Director: Alexey Zuev
Writer: Alexey Zuev
Cast: Mikhail Zhigalov, Vera Romanova
Running time: 24mins
How do you live your life in a society where gangsters may be police and police may be gangsters? I am writing from the UK where I read today with concern that a global ratings agency has downgraded the country’s sovereign debt a notch, due to the diminished quality of Britain’s legislative and executive institutions.
All societies have issues with some cops acting as gangsters – it is when it becomes systematic that you have an existential threat. But what to make of the Russian Federation where the state poisons the leader of the opposition, places feminist and LGBT artists under house arrest for distributing ‘pornography’ and uses the police and the tax authorities to expropriate the businesses of anyone seen as promoting political opposition to the ruling gang.
One way that artists can respond is by using allegory to portray oppression and the use of the state apparatus to forward sectional interests. I am unsure but this is one explanation of the approach that Alexey Zuev is taking in The Girl in the Jeep – a nuanced and finely crafted piece of cinema as fable.
A grumpy elderly man named Andrei (Mikhail Zhigalov) is fishing from a boat in a lake – his phone keeps ringing – we see the screen and the call is from ‘WIFE’ – he turns the phone off. It all turns into a downer – an inadequate catch then when he starts to cook his meal by an open fire – the heavens open with a torrential rainstorm and he has to retreat to his car. Andrei settles to sleep but is woken by a distressed and very wet young woman (Vera Romanova), who explains that her Jeep has been forced off the road by a group of men, and that it is now stuck in a ditch.
Andrei somewhat grudgingly gets some dry clothes for the woman to change into. Whilst changing clothes the woman takes a phone call from her mother and the man and the audience learn more about the backstory. The woman, whose name is Jenya, then explains that the men are gangsters who are trying to forcibly take over her family’s business.
When Jenya’s assailants return, Andrei hides the young woman, and informs the perceived gangsters that he has not seen the woman… but are they really ‘gangsters’? They wear dark casual clothing, but when one member of the group threatens Andrei with three years’ imprisonment for ‘insubordination of the police,’ we are left to wonder if they are plainclothes cops.
After their withdrawal, Andrei and Jenya initially fall out – but they soon bond together as they try to dig Jenya’s vehicle out of the ditch. They discover they have a close family connection – something which might be a stretch in a different story, but lends itself well to the medium of a modern fable – and gives the final denouement an added edge when the gangsters return.
The pacing of the film is exceptional, and Writer and Director Zuev’s ability to drive the narrative is first rate. Given that three minutes are devoted to establishing the atmospherics – the lonely fisherman on the lake – we still learn so much about Jenya and Andrei and their place in the world during the remaining 20. There is little superfluous dialogue – virtually everything serves to push the story forward.
This is not to say the film is bereft of subtext, however, and the mise-en-scène of the lake itself adds a great deal of depth to proceedings. It is somewhere in the Stavropol region – the Russian Empire’s Wild South, which was being ‘won’ roughly at the time the American Empire was similarly laying claim to the Wild West. The connection is subtly referenced when Jenya explains the ability of the gangsters/cops to act with impunity: “In the Wild West they had laws but here it’s the street… I know some things about the law – I lived in the States for a year.”
Zuev meanwhile uses the falling out sequence to construct Andrei as a representative of an old Soviet Russia of civic values – he uses an old clunky phone, his car is a Soviet-era box on wheels, we discover he was a history teacher at Stavropol School No.1. Andrei is aghast to find out that Jenya’s business is providing finance and mortgages to the local villages – he calls it stealing the land. Jenya responds in authentic corporate social responsibility vocabulary – the empowering of the villagers, her company paying to rebuild a school in the village and the restoration of a public building in the nearby spa resort. And then as the fable unfolds, they bond.
My reading of the bonding as a device is that it allows us to follow Alexei Navalny’s dream of the coming together of the progressive forces in Russian society. The civil society that has somehow survived the assaults of a mafia state weds can-do capitalism under the rule of law with a heady dose of philanthropy added to the mix. Admittedly, I might have also got this entirely wrong, and this may just be a short film about an old man who tries to save a young woman from some bad guys – but that is the joy of allegory.
The production values of The Girl in the Jeep are exemplary. Unfortunately, the credits are in Cyrillic, which I do not read, so while the submission form for The Girl in the Jeep lists Mark Krol as Director of Cinematography, I could not identify who was responsible for the soundtrack – and these two facets combine to extraordinary effect. We are placed in some elegiac pastoral idyll as though we were in somewhere in a page from Turgenev’s The Forest and Steppe, which is then punctuated by the staccato of the gangster invasions.
Zuev has had a long and notable career as an actor before coming to directing and was able to assemble an experienced team. This clearly served him well, as is exemplified by the fine performances he received from Zhigalov and Romanova. Zhigalov is superb as the old curmudgeon is softened by Romanova’s youthful impetuosity. The way that Romanova communicates a combination of joy and contentment in the revelation scene is remarkable – empathic and beautiful to watch.
The Girl in the Jeep will no doubt go on to triumph at festivals and win awards. I have one very minor reservation though – the English language version of the title. I am no petrol head – I am by philosophy a pedestrian but, as the Irish poet Paul Muldoon noted, today’s European human will inevitably be able to identify more cars than birds. So, I was somewhat surprised that when Andrei and Jenya get to her vehicle it turns out to be a sleek Jaguar 4×4 manufactured in the UK under the ownership of a South Asian conglomerate. The word ‘Jeep’ would have conjured up an expectation from an Anglophone audience of something more out of Mash. But there you go; in some ways this mismatch adds to the charm of the fable.