"Nothing Personal": The Life of Others By Mihai Chirilov

in 29th Moscow International Film Festival

by Mihai Chirilov

At its 29th edition, the good old Moscow International Film Festival had a brand new team run by the same ubiquitous president, Nikita Mihalkov. It was an adventurous enterprise, given the ups and downs of the enthusiastic but flawed organization, but as the newly installed program director Kirsi Tykkylainen put it one evening during a traditional festival gathering: “We have all the prints, and the audience response is massive. I was expecting a catastrophe, but so far everything is okay.” Frankly, I was expecting worse, as the whole festival had been put together in just three months, but the line-up was consistent and featured a strong bunch of fresh Russian movies and Russian co-productions. The main competition was balanced, even featuring some edgy titles that could make one forget about the inclusion of Laurent Tirard’s Molière among the 19 contenders. (Not the main jury, though, who regrettably awarded this mediocre French biopic with its Best Actor Prize.) Major guests were almost nowhere to be found (Tarantino? Streep? Anyone?), but exciting sidebars (especially “Moscow Euphoria” and “8½ Films”) and euphoric retrospectives (“Goodbye, USSR!” and “Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals”, among others) made up for that lack of glam. Until next year’s jubilee, here’s what caught the attention of the five FIPRESCI jury members, and why we decided — if not unanimously — to give our award to Larisa Sadilova’s pitch-perfect Russian cynical drama, Nothing Personal (Nichego Lichnogo).

Good films make you feel bad sometimes. And the funny thing is that, up to some point, you were actually feeling quite good. Not only because the movie itself is good, but because the story seems to be driven by a certain humanitarian action. It’s called manipulation, and it fools you because it’s clever and almost invisible — which is quite remarkable in a movie about the evil powers of voyeurism. Nothing seems to happen in Nothing Personal, director Sadilova’s fourth film: A veteran detective is employed to install video cameras in the flat of a spinster druggist, and monitor her activities in black and white. What he sees and hears is what we see and hear — a woman on the verge of a breakdown after her boyfriend leaves, lots of crying and smashing of glasses, some old pieces of furniture that the woman is trying to get rid of and long phone conversations with her deadly optimistic mother. Something must be hidden in this obvious descent into depression, and that’s what’s keeping us and the detective enthralled in the tracking process.

Slowly, the immersion in this woman’s uneventful but somehow disturbed life becomes addictive, because it might mirror, in a strange but increasingly clearer way, the uneventful life of the observer. It’s even more addictive when there’s no longer any need to follow this daily routine: mid-movie, the detective discovers he’s bugged the wrong apartment. His real subject was actually the spinster’s neighbor, a blonde woman with a dog, a lover and an equally dull life. But at this point, the obsession has already taken root, forcing the detective to follow both women. The new one is just a job, but the first woman has become part of his troubled and boring life, which had been previously divided between work, wife and a country house, and that’s what makes it terribly exciting. Up to the point that they actually connect, and the promise of a romance arises, regardless of any bitter consequences to this sudden improvement of their existence.

Comparisons with Hitchcock’s Vertigo are more than welcome, as Nothing Personal features the same blend of detective story, sick love, obsession and mirror games. It’s equally cynical and manipulative and ends with the same triumph of obsession over self, using and abusing somebody else’s life. I won’t spoil the finale, which is really disturbing; I think it’s enough to say that you, as an external observer, will feel as exploited and deprived of any existing sparkle in your own life as one of the main characters. And that really makes you feel bad.