Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s latest, the aptly titled Leto (Summer), is a helium-light work about scruffy young Soviets in 1980 making music, partying, flirting and quietly defying the state, roughly in that order. Certainly, it’s a much more jovial affair than his last, The Student, a portrait of a religious teenager whose fundamentalist zealotry spreads like a contagion to society around him. This time the young people are the good guys, determined to smuggle the rebellious spirit of Western rock, punk and New Wave music into a pre-perestroika Leningrad that’s still highly repressive.
Politics and ideology are only peripheral concerns here, treated by the characters — who are based on real Soviet pop stars Viktor Tsoi of the band Kino and Mike Naumenko of Zoopark — as sort of a fuddy-duddy joke. What an irony it is that this is one of two films screening in competition at Cannes this year made by a filmmaker living under house arrest imposed by a repressive regime. (The other one is Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces.)
Serebrennikov, who has long pushed the boundaries of the prudish Russian state with edgy material, was arrested for what sounds like trumped-up claims of embezzling state funds intended for the Moscow theater he directs. His house arrest began last summer when there were just a few more days of shooting left for the film. Luckily, the production could wrap without him, and he was allowed to oversee postproduction while still incarcerated at home — although co-star Roma Zver, who is also one of the film’s music producers, talks in the film’s press notes about the oddness of not being able to contact Serebrennikov to get his input on the music edit.
Despite these absurd challenges, the film itself doesn’t feel like the work borne of hardship or strain, although, like so many Russian movies these days, it sometimes drags and drifts a bit too much, testing the shorter attention spans of Western viewers and overindulging its own whimsies.
That latter point is demonstrated in the cutesy musical interludes in which the characters and extras around them break into song with cover versions of famous pop tunes, such as “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads (or, as one guy calls them in the English subtitles, the “Heads That Talk”) or an on-the-nose choice of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” sung on a Leningrad tram. At first, it’s fun to see wizened babushkas and toothless drunks singing the “la-la-la” and “fa-fa-fa-fa” parts of the songs, but the gag gets a bit stale the third and fourth time around. Same goes for the overlaid animated drawings that decorate the action, little curlicues and graffiti-style scribbles in both English and Russian that have a retro charm at first but by and by start to evoke A-Ha’s “Take on Me,” and not in an entirely good way. In fact, European and American viewers may find the Russian’s taste in Western music a little baffling in its eclecticism, especially when they seem to put The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and Billy Joel (!) all in the same bracket of admired artists.
All the same, the karaoke moments might be precisely the bits that go down best with domestic audiences, and even more so when it comes to the songs sung here by the young versions of Viktor Tsoi (Korean star Teo Yoo, best known for Kim Ki-Duk’s One on One and Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching) and Mike Naumenko (Zver, a contemporary pop star in his own right). Inspired by stories of Tsoi and Naumenko’s first meeting and youthful friendship as told by Naumenko’s widow, Natalya, renamed here Natasha and played by charismatic Irina Starshenbaum, the film tells their story as one of camaraderie triumphing over rivalry. In fact, when Natasha confesses to an urge to kiss Viktor, possibly the film’s most emotionally charged moment, Mike tells her to go ahead.
Many viewers will no doubt wince at the idea of a woman needing permission from her husband, but perhaps we can let it slide as an accurate reflection of the era’s patriarchal mores. Indeed, making allowances and compromises is an important part of the story. In one scene, a venue manageress coaches Viktor and his guitarist, Lenya (Philipp Avdeev) on how to present their songs about being workshy and dating eighth graders (this really was the early 1980s) as satirical dramatic personae in order to get around the censorious views of their moral overlords. After all, loyal supporters of Comrade Brezhnev would never approve of any musical celebrations of laziness or underage sex.
Not a lot actually happens in Leto. There are some beautifully fluid performance sequences and many scenes of the ensemble boozing, jabbering and jamming spontaneously in dilapidated apartments with peeling paint but lofty ceilings and fireplaces any Architectural Digest subscriber would give their right leg for. At heart, it’s more concerned with capturing the feel of the early ‘80s, the paranoia but also spirit of communal life in crowded apartment blocks.
Visually, it all feels quite deliberate, tightly choreographed and carefully lit by DP Vladislav Opelyants (who also shot The Student). For the most part, the film unfolds in luscious black and white, apart from a few Super 8mm-style inserts in the music sections. Given Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is also a study in monochrome, do two films both playing in Cannes competition make a trend? Even though both are period dramas, the grayness of their palettes seems oddly appropriate to these grim times.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competition)
Production: A Hype Film in co-production with Kinovista
Cast: Teo Yoo, Roma Zver, Irina Starshenbaum, Philipp Avdeev, Evgeniy Servin, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Vasily Mikhailov, Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Nikita Yefremov
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenwriters: Mikhail Idov, Lily Idova, Kirill Serebrennikov, based on the memories of Natalia Naumenko
Producers: Ilya Stewart, Murad Osmann, Pavel Buria, Mikhail Finogenov
Co-producer: Charles-Evrard Tchekhoff
Director of photography: Vladislav Opelyants
Production designer: Andrey Ponkratov
Costume designer: Tatiana Dolmatovskaya
Editor: Yurii Karih
Music producers: Roma Zver, German Osipov