- Branded by Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn
Branded is a heavy-handed critique of late capitalism’s manipulation and alienation of desire through advertising. The innovation (or novum) of the film is, when ‘alienating’ desire, to embody it as aliens: cartoonish, pulsating and parasitic, this visual metaphor is both the best thing about the film and the mark of its failure.
The plot is a fairly typical solo-messiah deal. The film opens with the names of historically great individuals flashing on-screen, followed by the claim that each ‘heard a voice’, ‘saw things others couldn’t see’ and so ‘changed the world’. From here on in, we never stray far from the ‘great individual’ model of history, which plays conveniently into the film’s vision of social power and control – the great masses are manipulable herds, and only a few individuals in positions of influence can see what’s ‘really going on’. We first briefly meet our protagonist, Mischa (Aleksandr Dulerayn, Jr), as a young child in dark, deprived, huddling-masses early 1980s Moscow, where he is struck by lightning. Cut to the present day, and now Mischa (Ed Stoppard) is a slick businessman in a modernised, capitalist Moscow stuffed with billboards and traffic jams. He has grown up to be an advertising genius, frustrated by the nepotism of a company that uses his creativity but does not reward him with the big bucks (ah, Russia!). The story follows him as he plays an unwitting role in a secret fast-food industry plot (orchestrated by another – nameless – advertising guru played by Max von Sydow, whose scenes all take place on some generic James Bond Villain Island Base) to turn the public against the skinny aesthetic and back onto their products. The upshot is that a girl falls into a coma, Fat becomes Beautiful, and Mischa, bearing the blame, is forced to retreat to the countryside, where he has a vision and sacrifices a cow. Back in Moscow, he can now see people’s desires captured and twisted by the various brands (they manifest as colourful pulsing worms rooted in people’s necks, and have large ‘parent’ versions living on top of the brand outlets). This brief section of the film is the best bit; from here on in it goes a bit loopy. No one believes Mischa, so he goes back into advertising and sells aggressive marketing strategies to all the major brands, causing the parent brand-beings to attack one another in a giant Hobbesian monster-off. One by [End Page 287] one they fall. Finally, for reasons never fully explained, the public begin to protest for a ban on advertising (going as far as extremist groups and bombings), the governments of the world bow to the pressure, and there is a happy-everafter, closing on the heavily symbolic image of the coma victim awakening and stumbling out into the dawn of a city cleansed of branding. The plot, perhaps appropriately, is stitched together by a female voice-over that sounds like it was designed to soothe frustrated business executives in expensive spas.
The loud and clear message of the film concerns the insidious power of advertising – it presents Lenin (another Great Man) as the originator of ‘advertising as the sale of happiness’, rather than the sale of a product as such. It paints advertising as a dictatorship of desire, and holds it up as inimical to democracy rather than an expression of it (we are led to disagree with one character who claims ‘Democracy is about business, advertising, Coke vs. Pepsi’). The film suggests that Russia threw off one dictatorship, only to yoke itself to another – ‘we are still living in the world Lenin created’, as Mischa puts it. Against this insidious dictatorship of desire the film posits an ideal pairing: an individual’s freedom to act and think without manipulation and the idea of natural or ‘authentic’ desires. The monadic individual is the film’s paramount ideal, and at its heart is a belief that, if we were not manipulated...