Although it paints an appropriately sinister portrait of contemporary Russia’s shadowy neo-nationalistic apparatus, employing an oversaturated color palette to make the country’s urban spaces look sickeningly menacing, Putin’s Kiss fails to dig too deep into the politics or inner workings of the new right-wing youth movement it profiles, remaining content with simplistic conclusions about pro-Putin thuggery. Lise Birk Pedersen’s doc focuses instead on Masha Drokova, a young woman who quickly rose up the ranks of the nationalist youth organization, Nashi, only to fall out with the group and eventually protest their probable involvement in the savage beating of a journalist friend. But for all Masha’s charisma and the freedom she’s given by Pedersen to tell her own story, she exists primarily as a narrative device, the subject of will-she-or-won’t-she-move-from-the-dark-side-and-use-her-talents-for-good speculation.
The most effective moments in the film are the earliest, in which Pedersen introduces Nashi to the viewer, first via a summer camp in which the kids incongruously cheer when they’re warned of the evils of smoking, drinking, and swearing, and later through hints at the organization’s more sinister activities and its direct involvement with Putin’s government. Similarly, these early scenes introduce us to Masha, an ultra-enthusiastic teenager working with the adult leadership to plan rallies while quickly moving up the organizational ranks. To watch these scenes is to watch an energetic, talented young woman apply her skills relentlessly to a task that seems both at odds with and perfectly suited to her personality which is at once warmly generous and ruthlessly focused.
It’s this generosity that ultimately triggers her downfall in the organization as she loses a key election by proposing a stamping out of corruption rather than simply repeating the anti-opposition refrain. But from the time Masha’s official association with Nashi ends, the film becomes considerably less compelling, switching its focus to the young woman’s newfound friendship with a group of liberal journalists, particularly the soon-to-be-savagely-beaten Oleg Kashin, and her agonizing over what role to take in public life.
The film’s second half alternates between Oleg and other journos talking about the dangers they face for opposing Putin and scenes of Masha mulling over her future. Unfortunately, the former moments don’t shed much light on the dangers of the Russian newspaperman’s profession except to say that it is, in fact, dangerous, while the latter feel like artificially staged moments meant to advance the dramatic arc the film wishes to take. Calling on a heavily stylized, dramatically lit aesthetic in keeping with the film’s generally slick visual design, Pedersen stages a series of dialgoues between Masha and various friends and family members in which she reflects on her situation. These scenes, obviously staged for the camera’s benefit, but presumably meant to be taken as plausible recreations of actual conversations, seem both too artificial to satisfy the documentary impulse and insufficiently signaled as reconstruction to make up the difference. But since, ultimately, Putin’s Kiss is interested in reducing its complex portrait of contemporary Russia and its para-governmental organizations to a simple morality play, these scenes wind up proving the central moments in Pedersen’s wayward project.