Jumpman gets its title from the main activity around which the film is framed: a boy, Denis (Denis Vlasenko), who leaps in front of moving vehicles. This isn’t done for pleasure or some kind of strange relief (although you’d hardly be faulted for such a notion), but to extort money from the unsuspecting drivers. The interesting part is that Denis is only a pawn in this arrangement – the scheme organised by a network of police officers, doctors, ambulance workers and judges.
Like how the cars brutally propel him into the air, Denis is relentlessly thrown about by those around him. At the orphanage he lives at, the other orphans wrap him up in rubber tubes, with two of them pulling at either side to tighten the tube. “Only a little longer,” one of the orphans calls out to Denis. He wants Denis to eclipse his record of staying upright for more than a minute or so.
The scene runs for less than five minutes, but it’s integral to the film’s aims. Other than signalling Denis’ exceptional, ‘superhuman’ ability to withstand pain, it lingers metaphorically; furnishing us – with what the film, and its director, Ivan I. Tverdovskiy, thinks is the perfect image of Denis’ wretched life and the prevailing political climate in Russia. Tverdovskiy comes back to Denis bound in the tube, cementing the idea that a life without love, only with adversaries, is not one worth enduring. It’s on this note that the film gains its bleak, nihilistic outlook.
But, at other times, some part of Jumpman is asking for an emotional response out of us. To feel sympathy for Denis. To lament the way his life has turned out. Tverdovskiy’s style, unyieldingly clinical and austere – like NBC’s Hannibal series, or fellow Russian compatriot Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless – all but forbids this, prizing intellectual reflection above immediate human reaction. Loveless, both because of and in spite of its resigned style, was able to weigh on the emotions and the mind in equal measure. In Jumpman, the former doesn’t figure.
This central metaphor of the film doesn’t aid in immersing us in Tverdovskiy’s world. It pulls us out of the film, compelling us to ponder its implications – which aren’t all that profound, either. The state of Russian national life, and its associated corruption, have been well-documented in various media forms, including through the cinema. But worse, the film makes no attempt to integrate its symbols and metaphors into its overall fabric. They stand out, unsubtle and obvious, almost condescendingly.
The courtroom scenes are a highlight of Jumpman. The accused – confined to a dock walled by glass – invariably yells out in protest at the testimonies of Denis and the doctors and the other witnesses. “He’s lying!” one of them screams in a fit of panic. Yet, the camera quickly moves on from them, gliding across the courtroom, observing those who have come for the conspiratorial purposes. They sit and stand quietly in contrast. Indeed, these scenes are delightfully reminiscent of Ruben Östlund’s 2017 Palme d’Or-winning The Square.
Jumpman is a deeply uneven film that has its moments of considerable insight. But these are too few and far between to call it a success.
Jumpman is screening as part of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival on 17th November at ACMI. The festival runs from 9th to 18th November.