★★★☆☆The only Russian film to appear at Cannes this year, Taisia Igumentseva's debut feature Bite the Dust (2013) confounded critics typically more accustomed to the solemn social realism of post-Soviet cinema. However, behind the film's synthetic veneer of slapstick comedy lies a pertinent message about the apathy that blights contemporary Russian values. An apocalyptic black comedy, Igumentseva's Bite the Dust plays out in sardonic Eastern European fashion. In a sleepy northern village, a small community waste away the days drinking homemade moonshine, carving wooden deities and tending to the village's cow.
When the news breaks about the imminent arrival of an ominous electrical mist that threatens to wipe out humanity, each of the villagers react differently - with some toasting the end of the world, whilst others look to repent for the wasteful nature of their existence(s). Tables are laid, pies are baked and unrequited romances are consummated. However, as doomsday looms the village finds itself not, as first expected, faced with Armageddon, but rather an altogether more redemptive experience. The gradual loss of Soviet identity has led to a noticeable nostalgia for elements of that forgotten way of life - primarily the economic stability and fixed ideological values.
Bite the Dust, with its whimsical comedic styling and absurdist humour, fits very much into this category of sentimental filmmaking, indulging in Soviet sing-a-longs and dealing with the impending end of things in phlegmatic Russian fashion. Rejecting linearity in favour of a more experimental structure, art director Eldar Karhalev's sets are reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's oeuvre, and show a simultaneous yearning for the past and a desire to embrace post-modernist sensibilities. One villager puts on her own film screenings. During a showing of the Dardenne's The Silence of Lorna ("a very subtle romance") the audience chew seeds, spit endlessly and bemoan the ethics of their fellow Europeans.
The film takes a caustic swipe at consumerism by juxtaposing the bombastic narrative framework of Hollywood blockbusters and the distinctive Russian cinematic humour - showing the disparity between materialism in Eastern and Western culture in a genial and capricious manner. Bite the Dust's apocalyptic setting also serves to criticise the passivity and social inertia of a country happy to accept the norm. Igumentseva is asking Russia not to wait for the world's final death throws in order to change their ways, but to live life in the now - embracing the freedom of Perestroika and Glasnost whilst remembering the identity they forged during the defining epoch of the Soviet era.
Similar in thematics and tone to the late Russian director Aleksei Balabanov's eccentric 2012 sci-fi parable Me Too, yet lacking in the same assured direction, it's clear from Bite the Dust that Igumentseva is a promising young filmmaker just starting out. Though light on finesse, this bold and confident debut was considered brash and immature at Cannes, but should perhaps really be seen as the embodiment of a first-time Russian filmmaker kicking and screaming her way into the male-dominated arthouse arena.
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