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An operatic thriller about the staging of an opera in contemporary Moscow, The Queen of Spades feels at times almost like a Russian-language remake of Darren Aronofsky’s lurid ballet-themed psychodrama Black Swan. Director Pavel Lungin co-wrote the screenplay with David Seidler, who earned an Oscar for The King’s Speech. They borrow their title, key characters and selective plot elements from two related sources: Alexander Pushkin’s supernatural short story, first published in 1834, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s 1890 opera of the same name.
A film festival regular and one-time best director prize-winner in Cannes, Lungin has penned librettos for operas and orchestral pieces before. His musical passion clearly shines through during the film’s operatic sequences, which are staged with great panache and energy. Premiering this week in the main competition strand at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, The Queen of Spades is hardly subtle, but its juicy combination of technical polish, bloodthirsty action and lusty romantic melodrama could well lure a curious niche audience globally. Its next scheduled festival stopover is next month in Macau.
After decades in self-imposed exile, legendary soprano Sofia Meyer (Kseniya Rappoport) returns to Moscow to rebuild her reputation by directing and starring in The Queen of Spades, the Tchaikovsky opera which made her famous. To help realize her grand schemes, she recruits wealthy oligarchs, shady gangsters and her grudgingly cooperative twentysomething niece Lisa (Mariya Kurdenovich). Sofia also sees potential in Lisa’s broodingly intense boyfriend Andrey (Ivan Yankovsiy), an amateur tenor who has idolized the diva all his life.
Gifted with the freakish ability to shatter glass with his powerful voice ever since he was pushed into a frozen lake as a child, the obsessive Andrey slowly insinuates his way into the playing the male lead in The Queen of Spades. A Machiavellian manipulator with a heart of ice, Sofia initiates her young disciple into a glamorous late-night shadow world of illegal high-stakes casinos, where he soon develops a gambling addiction and unwisely makes Faustian deals with brutal gangland godfathers. Sofia then seduces Andrey in full view of Lisa, creating an explosive sexual tension which reaches its murderous crescendo when all three are onstage during the climactic opera scenes.
The Queen of Spades has a kind of fruity, oversaturated, borderline-camp mania that feels all too Russian at first. The opening act will test viewer endurance with its soapy emotional dynamics and broad-bush archetypes, especially Sofia, a cackling femme fatale who appears to be channeling Cruella de Vil. But Lungin is no amateur, and the torrid tone starts making more sense as the story evolves beyond realism into something more artfully stylized. Recurring flashbacks to Andrey’s nightmarish plunge into the icy lake and a scene involving the jealous Lisa smashing up a gallery of mannequins are strong visual set-pieces.
But most impressive are the opera extracts, sumptuously mounted and kinetically shot, with cameras whirling and swooping around an eye-catching modernist stage set adorned with super-sized flowers and gravity-defying plumes of playing cards. Climaxing with buckets of blood, crimes of passion, extended musical passages and more moral ambiguity than either Pushkin or Tchaikovsky could muster, The Queen of Spades falls somewhere between a rich sensory feast and a guilty pleasure.
Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn
Production companies: Art Pictures Studio, Barter Films, Eclectic Films
Cast: Kseniya Rappoport, Ivan Yankovskiy, Igor Mirkurbanov, Mariya Kurdenevich, Evgeny Zelensky
Director: Pavel Lungin
Screenwriters: Pavel Lungin, David Seidler
Producers: Fedor Bondarchuk, Pavel Lungin, Evgeniy Panfilov, Dmitriy Rudovskiy
Cinematographers: Levan Kapanadze, Grigoriy Yablochnikov
Editor: Karolina Machiewska
Production designer: Pavel Parkhomenko
Music: Angelo Giovagnoli
Sales company: Art Pictures Media
Not rated, 120 minutes
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