Review: No-One (2021)

Preamble

Straight up, this is my 300th blog post. I’ve had several ideas to celebrate this milestone, including a review of 300 (gimmicky I know) and the cringe-worthy equivalent to a clip show episode of a sitcom (in the form of top-five reviews etc). However, I could not think of a better commemoration than this review.

I had the rare privilege of being invited to attend a screening of No-One at the Soho Hotel in London. The trip represented my first time going into the heart of London since February 2020. The turnout was huge, and it was a genuine joy to attend a full screening again after so long. More than that, the experience was a testament to the enduring power of movies and their knack for being a genuine cultural touchstone. Long may the medium continue to persist. No-One has been making the rounds on the festival circuit. Have you had a chance to see it? If so, what did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

No-One is an interesting piece of work. It’s the sort of film that lingers and stews in the mind long after the credits have rolled. Combining historical intrigue and underhanded romantic sparring, No-One flickers between historical satire and grand Shakespearean tragedy. Crucially, this quality is embodied in a sentence that comes in the film’s opening text- “This a depiction of those days and not events.”

Set during the last months of the Soviet Union, No-One is about the conflict between an ageing KGB general- Oleg Sergeyevich (Slava Jolobov) and his nephew- Vlad (George Marchenko). Sergeyevich is married to a famous actress Tamara (Natalia Vdovina) and suspects that Vlad is making the moves on her. Over several days at a resort, Sergeyevich attempts to get to the bottom of his wife’s suspected infidelities.

No-One is directed with the patience of a bird on the wall who is watching the characters interact in real-time. The film’s opening section that depicts a long conversation between Oleg and Vlad whilst walking to work typifies this quality. It’s in these long stretches where the audience is confronted with a slow tension of threat, which makes No-One an engaging experience.

At the same time, the film’s minimalist use of score (mostly relegated to the films Vlad watches and directs) imbues proceedings with a chilly and clinical atmosphere that keeps the audience on their toes. The performances are also impressive for their pendulum swing between melodrama and naturalism.

Jolobov is a force of nature as Sergeyevich. He mixes a magnetic screen presence with subtle emotion that comes out in key scenes. One comes towards the tail end where he’s talking to a lifeguard. It proves to be as darkly comic as tense and upsetting. At first, Marchenko is impressive for his stillness in the opening sequence. However, as the film goes on, the young actor is akin to a scorpion who strikes with his vicious words and arrogance. These qualities come to the fore in a scene where he imagines he’s talking to his uncle. And Vdovina mixes movie star sheen and humanity as the actress that both men are fighting over.

At its core, No-One has a quality that appeals to me. Its characters are not just figures that exist within the context of a scripted narrative. They’re also people who stand in for larger points about Russia. In particular, Sergeyvich’s and Vlad’s struggles become an intergenerational conflict about the future of the country. Vdovina exists in the middle as an illustration of how Russia wants to appear culturally in the future.

Does it want to be considered artful in its cinema? Or does it want to continue to pursue trashy exploitation fare? The quandary of depiction in cinema is a theme that appealed to me. Sergeyevich takes issue with his nephew’s depiction of his wife in one of his films. He likens it to rape as he concludes that Tamara is a free spirit that can’t be controlled etc. This point reminded me of the way Brain DePalma depicts women in his films. At once, they’re larger than life and at the same time all too human. In this way, No-One becomes a tight rope about the spaces in between cinematic representation and how someone is in real life.

For this reason, and the inherent tragedy of Sergeyevich losing grip on all he loves, due to the qualities that made him a ruthless general of the KGB, No-One is a potent cocktail of meaning.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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