St. Petersburg Film Forum Presentation Leaves Guests Speechless

An over-the-top event at the former palace of Peter the Great dazzles guests while frustrating filmmakers.

As a ferry lurched across the choppy waters of the Neva river’s Gulf of Finland, en route to a special presentation at the historic island palace of Peter the Great on Wednesday night, a select group of guests at the second annual St. Petersburg Film Forum had no idea what to expect.

To get to Peterhof Palace, which was designed by Peter the Great himself (imagine a Russian Versailles, except bigger), guests were lead through the sprawling grounds of the compound by a group of masked figures dressed in elaborate 18th century costumes and playing marching band-style drums. It was the first glimpse of the over-the-top Russian pageantry that was to come.


What followed was a performance that left many guests searching for words. While many attendees were veterans of international film festivals, and thus used to elaborate presentations designed to impress, even the most jaded among them appeared shocked at the performance. 


Billed as a presentation of “an original baroque opera” that had been discovered in St. Petersburg’s musical archive, the performance included everything from classical music to electronica, performers on stilts - complete with giant bat-like wings (one of whome was dressed like Iron Man) - acrobats, ballerinas, a giant gold fish, a unicorn, oversized pink balloons and much, much more. 


Capped off by a fireworks display — despite the fact that it was still daylight at 9pm thanks to Russia’s famed “white nights” — and an elaborate fountain display, the event culminated in what the program described as “praise of greatness of the Emperor and the Glory of Russia.”


While it may have been lost on guests, the presentation actually told the story of Peter the Great’s triumph in the Northern War against Sweden in 1701.


What did it have to do with film? Not much, but most guests didn’t seem to care. 


“I’ve been to festivals all over the world – Cannes, Berlin, Venice – I’ve never seen any kind of spectacle like this. It was unreal,” said producer Harris Tulchin, who was in St. Petersburg in support of the Iraq war drama The Devil’s Double.


“It was kind of like the opening ceremony of a medieval Olympics or something,” added former MGM TV head Gary Marenzi, at the festival for the second time after attending last year’s inaugural event. “It was spectacular. If they had done one tenth of that show we still would have been blown away.”


You would think it might be hard to make an impression on a cinematographer, but Jose Luis Alcaine, in town for a screening of Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, which he lensed, said the performance reminded him of an epic movie. “It was spectacular, like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon,” he said. “Absolutely unbelievable.”


Devil’s Double star Dominic Cooper lauded the performance, but added that may actually have a negative impact on his appreciation of the arts going forward.


“It was so incredible I don’t know if I can every go to the opera again, or a wedding. I’m actually worried about my own wedding now,” he said with a laugh. “It was completely different, not like the art we’re used to. Everyone seemed awestruck by it.”


Not everyone was impressed however. A handful of filmmakers in attendance were baffled by what the event had to do with movies, and they made their discomfort clear.


“I wish they would put that much effort into the actual festival,” said one onlooker.


Added another less-than-thrilled helmer: “How can they do that but not have good sound quality at screenings?”


Still, by the time the evening was over, the party that followed the performance appeared to erase any ill will that the spectacle engendered. 


“I thought it was gaudy to be honest,” said one guest. “But the vodka is making me feel better about it.”

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