Cannes courts controversy with film by pro-Putin auteur Mikhalkov
The passions blazing around pro-Putin auteur Nikita Mikhalkov’s inclusion in the line-up for this year's Cannes Film Festival are a reminder of the festival's balancing act of artistic and political priorities.
The announcement of films to be screened at the 63rd annual Cannes Film Festival incited the expected murmurs: Only one American vying for the Palme d’Or? Too many French entries! And what about China?
But amid the feverish gossip and griping that crescendoes in the weeks before the film world storms the French Riviera, one genuine controversy has emerged: Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, whose "Burnt by the Sun 2" (a sequel to 1994’s "Burnt by the Sun") was selected for competition this year, is under fire from colleagues who signed a petition denouncing him and critics who panned his film after its Moscow premiere last week.
The passions blazing around Mikhalkov’s inclusion in the line-up are a reminder of the Cannes Film Festival’s largely inscrutable balancing act of artistic and political priorities.
‘We Don’t Like Him’, petition declares
The backlash against Mikhalkov is steeped in his decade-long history as president of the Russian Filmmakers’ Union. An internationally renowned director of lavishly mounted, mostly mainstream films, Mikhalkov has seen his reputation tarnished by allegations of vote-manoeuvering in union elections and monopolizing government subsidies for filmmakers. Mikhalkov is on the board of trustees of the federal film-funding agency, which has an official policy of backing projects that promote national interests; it is thought to be no coincidence that his was one of a select group of eight production companies to corner 80% of the money allotted for Russian cinema in March.
Perhaps even more damning have been charges that the outspoken, mustachioed 64-year-old Mikhalkov is a blindly power-loving nationalist with authoritarian tendencies. The filmmaker – who comes from a well-heeled artistic family known for close ties with Russia’s ruling class before and after the Soviet collapse – cultivated warm relations with former President Boris Yeltsin, counts former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a personal friend, and has maintained a vocal belief in Russia’s greatness in spite of its stormy history.
In a recent interview with French magazine Télérama, Mikhalkov insisted that devotion to his country and its leaders has nothing to do with his art: “Does [my patriotism] change anything about my films?”, he challenged. Some of Mikhalkov’s better known work has indeed shown a willingness to bring Russian demons to light: "Burnt by the Sun" depicts characters betrayed by unfulfilled promises of a Stalinist utopia, while 2007’s "12" deals with the horrors of the Chechen wars and features a virulently anti-Semitic character.
Still, many are not convinced. According to prominent Russian film critic Andrei Plakhov, “most Russian critics think he was an important filmmaker in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but his latest films are not as good….They reflect his conservative views too much”.
Plakhov explained that while Russian culture has a past full of artists who remained independent from rulers, “there is also a Russian tradition of artists looking for close connections to power, and Mikhalkov follows this line”.
Plakhov’s was among 90 names figuring on the petition entitled “We Don’t Like Him!”, also signed by filmmakers like Alexander Sokourov, Youri Norstein, and Boris Khlebnikov. The text, which has been on the Web since early April, slams Mikhalkov for his “totalitarian management ”, “obsessive search for enemies within”, and for “the fact that free discussion and diversity of opinions…have been chased from the [Russian Filmmakers’] Union”.
‘Biggest fraud in Russian filmmaking’ brings different politics to Croisette
Film critic Plakhov says that Russian cinema circles don’t understand why "Burnt by the Sun 2" was included in this year’s Cannes competition. The film, which follows characters from the first installment through World War II, premiered in Moscow last week to a divided press: some critics praised grandly staged action scenes, but many others yawned and even scoffed through the three-hour, massive-budget film. One prominent radio critic deemed it “the biggest fraud in the history of Russian filmmaking”.
Moreover, Mikhalkov’s politics are somewhat of an anomaly for Cannes, a festival with a history of left-leaning, humanistic fare. Recent Palme d’Or winners told tales of early German fascism (2009’s "The White Ribbon"); an inner city Parisian school (2008’s "The Class"); illegal abortions in Romania (2007’s "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days"); Ireland’s fight for independence (2006’s "The Wind that Shakes the Barley"); a poverty-hit Belgian couple (2005’s "The Child"); and a morally corrupt US administration (2004’s "Fahrenheit 9/11"). This year will feature entries about economic desperation, France’s war with Algeria, and an outed CIA agent.
But the presence of Mikhalkov’s film at Cannes isn’t entirely surprising. The French passion for cinema has transcended ideological stripes before, with Clint Eastwood and Vincent Gallo among politically conservative auteurs honoured with in-competition slots at previous editions of the festival.
Indeed, Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux made no allusion to the Mikhalkov controversy at the press conference where this year’s line-up was announced, instead broadly emphasizing the artistic merits of a selection “composed exclusively of things we think will satisfy cinephilic appetites”.
Mikhalkov is no stranger to Cannes glory, having competed in 1987 with "Dark Eyes" and snagging a second-place Grand Jury Prize for "Burnt by the Sun" in 1994. That movie went on to win a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and the director’s work has made the rounds of international festivals over the last few decades. Mikhalkov is also a well-regarded actor, and stars in his new film. As Plakhov said, factors like these go a long way toward explaining why the director would be chosen at a festival such as Cannes.
“He’s a name, he has prizes, he has a special aura”, Plakhov noted. “And he’s the most charismatic person in Russian cinema”.