Personality clash

Personality clash

Avdotya Smirnova’s new film ‘Kokoko’ examines social conflict, human relationships and female friendship.

Published: June 21, 2012 (Issue # 1713)

‘Kokoko’ explores the relationship between Petersburg ethnographer Liza (Anna Mikhalkova, l), and earthy provincial Vika (Yana Troyanova).

Loneliness often leads people to the most improbable alliances. This is the case in Avdotya Smirnova’s new film, “Kokoko,” which started screening nationwide on June 14.

At first glance, as they happen to share a cabin on an overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, the two thirty-something heroines seem to be antipodes: The energetic, down-to-earth, foxy, foul-mouthed and heavily made-up provincial Vika (Yana Troyanova), and the anti-glamorous St. Petersburg ethnographer Liza (Anna Mikhalkova), ever lost in thought, obsessed with charity, overweight and so neglecting of herself that her former husband (Konstantin Shelestun) cannot resist reprimanding her for not shaving her legs.

After both women are robbed on the train, the kind-hearted Liza offers Vika temporary refuge in her St. Petersburg apartment, her late artist father’s former studio. This becomes the start of a most unlikely friendship, with Vika settling in the apartment on a permanent basis.

On the surface, Smirnova is exploring a social conflict: That of a lack of understanding between the country’s working class and the intelligentsia, a conflict that has been described in Russian classics since the time of writer Ivan Turgenev and appears to be as insurmountable as Russia’s confrontation with natives from the Caucasus.

Indeed, social satire can be found in abundance in the film. Liza’s colleagues, harmless verbose researchers from the Kunstkamera museum, who have apparently read too many books about the crusades, conquests and noble missions, seek a way to do good in the modern world. They stage fierce fights over petitions calling for the release of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, bravely face the riot police as a small group of protesters huddles together in the wind in a dwarf-sized political protest, they make donations to children’s homes — it all feels immensely noble and useful, yet all of them feel useless. “What do I really want to be doing in life?” is the sort of question that the ethnographers do not ask themselves. Vika, in contrast, is disturbingly specific and enviably explicit about her desires, although that does not help her to find a sense of perspective. For that, the young woman from Yekaterinburg is happy to rely on the more educated Liza, who, conveniently, is always more informed and seems to know better.

Yet the story that the director is exploring is really a human one. In a sense, it echoes the question posed by the main male character in Smirnova’s previous film, “Two Days:” why can’t two grown up, intelligent people who are in love with each other find peace?

Liza and Vika’s is not a love story, yet it is a story of an alliance that constantly fails because two people who need each other and care for each other deeply repeatedly fail to communicate their feelings.

“If you have to explain, that means it’s something you shouldn’t have to explain.” This quote from the Russian Silver Age poet Zinaida Gippius is all that Liza, frustrated with Vika’s tactless behavior in her apartment, utters to her flatmate. And she is never able to change this communication pattern, which is, in fact, nothing but arrogance on her part. As a result, the farcical finale, in which Liza attempts to kill Vika at night by suffocating her with a pillow — the final straw was the exasperating sound of water falling from the bronze fountain that Vika bought to celebrate getting a job in a local club, and Liza is a light sleeper — seems all the more natural.

Both women crave a family, in the sense that they desperately need someone they can trust. “I trusted you; I never trusted a single soul in my entire life but I believed you, I trusted you about anything you told me,” Vika sobs after Liza, deranged by the sight of her ex-husband having sex with the enticing Yekaterinburg girl, throws one insult at her after another. Confidence personified — the quality that Liza is seriously lacking — Vika feels betrayed, and cannot help adding “Aren’t you responsible, forever, for what you have tamed?” This well-worn phrase from “The Little Prince” sounds so utterly helpless, especially coming from the reckless and self-reliant provincial, that even Vika herself cannot suppress a conciliatory giggle.

Liza takes it for granted that Vika has replaced the cleaner — who was no good but Liza paid her because she felt sorry for the woman — and Vika cleans floors, washes dishes and cooks daily, not only for Liza but for their parties. At the same time, the educated ethnographer is unable to tell Vika that she is being tactless and invasive by staging noisy parties without warning — this was Vika’s attempt to find company for the lonely Liza — or by putting a lock on the door of Liza’s bedroom — for Liza’s privacy as “I cannot look after that many guests all the time!”

Sometimes what it takes to reach peace and end a seemingly eternal conflict is to swap roles: For the preacher to shut up and listen to someone else, for the busybody to stop, for the coward to tell the truth, for the introvert to share their feelings. Vika survives the suffocation attempt, and is horrified by the idea of going back to Liza’s apartment.

“Oh no, please don’t take me back there,” is the plea, repeated at the pace of a rap, that ends the film. Yet strange as it may seem, this may not be the end of this tale of female friendship. The women are simply back to square one.

Kokoko is currently showing at Avrora movie theater. For a full timetable, visit

Leave a comment