‘Star’ (‘Zvezda’): Istanbul Review

Courtesy of Antipode Sales and Distribution
An enjoyably vibrant but deja vu item built around a wonderful Moscow Cinderella 

Satirical Russian anti-fairytale in which dreams can never come true

With Star, Armenian-Russian director Anna Melikyan returns to both the Cinderella myth and to the mermaids she exploited so successfully in 2007’s Oscar-nominated, Sundance award-winning Mermaid. An inspiring tale of optimism embedded in a sick, cynical world, Star charts the counterpoint struggles of two social journeys, one up and one down, with panache and verve, and although when the worlds of its twin protagonists collide the results are fairly predictable, there’s still enough energy, wit and satirical bite to make it worthwhile. Though it lacks the distinctiveness and much of the offbeat charm of the earlier film, Star still shines brightly enough to illuminate the festival circuit.

The eternally optimistic and frankly untalented Masha (Tinatin Dalakishvili) dreams of being an actress, or more specifically a star. But her reality is rather grimmer: a round of humiliating failed auditions gets her a job in a nightclub as a mermaid in a tank. One her first night she nearly drowns, but is saved by dislocated youth (“there is no future”) Kostya (Pavel Tabakov), a thief who impresses Masha by stealing a load of cash and giving it to her so that her transformation into a star can begin with plastic surgery on her ears.

Kostya is the stepson of Rita (Severija Janusauskaite), immensely wealthy by virtue of her marriage to Sergey (Pavel Tabakov), a stereotypical shiny-headed, world-weary, corrupt Russian politico, who refuses to marry Rita until she can guarantee him an heir. Summoned to hospital, Rita learns that she cannot have children, and expresses her underlying hatred for Sergey during an unpleasant sex scene.

Result: Sergey locks her out, sells the car, and cuts off the credit cards, and very soon Rita and Masha are sharing Masha’s grotty apartment, with quite a few plot twists yet to come. Further bad news comes when Rita learns that she has a rare, incurable disease -- but her experience will teach her that there’s money to be made even from that bleak prospect.

Star’s strongest scenes have a nicely surreal flavor, largely inspired by both the heroines’ no-nonsense approach to the multiple calamities which befall them. When Rita realizes that a stool sample of Sergey’s has gone cold and is useless, she microwaves the sample and it explodes: she shoves thousands of rubles at Kostya to keep his mouth shut. It’s a good scene, but like much else in the film, the payoff isn’t quite worth the elaborate set-up.

"The lower lip is Angelina Jolie, the upper lip is Scarlett Johansson”, someone explains to Masha about her plastic surgery: “I don’t drink coffee, it ages you,” says the supposedly dying Rita. It’s when such surrealism is at the service of the satire that Star shines brightest.

As she sets about raising the cash to transform herself, body part by body part via plastic surgery, into a different person, the sparky, vibrant Masha, and her embodiment by a fully committed Dalakishvili, lend her sequences a delightful, bouncy unpredictability, which are an extension of the indefatigable, upwardly-mobile spirit of Alice in Mermaid.

But though Janusauskaite gives it her best shot, Rita’s story cannot match it. We’ve seen platinum blonde, Porsche-driving, pill-popping anti-heroines before -- as indeed we’ve seen scuttling cockroaches in luxurious surroundings as symbols of the corruption behind wealth -- and Janusauskaite cannot bring much new to the table: even later, after Rita is in full decline, the script continues to be more interested in Masha than it is in either her or Kostya, whose story of filial disenchantment is only intermittently interesting.

Masha’s foolish goodness is laid on a little too thickly: does she really have to be delivering groceries for an old man, who conveniently for the film’s themes happens to be collecting artefacts associated with death? Over the last half hour of a film that’s probably twenty minutes too long, the event-per-minute ratio spirals out of control, leaving only Alisher Khamidkhodjaev’s intimate, hand-held photography to keep Star grounded in any kind of reality.

The score is judiciously employed and sometimes overlaps, deliberately jarringly, with in-scene music. Of particular significance is Cristina Aguilera’s Beautiful, which as Masha repeatedly sings and hums it feels like movingly like the film’s true score.

Production company: Magnum Film
Cast: Tina Dalakishvili, Severija Janusauskaite, Pavel Tabakov, Andrey Smolyakov, Juozas Budraitis, Alexander Shein, Gosha Kutsenko
Director: Anna Melikyan
Screenwriter: Anna Melikyan, Andrei Migachyov, Viktoriya Bugaeva
Producers: Ruben Dishdishyan, Anna Melikyan
Director of photography: Alisher Khamidkhodjaev
Production designer: Ulyana Ryabova
Costume designer: Anna Chistova
Editors: Dasha Danilova, Pavel Ruminov
Composers: Anna Drubich, Igor Vdovin, Alina Orlova
Casting director:
Sales: Antipode Sales and Distribution
No rating, 128 minutes