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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Screens at CIFF: 10/17 & 10/18
World premiere: 14 February, 2011, Berlin Film Festival

In what I hope desperately is a piece of deliberate misquotation and not just crappy subtitling (at a festival it never does to assume), one of the characters in the Russian metaphysical sci-fi love story Target early on recalls the opening moral of Anna Karenina: "Sad familes are alike, every happy family is happy in their own way", apparently without noticing that he has just flipped Tolstoy's quote around and totally distorted its meaning. Not without purpose, though, for the twist in Target, if twist is the right word, is that it will very much be an exploration of how too much perfect happiness can be just as miserable as too much suffering, and how many ways there are of being so happy you can't stand it.

Not coincidentally, Target is a very, very loose adaptation of Anna Karenina set in 2020, although most of what is chiefly memorable about the film is not in even the remotest sense derived from the novel, such as the high-tech goggles that can detect the balance of good and evil psychic energy accrued to any physical object, the sort of theme-laden concept that Tolstoy likely would have adored if that kind of speculative fiction had existed during his lifetime (the goggles are the primary representation of one of the film's pet obsessions, the ability to see things as they are in both a literal and symbolic sense; which makes the setting in 2020 as much of a coy in-joke as a pointed bit of social commentary). The film primarily focuses on Victor (Maksim Sukhanov), an important bureaucrat, who travels with his wife Zoya (Justine Waddell), her TV host brother Mitya (Danila Kozlovskiy), and a leading member of the immigration-control police force, Nikolai (Vitaly Kischenko) to a place far in Russia's east, called Target: a former military site that has become saturated with a special type of radiation that, as we learn from Taya (Nina Loshcinina) a 52-year-old woman with a 19-year-old body, can arrest the aging process and restore one's youthful vitalism, which is doubletalk for "will make you horny as fuck". And so it is that the four travelers suddenly become filled with life and enthusiasm and energy, and they, along with Taya and radio personality Anna (Daniela Stoyanovich), return to Moscow and the surrounding area for a crash course in what happens when people are suddenly filled with feelings of complete health and joy coupled with an inability to connect to other people.

It's a fantastic conceptual hook, and writer Vladimir Sorokin and director Alexander Zeldovich (his first film in 11 years, and only his fourth in a career spanning a quarter of a century) have an absolute blast exploring it, and defining a vision of the future just sufficiently advanced from our own (phones and computers are even more simple and shiny, clothes get brighter and more streamlined) that it seems magical, and just sufficiently more attached to intensely stupid reality shows and pointless - but pretty! - electronic toys and gewgaws that it seems depressingly plausible.

The problem is when the filmmakers get all serious - and coming in north of two and a half hours, there's a whole lot of Target to fill with seriousness, all the more so since the film's heart is in Russian literature. Some of this is actually rather fleet, if a bit wobbly; Victor's beloved goggles of the knowledge of good and evil are flat-out campy, but presented with such sincerity, and woven into the film's color scheme with enough care that the notion works almost in despite of itself. But the lengthy conversations - three of them, at least, but they tend to blur into one another - about the nature of happiness in relationships and how people ought to be when they are in love simply drag on, and as always, what is fascinating on the page dies on the screen. For Target is not, as one might have hoped, a Russian sci-fi drama heavy with dense conversations on metaphysical topics on the Solaris model; though I cannot think of a better movie to compare it to, with its combination of philosophy, spiritual sci-fi ideas and future-shock set design.

There's frankly just too much of the movie: too many scenes plugged in just so that the filmmakers could address some new concern (Mitya's game show, in which he badgers famous people with esoteric questions and discusses the meaning of life, is such a blatant script contrivance it's almost funny). And yet, all that excess, married to the legitimately fantastic genre trappings and mostly good performances - the men are, by and large, better than the women - is most of what gives Target such a distinct personality. And it certainly does have that in spades: between the Tolstoy-Lite themes, the consumerist social satire in damn near every scene, the frankly sarcastic depiction of how people in true love can be complete idiots about it, Target is staggeringly memorable, and far more engaging in its complete messiness than a lot of far neater, more coherent movies can possibly approach.



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