Acid is an empathetic portrait of conflicted masculinity that plays like a Russian take on Trainspotting. A drug and sex-fueled exploration of the latest lost generation, it takes no prisoners in its depiction of youthful despair. While not quite reaching the epoch-defining status of post-Soviet hits such as Brother and The Fool, it’s still a solid effort from debut director Aleksandr Gorchilin.
Acid starts at a party, with the drug-induced Vanya (Aleksandr Gorchilin) stark naked, holding on to a toilet for dear life. Our heroes, Petya (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) and Sasha (Filipp Avdeev), detain him, only for him to climb out onto the balcony, ready to take the leap. Uncaring, Petya says, “If you want to jump, jump” — condemning him to his death. At his funeral, Vanya’s mother, unable to accept his death, cries that she brought him cranberries. Petya harshly criticises her, saying that she didn’t know who he slept with — including other men.
It seems that none of the elders know what Russia has turned into since the Soviet era. Petya and Sasha go to a techno party, take drugs, then follow an older man to his flat. He’s an artist who takes his father’s sculptures — made under Soviet time to lionize the pioneers — and dips them in acid, corroding them into distorted shapes. It’s a metaphor for the movie as a whole, as toxic masculinity seems to take healthy young men, then forces them to act out in ways that feel unnatural.
Sasha certainly feels this way. He circumcised himself, a radical act to put himself at odds with contemporary Russian men. Growing up without a father, he hardly knows who he is anymore. Petya takes things one step further, drinking acid after a particularly heavy bout of boozing. Sasha takes it upon himself to help his friend, even though no one else seems to care.
Does Sasha have deeper, perhaps sexual feelings for his Petya? Acid doesn’t come to any fast conclusions, yet shows that even if he did, life for him would be very hard. Addressing themes of homosexuality without depicting it head on (while straight sex is seen in all its facets), it expertly details how gays in Russia are given little space to breathe.
Acid doesn’t court your sympathy. It wants to be honest about how the patriarchy leaves little space for Russian men to be honest with themselves, most crucially their shifting sexuality. Due to these characters’ problematic actions, they become hard people to root for. They are like the nihilists in Dostoyevsky’s Demons — lost youths who rebel against anyone and anything in their negative outlook upon the world.
An actor in many of Kirill Serebrennikov’s films, director Aleksandr Gorchilin has adopted the formalist experimentalism of his mentor without being able to maintain his free-flowing sense of place and character. While the pointed criticism of society is there, it isn’t integrated into the plot as smoothly as one would like, Sasha often feels more like a mouthpiece for Gorchilin’s ideas than a genuine character in his own right.
Additionally, for international audiences, certain sex scenes will be hard to stomach, giving Acid little chance of breaking outside of Russia (where it was released in October with an 18+ rating). This is a shame, considering how it complicates Western stereotypes of Russian masculinity, asking hard questions of its sons and fathers. While hardly exonerating them, at least it gives the world a little indication of where they’re coming from.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.