Irishman Johnny O’Reilly directs a Russian-language multi-stranded portrait of modern Moscow as we’ve seldom seen it.
There may well be a whole section of the Muscovite elite that feels like punching the air, or perhaps clinking champagne glasses, in triumph at the end of Johnny O’Reilly’s “Moscow Never Sleeps,” a fleet-footed skitter of loosely interconnected storylines unfolding across the Russian capital over the course of one day. It’s not often, after all, that we get such a fresh-faced look at a city that foreign art house and festival devotees know better from the laceratingly critical work of brilliant doom-meister Andrey Zvyagintsev, among others. But with something of the zeal of the convert, Dubliner O’Reilly, who lived in Moscow for a decade, presents his low-cal-Altman stories of life, love, death and catharsis against a backdrop that gleams with modernity. Even when the location is a run-down, poky apartment full of old-lady tchotchkes and clashing-print furniture covers, Fëdor Lyass’ crisp, sleek photography confers a high-def elegance on the frame. But this glittery, helicopter vision of Moscow comes at some expense: The various story currents move swiftly but don’t run particularly deep, so the film works better as a kind of best-foot-forward overview of modern urban Russia — “Moscow, I Love You” — than it does as a multi-stranded human drama.
O’Reilly also wrote the screenplay for the film, which is his third directorial outing after collective filmmaking experiment “Co/Ma” and Siberia-set thriller “The Weather Station.” Within it he is clearly at pains to present a slice of life that is as cross-sectional as possible. This leads to incidental rather than particularly insightful connections — the unlikely heroes of one storyline are the swiftly dispatched villains of another — but then, perhaps the social stratification of Moscow is such that the upper echelons would seldom find reason to commingle with the lower without some stroke of coincidence or fate intervening. In any case, the film’s virtues are its economy and the breadth of its ensemble, meaning we never spend enough time with any one set of people to get impatient with them, nor even to worry that they are archetypes rather than flesh-and-blood characters.
Set during the 24 hours of Moscow’s City Day celebrations, the film’s various strands are collected around two families, and each will experience a death before the day is through. The powerful class is represented by Anton (Alexey Serebryakov, the craggy star of Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan”), a wealthy businessman being outmaneuvered on a development deal, who is married to trophy wife and aspiring pop singer Katya (Evgenia Brik). Katya, however is being stalked by her ex-lover Ilya (Oleg Dolin) who is the son of well-known celebrity comedian Valery (Yuri Stoyanov), who wakes up in the film’s opening scene in a gleaming hospital he mistakes for the afterlife. Valery, who has had a wife and a mistress on the go for many years, is given only a few weeks to live and resolves to spend at least some of them drinking. Having given his nurses the slip, however, he is immediately spotted by local chancer Arto (Rustam Akhmadeyev) and his gang, who decide to kidnap the TV personality for kicks.
The second, lower-status family is that of aging, practically mute grandmother Vera (Tamara Spiricheva), who is being placed in a nursing home by her remorseful grandson and rather less caring son Vladimir (Mikhail Efremov). Vladimir has his own troubles at home: His pretty, sexually provocative teenage daughter, Kcenia (Lubov Aksenova), and his more withdrawn stepdaughter, Lera (Anastasia Shalonko), do not get on (Lera is pining for her biological father). When forced to go out together that night, the two girls end up in the same club as Arto, and thus the tenuous link between the two spheres is established.
“Moscow Never Sleeps” is engaging, but there are only a few occasions when it feels genuinely inspired. A slow-mo montage set to a melodic piano motif within Roman Litvnov’s pleasant score comes closest to the kind of choral effect achieved in O’Reilly’s obvious touch point, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.” And some of the vignettes brush against challenging questions of how traditional Russian values of familial duty and loyalty can possibly synthesize with the demands of the modern urban lifestyle. But refreshing as it is to see a vision of Moscow so unusually unencumbered by social critique or political allegory, mostly the absence of that subtext gives “Moscow Never Sleeps” its brittle, surface-level feel.
“New York is overrated,” Ilya tells Katya at one point. “You think Moscow is so much better?” replies Katya. “Yes” is the simple reply, and it sounds like the film’s manifesto: Moscow deserves to be considered alongside the great cities of the world in terms of cosmopolitan sophistication. Couched in fine performances and slick filmmaking, the film just about persuades, but with a city, rather than any of its inhabitants, the star of the show here, there’s little human resonance. The vast wides of sparkling nighttime streets pulsating with traffic under skies bursting with fireworks are impressive but also prove the impersonal truth that while hearts within might be breaking — or stopping altogether — life in the impervious city goes on.