Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy plays tonight at the 48th New York Film Festival. The film will be released theatrically by Kino International.
A “festival film” (both descriptively and pejoratively) carries with it certain expectations. The most crucial: no matter how vile things get, carefully composed long shots, anti-suspenseful editing and a general contempt for what-happens-next narrative momentum will keep the audience decently removed, safely assured the director is on the same liberal-humanist page. So how to respond to a film like My Joy, which is incoherent if you ignore its agenda and objectionable if you do? Myopia. There’s no way around it: My Joy has no values to throw yourself behind. Like Alexei Balabanov’s Cargo 200, it has technical merits to spare and moral ones to gain.
My Joy is easy to follow for an hour, then unnecessarily diffuse and possibly objectionable. The basic plot is as follows: Georgy (Viktor Nemets) drives a truck. He gets pulled over by leering cops busy harassing a female driver, skips away while they stare at her ass and eventually ends up in a small town, where he’s conked out by locals upset he’s merely hauling flour. There’s a flashback (hang on), and then he re-emerges, bearded and with a gun, shooting all and sundry. End.
There aren’t many ways to plausibly interpret this scenario: the end conclusion is that people must die for Russia to live. Specifically, everyone who isn’t a good, law-abiding middle-class Russian is probably an untrustworthy piece of shit. Anyway, the law-administering classes (as 90% of emigres will tell you) are the Communist Party rebranded, and the lower classes mainly want to slit your throat and spit vulgarly after drinking vodka. This is, precisely, the message of My Joy, and it doesn’t lend itself to a whole lot of interpretation.
It should be noted that Sergei Loznitsa is, in fact, extremely talented; his two compilation documentaries Blockade and Revue (especially the latter) are succinct and evocative when it comes to digging into the texture of Stalin’s Russia, and My Joy ups the ante to include compositional skills no festival programmer would deny. Early on, when Georgy gets pulled over by corrupt cops, his head splits the frame; on the left the passing road of pictaresque passers counterbalances the right side’s parade of potential rape and corruption in riveting real time, unsettling you so much it’s hard to know what to expect next. Much of the film is similarly unsettling, conjuring tenseness without begging for it; a simple handheld camera can do wonders. It’s not hard to see why Loznitsa was invited to debut his feature at Cannes.
But let’s not mess around: My Joy is an aesthetically smart movie made with the ideological understanding of a 5th-grader. What we learn by watching it is that authorities are bad, and the provinces are worse: combine the two, and someone’s going to get shot and deserve it. Cargo 200 has the same message; as director Alexei Balabanov proclaimed in a 2007 interview, “In every society there are decent people and there are freaks.” And he made one of the best Russian films of the last two decades with that poisonous worldview. Who’d expect Loznitsa to be even that sophisticated? (Also, more unhappily, his film’s pokier; after the first hour, it’s all downhill.)
To prove this, let’s enter true spoiler territory. Early on, Georgy gets told a story about a returning Russian soldier who, for one token reference to the civility of the German army, almost gets killed. Later we get a flashback to one “Mute”‘s childhood (that’s his name): his dad spoke in favor of Germany and got killed, and Mute would never speak again. Georgy’s transformation into a vengeful mute completes the parallel: who cares if the Germans lost? Either way, everyone’s still trying to kill each other.
This is a stupid and facile conclusion, as a colleague pointed out. But what would you expect? The shots are framed well, but the targets are of the “fuck them, even if we don’t know who ‘them’ are” variety; the film incurred state-approved propaganda director Nikita Mikhalkov’s ire, but that doesn’t make it virtuous. The moral worldview can be summed up by this choice bit of dialogue: “Your stove’s smoking. You should rebuild it. Then again, the fuck with it.”