Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Gospodin oformitel (1987)

... aka: Господин оформитель
... aka: Mister Designer
... aka: Mr. Designer

Directed by:
Oleg Teptsov

St. Petersburg, 1908. Renowned artist and designer Platon Andreyevich (Viktor Avilov) seems to have magic fingers as everything he touches turns to gold. He's well-known for designing not only elaborate, artistic stage productions but also putting together store window displays that bring the customers in in droves. He's made a great deal of money doing what he does but he's also so off-the-wall in his approach and ideas that he's just as apt to alienate or even offend. He's sought out to design a jewelry store window. While the owner wants to display as many diamonds as he can, Platon wants to concentrate entirely on a snake bracelet that catches his eye. What he puts together - a morbid display featuring a child in a coffin - isn't to the customer's liking but Platon is so good and so trusted as an artiste that the jeweler (Vadim Lobanov) goes along with it. It ends up being to his own detriment and Platon's reputation takes a hit as a result.

Six years later, a depressed (yet still off-putting, arrogant and pretentious) Platon is living in poverty and squalor as a junkie, and his landlord / flatmate (Ivan Krasko) may have to throw him out and auction off his belongings if he doesn't pull it together soon. But a potential savior, and a much-needed source of income, appears in the form of wealthy, secretive and mysterious Mr. Grilliot (Mikhail Kozakov), who's wanting Platon's design services for his newly-purchased home. The home, located on an island, is mostly empty and Platon will pretty much have free reign to do as he wants. Upon arriving, he learns that it was actually Grilliot's wife, Maria (Anna Demyanenko), who wanted him to do the designing. When Platon meets Maria he finds she's a dead ringer for Anna (also Demyanenko), a sickly 14-year-old girl from the slums who used to do nude modeling for him. In fact, he's fully convinced it's her despite her insisting otherwise.

Platon keeps chipping away at Maria, eventually showing her a picture of his painting of Anna from years earlier so she can no longer deny who she really is. And yet she still stubbornly does. Mr. Grilliot, who refuses to elaborate on what he does for a living, comes to Platon asking about his wife's past. When Platon refuses to answer (and is outright rude), he's fired. Returning home empty-handed, the artist has to choose between his vanity and pride and finishing his job. Otherwise he may end up in debtors prison. When he goes to beg "Maria" for a chance to fulfill his contract, she basically admits she only married Grilliot for his money and says he'll have to talk to her husband to get his job back. But, as good fortune would have it, there's no real need. Platon manages to weasel his way into a poker game with Grilliot and his friends, where he wins a fortune.

Now that he's wealthy again, Platon asks Maria / Anna to leave Grilliot and be with him. He's also overwhelmed by the bizarre urge to strangle her to death. She disappears soon after. Platon tries to find her, only to discover that she may have died back in 1908 from tuberculosis. After all, she does have a death certificate as well as a grave. However, she may also be either a ghost, a mannequin somehow brought to life or a Frankenstein-like creation, as Platon previously scoured through morgues looking for young bodies. For what purpose? Though vague, it may explain why Maria / Anna is still around despite being on record as dead. Platon's entire career has been centered around vainly trying to "create something better than what God has made," so perhaps he's succeeded.

Nearly everything about Mister Designer screams "Debut film from someone fresh out of film school who wants to be taken seriously as an artist." Although I don't know if the director was indeed fresh out of film school when he made this, or even attended film school for that matter, this feels like a calculated attempt to impress utilizing a lot of tried and true "artsy" / "stylish" tricks. One thing that irks me to no end is that the vast majority of new directors eager to prove themselves default to a deliberately confounding narrative and make everything irritatingly vague. I don't mind directors emptying out their bag of visual tricks to show off but, for the love of God, start with a strong script and stop assuming you can stylize your way out of a needlessly confusing narrative.

Where I found this most lacking though was is in its absence of a humanizing central focus. Unless you can relate to the arrogant, self-important lead and intentionally obtuse and thinly-drawn supporting characters, you're not going to be the least bit affected when this attempts to be dramatic or romantic. Scenes meant to give this a bit of emotional depth fall flat simply because you don't really care about any of these people.

Now with all of the above out of the way, I should admit one last thing: I actually LIKED this film. I know it doesn't sound like it but I tend to be tougher on good films that I know could have been great with a better script or a few tweaks here and there. It's far more frustrating than sitting through something that outright sucks. Truly bad films may have a redeeming quality or two but seldom exemplary ones. This one has many.

For starters, it's beautiful to look at and often so creatively directed that you find yourself forgiving, if not entirely forgetting, about the muddled plot and under baked fantasy elements. The director really does have some great visual ideas and impresses with his ability to utilize both light and slow motion to eerie effect. Especially nice is his approach to flashback scenes, which are tinted sepia and slowed down to the point where the the film grain itself seems alive with movement. The texture of these scenes bring to mind the look of a weathered drawing and it's a really cool touch. So here you get a big win with the photography and imaginative presentation. You also get a big win with the art direction and costume design, both of which are great throughout.

But my absolute favorite thing going on here was Sergei Kuryokhin's score. It's heavy on the elegant / classical compositions, but with infusions of progressive rock, metal guitar, New Wave synthesizer and even opera. And it's fuckin' amazing! The score alone helped to boost my rating as I was going to rate it a notch lower until I factored the music into the equation.

Nominated for three Nika Awards (basically the Russian Oscar equivalent) for production design (Natalya Vasilyeva), sound (Aleksandr Gruzdev) and costumes (Larisa Konnikova) and winning for the latter, this was also one of the nominated films at Fantasporto in 1989. It never played theatrically in America to my knowledge and hasn't been given any kind of U.S. home video release, though there was a 2016 DVD from Lenfilm that comes with English subtitles. I've seen the release year listed as 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1990, though multiple sources say this was a December 1988 theatrical release date in Russia so we'll go with that.

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