Review: ‘Playing the Victim’

Winner of the top prize at the recent Sochi fest, "Playing the Victim" tells the quirky tale of a university graduate who impersonates victims in crime-scene reconstructions. This third effort by Kirill Serebrennikov reps the helmer's best, most cinematic work. "Victim" has already made a minor domestic B.O. killing, and looks set for further fest play.

Winner of the top prize at the recent Sochi fest, frisky black comedy “Playing the Victim” tells the quirky tale of a university graduate (newcomer Yuri Chursin) who impersonates victims in crime-scene reconstructions. Chursin’s nervy comic charisma and sparkling supporting cast carry the pic through last-act longueurs as the Brothers Presnyakov’s script, adapted from their own legit play, decelerates with a pastiche of “Hamlet” and overextended scenes. Nevertheless, this third effort by Kirill Serebrennikov (“Ragin,” “Bed Stories”) reps the helmer’s best, most cinematic work. “Victim” has already made a minor domestic B.O. killing, and looks set for further fest play.

Gangly goofball Valya (Chursin) works with a team of cops who interview witnesses at the places where crimes allegedly took place, and film the results. Valya, as per title, plays the victim, while the team’s short-fused chief detective (Vitaly Khaev) asks questions; lovelorn Lyuda (Anna Mikhalkova) holds the camera.

The reconstructions are mostly seen from Lyuda’s digital rig’s point of view, generating laughs from her amateurish camerawork as she fumbles shots or is distracted by something else on the scene. In one, Keaton-esque segment, Valya perches precariously on a window sill as a suspect (Andrey Fomin) tries to demonstrate how his wife fell accidentally to her death while cleaning.

In another reconstruction, sexagenarian Soviet thesp Liya Akhedzhakova dressed as the hostess of a Japanese restaurant, helps to snap the chief detective’s fragile sanity with anoff-key karaoke perf. Despite Akhedzhakova’s charms, the seg is a bit hammy. In general, the police procedural pieces barely mesh with a subplot about Valya’s domestic life, which resets “Hamlet” in a high-rise. Valya lives with his mother (Marina Golub), who is secretly having an affair with her brother-in-law, whom she plans to marry. The ghost of Valya’s father makes a midnight visit to persuade his son to take action, creating a final crime scene.

Although the clunky Shakespearean palimpsest betrays the legit script’s origins, Serebrennikov, who helmed the original play in Moscow and collaborated previously with brothers Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov on the low-budget stage-to-screen transfer of “Bed Stories,” puts his back into giving this material full-on cinematic treatment. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the theater version could have worked without the DV material or the pic’s whimsical use of jittery, hand-drawn white-on-black animation that illustrates Valya’s fantasies.

If nothing else, “Playing the Victim” should kick-start Chursin’s career. His beaky features, doe eyes and expressive mugging play like a cross between young Jim Carrey, indie-It Boy Lou Pucci and, when dancing geekily, Jon Heder from “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Voiceover translation at the projection caught suggests adept subtitling will be required for international distribution.

Playing the Victim

Russia

Production

A Novye Lyudi, Vega Prod. production, with participation of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography. (International sales: West Co., Moscow.) Produced by Natalya Mokritskaya, Uliana Savelieva, Leonid Zagalsky. Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov. Screenplay, the Brothers Presnyakov, based on their own play.

Crew

Camera (color/ B&W, DV-to-35mm), Sergei Mokritsky; editor, Olga Grinshpun; music, Alexander Manotskov; production designer, Valery Arkhipov; sound (Dolby Digital), Daler Khasanov. Reviewed at Open Russian Film Festival (competing), Sochi, June 8, 2006. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Yuri Chursin, Vitaly Khaev, Anna Mikhalkova, Liya Akhedzhakova, Marat Basharov, Marina Golub, Andrey Fomin, Maxim Konovalov, Igor Gasparian, Elena Morozova, Fyodor Dobronravov.
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