Cannes review: 'Leto', Soviet Russia’s summer of love and rock 'n' roll
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Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov was barred from attending, but his nostalgic ode to the budding years of Soviet underground rock, “Leto”, has given the Cannes Film Festival a welcome jolt.
With festival organisers opting for a refreshing crop of newcomers this year, much has been said about who isn’t coming to Cannes: notable absentees include the big Hollywood studios (because May is bad timing for the Oscars and their films get panned here anyway), TV upstarts Netflix (because their contempt for the big screen doesn’t go down well in the country that invented cinema), and – for obvious reasons – Harvey Weinstein.
And then there are those who would no doubt love to be here, but are barred from doing so by their own governments. They include Iran’s dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi, whose latest undercover work will be screened later in the festival, and Russia’s outspoken theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov, whose rock-infused love triangle “Leto”, set in the twilight of the Brezhnev era, screened to hearty applause on Thursday.
Even if wins the Palme d’Or, Serebrennikov will not be making the trip to the French Riviera as he is currently under house arrest in Russia under fraud charges, which critics say are politically-motivated. Festival organisers have pleaded for his release, only for a Moscow judge to extend the director’s house arrest in what looked every bit like sticking a finger up at Cannes.
"Leto" (summer, in English) is the first film by the Russian director to earn a slot in Cannes’ main competition. It follows his 2016 hit “The Student”, about a contemporary Bible-spouting teen at war with liberal thought and “decadent” education. That film took aim at the increasing clericalism and intolerance of Putin’s Russia. This time we’re in the very different context of Brezhnev’s rigid “era of stagnation”, but youth rebellion is still in the cards.
One thing Putin’s Russia increasingly shares with the Brezhnev era is its resentment of the West. In “Leto”, what unites the protagonists is a shared fascination for Western music, from rock classics to punk and new wave, highlighting the part played by British and American artists from Bowie to Blondie in inspiring youth counterculture and subverting the Soviet political order.
The action is set in Leningrad (today’s Saint Petersburg) in the early 1980s, with Soviet order fossilised but still firmly in place. Glasnost and perestroika are yet to happen, and all television sets have to offer are speeches by Brezhnev, orchestral renditions of the Soviet anthem, and newsreels about the latest extraordinary wheat harvest. As for the rock scene, it has little in common with that of Western musical biopics: no drugs, no sex, no guitar-smashing – except in one of several thrilling dips into fantasy. Lyrics are censored and the venues where bands play are monitored by party officials who ensure all fans can do is applaud politely and gently tap their toes .
“Leto” follows the emergence of Soviet rock legend Viktor Tsoï, played by South Korean actor Teo Yoo, and his relationship with fellow musician and mentor Mike Naoumenko. Serebrennikov has tapped contemporary singer Roman Bilyk to play Mike, whose dominance over Leningrad’s music scene and somewhat un-rock-star-like monogamous love life is challenged by Viktor’s arrival. Instead of defending his turf, Mike takes Viktor under his wing, allowing him into the limelight – and into his family life. Irina Starshenbaum stars as Mike’s devoted wife Natacha, who soon succumbs to Viktor’s wistful streak.
There isn’t much else to the plot in what is essentially a work of nostalgia for an age of bootleg LPs and home-made albums. The film poignantly conveys the heady kick of freedom Serebrinnokov’s generation got from their musical heros. Shot in pristine black-and-white, it is peppered with the occasional hallucinatory blurb of colour, with on-screen lyrics this time replacing the on-screen scripture from “The Student”. Frequently chaotic, the movie reflects the tension between the protagonists’ yearning for free artistic expression and their instinct to suffocate it. The pent-up energy and frustration are regularly released in stage-like hallucinatory interludes reminiscent of Fassbinder’s theatre.
A spirited work, “Leto” will send rock aficionados scrambling for a soundtrack (in punk or ballad, Russian truly rocks). But there is also a melancholic suggestion that Soviet Russia’s budding rock scene perhaps never fully blossomed, a sense of incompleteness best illustrated by the artists’ tragically short lives (both died just after the Berlin Wall came down). Mike, in particular, spends more time copying Western work than creating something new. There are no copyright issues on this side of the Iron Curtain. Not that he would want to try his luck on the other side. As he puts it, “It’s okay to remain in the swamp, as long as you’re the number-one toad.”