It might surprise many to learn that Bite the Dust is the single Russian film in this year’s Official Selection, and consequently expectations are understandably high for the apocalyptic comedy farce, which nevertheless misses most of the marks it so haphazardly aims for. Though it has faced some stiff competition so far, this is presently the worst film screening at Cannes this year (even if it is early days yet), and it will take some doing to beat.
Taking place in a remote, provincial Russian town, debut director Taisa Igumentseva‘s film depicts the madcap efforts of the town’s residents to come to terms with and prepare for an impending apocalypse, coming by way of a magnetic cloud guaranteed to wipe out the majority of the world’s population. Think of it as a quirky Russian arthouse take on Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, minus any potent humor or heart.
Early scenes might promote some home-spun charm by way of the town’s bizarre customs, namely a makeshift cinema that uses an overhead projector to screen the films. as well as a tongue-in-cheek fascination with the Dardenne Brothers’ Lorna’s Silence. These diversions are quaintly charming enough, though the film oddly loses itself when what should be the main attraction — the whole total destruction thing — rears its head. The arrival of the end-of-the-world scenario is out of nowhere, a considerable tonal diversion from everything silly and cutesy that has come before.
From here the film becomes daft but not very funny, as it focuses on how the residents act in light of Earth’s grim prognosis, ranging from hysterical terror to desperately indulging their libidos, regardless of whether or not they’re attached to a partner at the time. To begin with, this seems like the film that the aforementioned Hollywood flick should have aspired to be, though surprisingly Bite the Dust plays it even safer than its more known contemporary, fully restoring the status quo by pic’s end. While the ending is never in doubt, the chance for a devilishly funny punchline is short-sightedly avoided. How galling would it be for the citizens to spread STDs, get their neighbours pregnant and then, upon realising that the world is not in fact going to end, having to clean all their deplorable messes up?
Part of the problem here is the utterly forgettable array of stock, cardboard cut-out characters, best exemplified by a whiny old crone, the most simplistic caricature of them all, who spends the better part of the film acting loony and of course has to be rescued in the final portion. The fact that not a single character is interesting or particularly likeable allows the wafer-thin narrative to run circles around itself, while the languid pace barely allows it to register a pulse. In fact, when a film’s best character is a cow, you know you’re in trouble.
Sure, it’s absurdist and over-the-top, but somehow it’s also not the least bit fun. It’s the movie equivalent of a noisy, hyperactive child screaming in your face, a lame-brained slog that’s wholly predictable and clearly has no idea what it really wants to be.
The Upside: The icy Russian locale is totally convincing, brought to life by some evocative cinematography.
The Downside: The story has no way to go, led down a familiar, damningly predictable route that should have opted for something bolder and more daring. The vast majority of the humor also falls woefully flat.
On the Side: Igumenntseva enjoyed success at Cannes last year with her short The Road To, which won the top Cinefoundation prize.