Darezhan Omirbaev’s Student attempts to do for Crime and Punishment what his earlier film Chouga did for Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, transposing Dostoyevsky’s novel about a philosophically motivated murderer to modern-day Kazakhstan and keying in on the tale’s unforgiving economic backdrop. The film opens in meta mode on a film set with the image of a clapperboard and an off-screen voice calling scene and take, but self-reflexivity isn’t a technique Omirbaev will use again until the film’s final shot of a minor character staring accusatorily out at the audience, which feels little more than cheap and rather obvious. And it’s only there at the onset because the director wants to shoehorn in a conversation about the use value of modern cinema. Since Omirbaev favors irony of the heaviest-handed kind, he has the film-within-the-film’s director argue for cinema’s validity as mere entertainment, a stance clearly at loggerheads with what Omirbaev really wants to argue.
Hewing close in event, if not in spirit, to Dostoyevsky’s novel, to the extent that not a single thing that happens on screen will come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the novel, Omirbaev rather perfunctorily goads the nameless student into action with a lecture on modern capitalism. The power suit-clad professor argues in favor of social Darwinism of the crudest “dog eat dog” sort. Not one to forego an easy jab, Omirbaev cuts to the student’s landlady watching a nature documentary in which several lions take down a giraffe. Likewise, during the killing of the store owner, the TV shows an interview with a witness to the JFK assassination, who reports Kennedy’s remark, “Now they’re really going to love me in Dallas,” not to mention the peace symbol-emblazoned hoodie the student acquires after the killing. Elsewhere, oligarchs in big black SUVs serve as risibly villainous foils: One such Master of the Universe peevishly beats a donkey to death with a golf club, admittedly an incident taken from the book, but dropped into the film’s narrative flow with zero preparation and even less follow-up.
Because Omirbaev doesn’t flesh out any of the quasi-philosophical discussion, like the scene where a fellow student reads aloud about “postmodern uselessness,” the subtext simply lays there inert, neither hefty enough to stimulate speculation on the audience’s part, nor wafer-thin enough to dismiss as mere window dressing. Furthermore, the lack of a cinematic analogue for the policeman who pursues the student killer further saps the narrative pacing. Given the film’s static shots and somnambulistic pacing, it could have used some. Granted, the obvious precursor here is Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. But whereas Bresson broke the world and humankind down into shards of perceived experience, only to recast them in what Paul Schrader termed “transcendental style,” Omirbaev adopts rigorous montage as nothing more than a fashion, and narrative ambiguity becomes a ploy just to leave shit unexplained.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 16—27. For more information click here.