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As one of the certified monsters of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin, like his fellow crazed ideologue Adolf Hitler, exerts a powerful fascination for biographers and creators. The latest artist to fall under his dark spell is Fanny Ardant, best known as one of France’s leading actresses and now making her third attempt at establishing herself behind the camera. Given the resounding failure of her debut and sophomore offerings (her last film, 2014’s Obsessive Rhythms, was savaged by critics), it’s good to report that Ardant’s directing and screenwriting skills have improved considerably. Whether this progress, displayed in the telling of a crepuscular tale of psycho-political intrigue, can translate into box-office success is altogether more debatable.
Stalin (Gerard Depardieu) is holed up in one of his holiday homes in his native Georgia, a gloomy, baroque Bluebeard’s Castle of a setting, along with a retinue of guards, secret policemen, military advisers, servants, cooks and chamber maids, seeing out the last days of autumn 1950. The Korean war is raging in the background, but Stalin would rather tend to his gardens or his mistress, Lydia (Emmanuelle Seigner).
He is aging and in poor health. He is having bad dreams, often involving his late wife Nadia. Having read a magazine article about Sigmund Freud’s famous psychiatry couch at his London home and noted that his own couch is almost identically disposed, he suggests to Lydia that they indulge in some interpretation of dreams, following the indications of Freud’s book of the same name. He will lie on the couch and recount his dreams while Lydia is to provide the analysis.
In another part of the estate, Oleg Danilov (Paul Hamy), the Soviet Union’s most brilliant young artist, is kicking his heels, waiting for an audience with Stalin. He has been invited by the influential Lydia to present the Soviet leader with a project for a memorial artwork to be installed in his honor on Red Square. First, however, he must be interrogated by Stalin’s brutish bodyguard, Vlasik (Francois Chattot), who proves to know everything there is to know about Danilov, including things he doesn’t know himself.
Lydia, whose relationship with Stalin goes back 27 years, soon learns how dangerous it is to be privy to the dictator’s dreams. She finds Danilov’s company altogether more congenial and a platonic affair ensues. But there can be no secrets from Stalin, who naturally does not take too kindly to the presence of a much younger rival, and rare are those who cross Stalin and live to tell the tale.
Ardant’s adaptation of Jean-Daniel Baltassat’s novel Le Divan de Staline focuses on mood and atmosphere rather than action. Depardieu’s Stalin is a brooding, bilious and often unpredictable presence, and Ardant convincingly portrays the constant sense of menace and insecurity felt by everyone in his entourage. The frequent exchanges of ideas regarding, for example, the relative merits of truth and lies as the best policy in dealing with a dictator, make for leisurely pacing — probably too leisurely for popular audiences — but there’s plenty going on up on the screen to retain the spectator’s attention.
The occasional heavy-handed moments in the script are more than compensated for by Depardieu’s pitch-perfect performance capturing the blend of paranoia, sadism, cynicism and loneliness that marked the tyrant’s last years. Whether railing against the “bourgeois rubbish” purveyed by the “charlatan” Freud, sprawling in a bathtub while Lydia soaps him down or threatening murderous violence when he suspects her of lying to him, he dominates the screen. Seigner matches him as the former idealist, long given over to apathy, who finally decides to make a stand.
The tech credits are sound and Shostakovich and Prokoviev feature on the soundtrack, adding to the general “Russianness.” However, a special mention must go to the cinematography of Renaud Personnaz and Renato Berta, who make excellent use of the Bussaco Castle, near Coimbra in central Portugal, in particular the surrounding forests, which rustle and resound with the screams of foxes, owls and other wild animals. The greys and dark greens of the trees enveloped in the swirling autumnal mists add a magical folk-tale feeling worthy of the Brothers Grimm.
Production companies: Alfama Films, Leopardo Filmes
Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Emmanuelle Seigner, Paul Hamy, Francois Chattot, Tudor Istodor
Director, screenwriter: Fanny Ardant, adapted from Le Divan de Staline, by Jean-Daniel Baltassat
Producer: Paulo Branco
Director of photography: Renaud Personnaz, Renato Berta
Production designer: Paul Szabo
Costume designer: Lucha D’Orey
Editor: Julie Dupre
Sales: Alfama Films
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