that have been tormenting Russia for centuries. It should be perhaps elaborated that Russian tension between intelligentsia and peasant class is very complicated, it cannot be reduced to the arrogant squeamishness English working class experienced. Intelligentsia always had a love-hate relationship with the lower class, be it peasants in the XIX century or its slightly urbanized successors a century later. Intelligentsia’s guilt over literacy and sophistication, fascination with the primordial energy of the peasants, as well as a burning desire to hug a birch tree and be redeemed, crippled many bright minds, especially in the XIX century. By slaughtering and ousting intellectuals and saying they are the nation’s shit, not its brain, Lenin did not put a closure to the confrontation, just warped and repressed it. Soviet intelligentsia had very little to do with pre-revolutionary intellectuals. However, the collective unconscious is irrepressible, guilt and awe often manifested itself and do so today.

Smirnova is not a trailblazer in exploring this tension; Soviet filmmakers addressed it, too (e.g., Averbakh’s Other People's Letters, as Plakhov and Shavlovskiy remind us). Anna Sotnikova even adds Losey’s The Servant to the paradigm. However, this clash between common people and intelligentsia, as well as its cinematic representation by Smirnova, were not received with unanimous enthusiasm.

Andrey Plakhov of Kommersant.ru quips that “Kokoko’s creators would better throw the first stone (or rather a pebble) at themselves than at their loved and hated peasant class, and that’s been going on for centuries.”

Lidia Maslova, Kommersant, calls Kokoko merely a study in Russian social dynamics.

However, we are not allowed to forget that Smirnova’s film is a comedy. It’s hard to call Kokoko a masterpiece, but it is decently made in the vein of classic Soviet comedies juxtaposing village simplicity and urban sophistication, such as Love and Pigeons or Wartime Romance, as Afisha rightfully emphasizes.

Olga Shakina, film.ru, calls Kokoko an anthology of jokes, “It is of great current interest and it’s funny. Let’s leave the issue of formal imperfection not to the moviegoers but to the critics.” The critics, however, are silent, probably against their better judgement. They prefer to outline the plot, slightly touch upon the question of cultural or sociological significance but leave the style and cinematic technique out of discussion. The film itself might suggest such an approach. It is pleasant to outline, and film critics happily indulge in doing so.  It is no less pleasant to interpret Smirnova’s intentions which are not hard to plumb: they are expressed verbally rather than visually.

To illustrate the point, here is Larisa Malyukova, Iskusstvo Kino, regarding the film’s visual merits, “Smirnova’s signature shot – exchanging looks and gestures on close-ups – works as a visual support to the dialogue. The cinematic brushstrokes are thick, the film is riding a mood swing.” Andrey Plakhov notes a museum-like atmosphere, he finds the film very detailed.

Konstantin Shavlovskiy gives the most curious and exciting analysis of Kokoko, even overshadowing the film itself. Firstly, he finds that “the confrontation of two worlds is multi-layered, from plot to discourse.” Secondly, the critic’s vision of the central conflict is the most astute, “The conflict is more elaborate and subtle, this time it is internal. Avdotya Smirnova did not pigeonhole the nation into castes as the highbrow (and thus insensitive) critics say; she divided herself into two heroines, and the film explores the split.”

Anna Zakrevskaya

Translated by Anastasia Makarenko

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

1. Malyukova, L. Pogovorim o strannostyakh lyubvi. http://www.kinoart.ru/archive/2012/08/pogovorim-o-strannostyakh-lyubvi-kokoko-rezhisser-avdotya-smirnova

2. Maslova, L. Etnograf i khabalka. http://kommersant.ru/doc/1947949?themeid=102

3. Plakhov, A. Sokrushitelny mezal'yans. http://kommersant.ru/doc/1958352

4. Simbirkovskaya, Ye. Nesoyedimaya Rossiya. http://kommersant.ru/doc/1951263?themeid=102

5. Sotnikova, A. Pryamolineynaya komediya pro stolknoveniye interesov. http://www.afisha.ru/personalpage/168398/review/431114/

6. Ryzhova, P. Dumy dam o sud'bakh rodiny. http://www.gazeta.ru/culture/2012/06/15/a_4627865.shtml

7. Chuvilyayev, I. Retsenziya na film "Kokoko". http://www.timeout.ru/cinema/event/272284/

8. Shabynina, Zh. Retzenziya na film "Kokoko". http://www.kino-teatr.ru/kino/art/pr/2466/

9. Shavlovski, K. Gost'ya iz nastoyashchego. http://seance.ru/blog/kokoko-film/

10. Shakina, O. Almanakh iz anekdotov. http://www.film.ru/articles/almanah-iz-anekdotov

11. Eksler, А. Tragikomediya "Kokoko". http://www.exler.ru/films/16-08-2012.htm 12. Ющенко А. Связь. http://filmz.ru/pub/7/25856_1.htm

 

[1] Anna Mikhalkova is a daughter of Nikita Mikhalkov, a celebrated filmmaker whose creative task – the ensuing controversy notwithstanding – is to explore the fates of aristocrats, nostalgia, and Russian grandeur.