By Mike Dub
“Where does this road go?” asks Georgy (Viktor Nemets), a lost truck driver trying to navigate through the rural heart of Russia. “It’s not a road,” answers a local transient, “It’s a direction.” Such is the structure of Sergei Loznitsa’s haunting black comedy, My Joy: it’s not a road, it’s a direction.
There is not much plot to speak of here. Georgy, a good-natured truck driver, gets lost during a delivery and finds himself deep in Russia’s heart of darkness. He crosses paths with a variety of monstrous people, ranging in ignobility from violently evil to just plain selfish. Virtually defenseless, he appeals to others because he lacks the ability to resist their commands, the result of an unwise decision to befriend the wrong people early in the film. Floating from one dehumanizing exchange to another, Georgy descends into a wicked version of the ideal Russian citizen: silent, thoughtless, and incapable of engaging with his surroundings.
If the term “black comedy” makes this sound like a light-hearted romp with a butter-knife sharp edge to it (an Apatow-ian comedy of embarrassments, for instance), don’t be fooled. This film is much more black than comedy, in both style and content. My Joy is a deeply disturbing meditation on the damaged, brutalized psyche of the Russian people. Corruption plagues the ordinary citizen, power entitles abuse, self-interest is necessary for survival, and people are as desensitized to violence as they are to the freezing cold landscape.
Shot in long takes with handheld cameras, often with long periods of silence, the film can be challenging to watch. The deliberately slow pace of the film can be entrancing or frustrating, but either way it belies the excitement of watching the film unfold. It is a rare film that has the confidence to disrupt the viewer’s experience by reducing style rather than enlarging it.
That is not to say it is not well crafted. Cinematographer Oleg Mutu creates intense images, often using darkness and low angles, sometimes shooting entire scenes where we never see a clear face. Mixed in with those, however, are very clever shots with great visual depth, allowing action in the background to create a living, breathing world inhabited by real people.
To the same end, supporting characters appear without introduction, and the film allows them to breathe and become multi-faceted before it reveals their connection to the narrative. By bringing Georgy into their worlds, rather than the other way around, Loznista emphasizes that in this world, self-interest is essential to self-preservation.
Through occasional flashbacks into the past, Loznitsa suggests that the callous use of violence is part of the Russian lineage. In one flashback, which takes place during either WWI or WWII, a solemn widower takes in a pair of hungry Russian soldiers, only to be victimized by them after he reveals that he is a pacifist. When we cut back to the present, we realize that Georgy is staying in that same house, and he will soon be victimized as well. Contemporary Russia has inherited the wounds of its history.
Even in the midst of contemptible behavior, there are no moral assertions. For Loznitsa, right and wrong are ultimately irrelevant. The farmhouse widower justifies his pacifism by proposing that the Germans are civilized and appreciate culture, and therefore should not be feared; the soldiers are patriots who believe in protecting the fatherland.
Later, two bored patrolmen arrest a man for a very minor offence; the man insults the cops by trying to bribe his way out of a penalty. The immorality or wrongheadedness of any of these characters (and many others in the film) does not justify the violence that befalls them. Brutality itself is the enemy, and it is capable of striking at any moment.
Under such constant chaos and fear, the lesson, as put by one character in the film, is this: “Never interfere… Everything bad comes from people interfering.” But even characters that heed such advice are susceptible to life’s iniquity. However strictly one tries to avoid interfering, everyone cracks eventually. The question is whether they fight or surrender.