Me Too (Ya tozhe hochu): Venice Review

Disarmingly deadpan and deceptively ambitious blend of black comedy, crime and metaphysics is a dazzling, deeply divisive highlight of Venice 2012.

A non-professional cast headed by Aleksandr Mosin populate the latest provocation from Russian maverick Alexey Balabanov, premiering at Venice.

As intoxicatingly uncompromised and bracingly direct as a treble of straight Stolichnaya, Me Too (Ya tozhe hochu) showcases Russia's reigning cinematic maverick Alexey Balabanov at the breathtaking peak of his powers. The 53-year-old, best known at home for box-office smashes Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000), is a wildly polarizing filmmaker at the best of times. And as reactions to the film's premiere in the Orizzonti sidebar at Venice instantly showed, his audacious combination of black comedy, violent crime and metaphysical-philosophical sci-fi is destined to annoy and baffle as it will dazzle and delight.

With a cast comprising non-pros playing variations of themselves, domestic box-office after a November release will depend on Balabanov's name plus the inescapable presence of St. Petersburg's art-rocker Leonid Fedorov on the soundtrack. And while his screenplay's cheeky borrowings from Andrei Tarkovsky's enduringly seminal and popular Stalker (1979) may help foreign sales, a career similar to Balabanov's savagely satirical Cargo 200 (2007), which despite some rave reviews struggled to escape the festival circuit, is the most likely scenario.

This would be a crying shame, however, as arthouse audiences worldwide should ideally be savoring what's become a new golden age for Russian cinema. Over the past half-decade several directors in their mid-forties and older have been turning out remarkable work of mature, sometimes visionary excellence including Balabanov, Andrei Zyagintsev (Elena), Aleksandr Mindadze (Innocent Saturday) and Svetlana Proskurina (Truce), while Alexander Zeldovich's futuristic epic Target has a passionate cult following.

Both Target and Me Too borrow Stalker's central premise of a small group visiting a remote, dangerous location where they find the answer to their hopes, prayers and dreams. But while countless directors over the years and around the world have reverently imitated and homaged Tarkovsky since his 1986 death, Balabanov's take on Stalker is much closer in tone to Roadside Picnic, the novel by the Strugatsky brothers upon which that film was based: his unofficial 'tribute' to Russia's great poet of cinema is brisk, hard-boiled, knockabout and frequently hilarious. And with so many of his peers around the world busting their guts to deliver masterpieces, Balabanov just might have tossed one off here with minimal means and seemingly insouciant effortlessness.

Balabanov's world isn't one of mystics or archetypes, rather of thugs and social marginals who look like they've stumbled in from the sets of Guy Ritchie, Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch. First seen dispatching four gangland foes in a back-street shootout, Sanja aka Bandit (Aleksandr Mosin) bumps into scraggly, hard-drinking musician Oleg (Oleg Garkusha) at their preferred banya. What follows resembles the kind of tall tale exchanged by blokes in many such sauna-baths, as the duo impulsively set out on a quest in search of a rural 'bell-tower of happiness' which supposedly offers a quick trip to paradise.

Picking up the imposing Sanja's bearish mate Jura (Jurij Matveyev) and Jura's aged father (Viktor Gorbunov) on the way, our vodka-chugging heroes embark on a road-trip to the accompaniment of blaring Russian rock on their Jeep's CD system. As with Balabanov's last outing A Stoker (2011), the strident deployment of music on the soundtrack will have some scrambling for the exits and others seeking out its source afterwards -- here Balabanov's love of "outsider" Russian singer-songwriter Fedorov and his band Auktyon is never in the slightest doubt.

A fifth traveler joins the fun on the highway: Alisa (Alisa Shitikova), a university graduate who, after finding that "there is no work in philosophy," has turned to the world's oldest profession. That Shitikova spends much of the second half running through a snowy landscape stark naked won't be to all tastes, in a picture where one main character brags about his murderous homophobia and another's dialogue reveals a racist streak. Balabanov's cynical vision of a doomed Planet Earth explores and exposes modern Russia in all its melancholic grimness, and it's no wonder that Sanja and company are so keen to escape it.

Following a simple, straightforward road-movie structure, Me Too climaxes at the much-discussed belltower, a precariously unstable and dreamily spectacular real-life landmark in the middle of a frozen lake. This amusingly abrupt finale features a sparing use of elegant special effects, a crumbling candle-filled church straight out of Tarkovsky's Nostalgia and a cameo appearance from an unexpected source. It turns out there's no great enigma here, the 'answer' having been revealed to alert viewers in the opening minutes by Balabanov's own son Petr, making the first of several appearances as a slackerish teen with Nostradamus-like gifts of prophecy: "I know everything," he shrugs. His dad might not claim such omniscience, but as his best films show he does have a certain vision of the world and man's place within it, and can use cinema to express those perspectives in a manner that's accessibly original and wholly individual.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti)
Production company: CTB Film Company
Cast: Aleksandr Mosin, Jurij Matveyev, Oleg Garkusha, Alisa Shitikova
Director-screenwriter: Alexey Balabanov
Producer: Sergey Selyanov
Director of photography: Aleksandr Simonov
Production designer: Anastasiya Karimulina
Music: Leonid Fedorov
Editor: Tatyana Kuzmicheva

Sales agent: Intercinema, Moscow
No MPAA rating, 83 minutes