The setting is an alternate history, all steampunk design and Edwardian-style machinery. The heroine is a girl robbed of her father and doing battle with sinister forces hell bent on thwarting her prophesied destiny. But this isn’t His Dark Materials, it’s Abigail, arguably the most audaciously commercial film to come out of Russia this year. It may be Russian-produced, but its language is English and one of its stars is English actor Eddie Marsan, a veteran of more down-to-earth dramas directed by Mike Leigh.
Anyone expecting Russian cinema to be strictly art-house, in the tradition of Eisenstein, Tarkovsky and Zvyagintsev, might be surprised at such blatant crowd-pleasing. Yet recent years have seen a wave of big-budget, CGI-laden Russian movies, from space-race sagas such as The Spacewalker and Salyut 7 to aliens landing in Moscow in Attraction.
Abigail is one of the more mainstream titles at London’s Russian Film Week, whose 50-plus screenings seem to promise tantalising insights into the nation’s culture, psychology and even politics. But, given the dependence on state funding in Russian cinema and the censorship around any criticism of Vladimir Putin, can they?
It is nevertheless fascinating and rewarding to glimpse the lives of a nation often viewed with suspicion in the west played out on a cinematic mosaic of workplaces, apartment interiors and troubled marriages. And there are nods aplenty to what the Russians call spetsifika, the distinct character of their homeland.
The ghost of Chekhov haunts Konstantin Khudyakov’s End of Season, the story of three sisters marooned in a country house and pining for Moscow. Anna, Elena and Vera even joke about the echoes of Three Sisters in their lives and, like the play’s titular heroines, they find diversion from their dull lives in the arrival of enigmatic military men.
The film teases viewers’ expectations too, by co-opting Chekhov’s dramatic principle that if a gun is seen in Act One, it has to be used by Act Three. But how, and by whom?
If there is any political subtext in End of Season, it may lie in the fact that the country house isn’t in Russia but in Lithuania, which still has a substantial Russian population and was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Could the homesick sisters’ “exile” be read as nostalgia for the former USSR?
Three women are also at the forefront of Maria Agranovich’s Love Them All. Their names, Vera, Nadezhda and Lyubov, mean faith, hope and love. The twist is that they are all actually the same woman, the alter-egos being part of her plot to extract “a million dollars” from each man she manipulates. She even coaches a young apprentice in how to seduce older men like her sugar-daddy Gleb, a yacht-owning oligarch with a chauffeured limousine.
Agranovich’s film is a riposte to the fairytale of Pretty Woman and a pessimistic essay on what constitutes “agency” for women in a highly patriarchal nation. It takes aim at the corrupting grip of money in a society where a tiny minority enjoys unimaginable wealth. Yet it’s hard to say whether it celebrates the outsmarting of rich men, or still cleaves to the idea of dependency. Either way, it’s a bitter parable about what desperate people will do to escape poverty.
Poverty and ill-gotten riches also drive the plot of Great Poetry, a violently macho tale about two cash-delivery guards. Viktor, traumatised after fighting in Ukraine, wants to write war poetry, while his ex-army mate Lyokha fancies himself as a rapper. Against a bleak backdrop — half-built apartment blocks on the wind-blasted fringe of an unnamed city — their hardscrabble lives contrast starkly with the cynical Tyspin (“love is just chemicals”), the banker whose millions they protect.
Other films pay tribute to Russians’ reverence for high culture. In The Van Goghs, artist Mark lives in the shadow of his father Viktor, a celebrated conductor. As Viktor succumbs to dementia, Mark grapples with grief and recrimination, accusing his father of neglect. At the same time, the film allows for the notion of art being a higher calling than fatherhood. Similarly, Sabre Dance does for Khachaturian what Julian Barnes’s book The Noise of Time did for Shostakovich, depicting the political pressure on the Armenian composer to write music for his ballet Gayane that Stalin’s censors would deem ideologically sound.
A lighter-hearted affair is the festival’s opening gala film The Peasant. Here a spoilt young playboy (another swipe at Russia’s new rich) is magicked back to 1860 and a life of serfdom. Only not quite: in Truman Show fashion, the entire village is a film set with hidden cameras, and every one of the villagers is an actor. Anyone versed in Russian history will detect a nod to Potemkin villages, the showcase façades built to impress Catherine the Great.
One film sadly missing from Russian Film Week is the acclaimed Beanpole by 28-year-old Kantemir Balagov, winner of the Best Director award in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year. Also coinciding with RFW is Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev, a US/German-made documentary that trades on nostalgia for a lost era of improving east-west relations. But with Gorbachev despised by many in Russia, it is a film, sadly, that could hardly have been made in his homeland. Surely, one regret for western Russia-watchers is the lack of similarly probing offerings from the country itself.
November 24-December 1; russianfilmweek.org
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