Generation P offers the same pessimistic depiction of Russian life as recent films from the country, such as Twilight Portrait, My Joy, and Cargo 200. But Victor Ginzburg shuns their chilly austerity for a brassy aesthetic that’s alternately thrilling and frustrating. The film is still incredibly cynical, but the experience of watching it is occasionally joyful in its sense of freedom. And while the filmmaker’s visible passion isn’t quite enough to make Generation P a great work, there’s still enough here that’s worth taking seriously.
If nothing else, Generation P impresses for its sheer ambition. On a micro level, Ginzburg, adapting a bestselling novel by Victor Pelevin, paints a portrait of a generation trying to adjust to life in post-communist Russia. This generation is exemplified by Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Epifantsev), a disillusioned poet who, mostly out of desperation, ends up falling into the advertising world, where he discovers he has a talent for coming up with distinctly Russian slogans for Western products. But the film takes on larger thematic game the deeper Babylen dives into this increasingly surreal world.
Advertising, the film suggests, has wormed its way into politics in this newly capitalist Russia—to the point that even presidential candidates can be created virtually and presented to an unsuspecting public, simply by virtue of cleverly filmed and strategically placed advertisements and photo ops. In that sense, Generation P could be considered a bolder Russian equivalent of Barry Levinson’s 1997 political satire Wag the Dog, another film about the media manipulation of political images. Unlike Wag the Dog, though, Generation P places itself in something of a real-world context, spanning the impeachment of Boris Yeltsin in the late 1990s and the rise to power of Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s.
That’s not all. Through all of the duplicity and manipulation in which he reluctantly engages, Babylen, whose name is an amalgamation of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous poem “Babi Yar” and Lenin, maintains a belief in his supposed “Babylonian” destiny and thus persists in his own personal search for Ishtar, the Babylonion goddess of love. So, Generation P has a religious component to it on top of its social and political satire. Babylen may be cynical at the start of this story, and he may need to compromise his morals for the sake of survival, but he hasn’t yet completely sold his soul.
Generation P often threatens to collapse under its massive narrative weight. There are stretches in the film when Ginzburg seems to be going for a frenzied essayistic quality, like Jean-Luc Godard on acid, with Babylen’s first-person voiceover narration veering from narrating the events of his life to offering up his observations of the advertising world or ruminating on his mystical beliefs. More often, the film simply feels overstuffed, with the human beings in this epic chronicle shoved to the margins in favor of point-making and Ginzburg’s kinetic visuals. When, for example, Babylen admits to a potential employer that his heart wasn’t in some of the advertising copy in his portfolio, we pretty much have to take him at his word, because his story arc is never quite imbued with enough emotional weight for his eventual fate to matter to us beyond his place in the film’s grand satirical plan.
And yet, what Ginzburg may lack in narrative grace and storytelling skill, he at least comes close to making up for with sheer passion. Generation P has the energizing feel of a work by a filmmaker who has a lot he wants to say and is unafraid to risk clumsiness in order to fully express it. Also, Ginzburg’s freewheeling visual invention merely reflects a society that seems to prize slick appearances over actual substance; likewise, the ideas in Generation P are there, but the filmmaker makes you dig for them amid the surface flash. All of this culminates in a majestically off-the-wall finale that may not necessarily make you forget the occasionally confounding messiness of the rest, but will at least make you glad that a movie like this exists, warts and all.