Taxi Blues


film still

USSR/France. 1990. 110 min. Color
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Pavel Lungin
Script: Pavel Lungin
Cinematography: Denis Evstigneev
Music: Vladimir Chekasin
Editor: Elizabeth Guido
With Petr Mamonov, Petr Zaichenko, Vladimir Kashpur, Nataliia Koliakanova, and Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Prigov

Taxi Blues is the story of a Moscow cabbie [named Shlykov]—an Archie Bunker with no sense of humor—and his ambivalent friendship with Liosha, a bohemian, drop-out saxophonist. Shlykov feels contemptuous loathing for this alcoholic, effete [lout], all the more so because the lout is Jewish. Yet he envies the musician's freedom from what in the West would be called the Protestant ethic. Like his counterpart in Queens who puts in long hours and paints his fence white, Shlykov believed his boyhood teachers and built a life on the precepts they said would make him good. He thought, like many growing up in the late Forties and Fifties, that he was pitching in, rebuilding Russia after the Nazi invasion; he thought, under Khrushchev, that he'd have a chance. He has a seedy apartment instead, and lonely nights in the cab where he gets ripped off by black marketers who the next day are clients in his own petty deals.

At the outset it appears that Shlykov is the grounded one, the Jack Lemmon of this odd couple. He has an income, a schedule, a sometimes girlfriend, and is forever dragging Liosha out of the dangers of drunken stupors. Yet Shlykov is unmoored and the crisis of faith in the film is not the drop-out musician's but his.

Though Shlykov hasn't trusted any official-speak for years, he feels lost and grimy without it. The flat-topped Petr Zaichenko plays him like an urban cowboy who's lost his range. His taught, leathery face admits the years of labor and rage that he'd hope his muscular frame would hide….

The educated Liosha has none of Shlykov's confusions since he never believed anything in the first place…. It is Liosha's lack of guilt that rivets the cabbie. Liosha understands the corruptions of a starved economy and fat government in rigor mortis. He grew up in it and eats off it like a vulture after battle. He mourns no loss of ideals; no conflict of morals stops him from the con. Shlykov's old values are sickened by the musician's sloth, which gives Shlykov ample openings for anti-Semitism. "People like you made Russians into oxes," he spits at Liosha. "You multiplied like rabbits. Now no one keeps order in this country. Before, you were afraid to squeak, now you play music, write books and tell us how to live."

The trouble for Shlykov is that the old values have been discredited. Taxi Blues is his pilgrim's regress away from them. At worst, he wants to figure out what's wrong so he can blame the Jews for it. At best, he knows the blame likes elsewhere. He wants out of the catechisms that crowd his head, he wants out of himself. A rebel with only lost causes, he believes Liosha will show him the way, and he'll tend to hangovers and debts to be taken along.

In its latter half, Taxi Blues becomes a pathetic seduction where Shlykov's pursuit of Liosha is a setup for humiliation. Increasingly, Liosha plays the coquette whose price rises as she entertains a better class of client. A black American musician visits Moscow and jams with Liosha, providing him with friendship, an American tour, and a stint on Soviet TV, the cabbie's most revered entertainment.

From this height, Liosha no longer needs the hack's spare change and, with a gold watch equivalent of a farewell, takes off with his entourage in his new red Mercedes. Panicking, Shlykov steals a car and chases the Mercedes through the empty, morning streets. In the final, ironic sequence, the Soviet man has put his shoe on the gas and shot himself in the foot.

—Marcia Pally, Cineaste 18.2(1991): 22-27.

Taxi Blues is emblematic of the end of two empires: the Soviet Union itself and the mighty film industry that was arguably one of its most successful endeavors, both domestically and internationally. Pavel Lungin made the film, his directorial debut, in 1990, the last full year of Soviet power and also the statistical high point of Soviet film production (300 Soviet films were released that year; the post-Soviet Russian film industry in comparison has produced in the double digits for nine consecutive years). One of the first Soviet co-productions with the West, the film was a harbinger of the post-Soviet period, in which unsubsidized Russian directors have relied heavily on the financial backing of foreign producers. The film itself evinces the influence of the capitalist West technically and narratively; it was among the first Soviet movies shot with live sound, and among the genres that inform the movie are the buddy picture and the action film (note the climactic car chase). Lungin achieves a complex cinematic pastiche, however, by alluding just as clearly to Soviet cultural tropes such as the love-hate relationship between the working class and the intelligentsia, the stodgy official banquet for visiting foreign delegations, and the ever-present Marxist-Leninist imagery encountered in the urban landscape of the Soviet capital.

Pavel Lungine

director photo

Pavel Lungin was born in Moscow in 1949. After studying math and linguistics at Moscow State University, he turned to film in 1976. A second-generation screenwriter, Lungin had scripted a half-dozen Soviet films by the time he began directing at age 40. He enjoyed immediate success, winning the Best Director prize at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival for Taxi Blues. Lungin has directed four feature films since his debut, including The Wedding (2000), which was a competition film at Cannes, and Tycoon, a nominee for best screenplay at the 16th annual Nika Awards.

1990 Taxi Blues
1992 Luna Park
1996 Line of Life
2000 The Wedding
2002 Tycoon