Dir: Kiril Serebrennikov. Russ. 2006. 96mins.
The surprise winner of the main Cinema2006 section of the Rome Film Fest, PlayingThe Victim is an intellectual, post- modern blackcomedy that has its engaging moments but ends up feeling gratingly pretentious.

With a script adapted fromtheir own stage play by the prolific Brothers Presnyakov,this second feature by wunderkind Moscow theatre director KirilSerebrennikov attempts to weld the Hamlet story onto a yarn about a slackerwho literally "plays the victim" in police crime scene reconstructions. Butdespite some visual inventiveness (extensive use is made of amateur videofootage and animated inserts) there is something resolutely undergraduate aboutthe whole exercise.

Released in Russia duringearly June, where it made little impact, PlayingThe Victim may still enjoy a career away from homefollowing its festival double whammy (it also picked up the main prize at theOpen Russian Film Festival in Sochi). It is bestmarketed as a niche curio for cine-literate culture vultures,although one-off showings infestivals and seasons of new Russian cinema are a more likely exhibition modelfor this low-budget jeu d'espritthan regular distribution.

The film starts promisingly,with jerky DV footage (as seen through the monitor, complete with time code,battery time and colour balance icons) of a murder scene reconstruction. Thecamera is held by tearful policewoman Lyuda (Mikhalkova), while a bullish police chief, played by Vitaly Khayev, prompts thehapless murder suspect to re-enact the salient moments of his crime - with thehelp of ironic slacker Valya (Chursin),who stands in for the strangled girlfriend.

Lyuda is an inexpert and often distracted camera operator,and there are some hilarious moments as she fools around filming a youngcolleague or tries to get the hang of the zoom.

But Playing The Victim can't deliver on thepotential of this opening sequence. Three subsequent video crime re-enactmentswear the initial joke paper-thin, especially the over-long final sequence, setin a Japanese restaurant, in which veteran stage actress LiyaAkhedzhakova has a cameo as a gaudily costumedhostess.

In between we see scenes of Valya's home life, which gradually reveal a Hamlet-style imprint:after the death of his father, who appears to the dithering youth in a coupleof dream sequence, his buxom mother has embarked on an affair with Valya's uncle.

A droopy, put-upongirlfriend is presumably supposed to represent Ophelia, but there's anintellectual, take-it-or-leave-it feel about this Shakespearean superstructurewhich is exacerbated by Chursin's take on Valya as an arrogant Generation X nihilist who isconstantly repressing a smirk. The audience never feel that Valyais that troubled by his mother's betrayal, just as it never really works outthe link between all this Hamlet stuff and the crime reconstructions.

But Serebrennikovdoes direct with a certain verve, and there aremoments of surreal Slavic humour that carry the audience through the longueurs. The production design in Valya'sapartment is spot on, nailing a contemporary Russia in which the great Tolstoyan outdoors has been reduced to a kitsch wallpaperlake-and-forest scene behind the dining room table.

Production companies/backers
New People
Vega Production
Federal Agency for Culture & Cinematography

International sales
New People

Russian distribution
West Co

Natalya Mokritskaya
Uliana Savelieva
Leonid Zagalsky

The Brothers Presnyakov

Sergey Mokrizky

Olga Grinshpun

Production design
Valery Arkhipov

Alexandr Manotskov

Main cast
Yuri Chursin
Anna Mikhalkova
Vitaly Khayev
Marina Golub
Liya Akhedzhakova