Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov is one of two directors banned from attending this year’s Cannes Film Festival by his government (Iranian Jafar Panahi is the other). His previous feature “The Student” won the prize of the A Certain Regard section of the festival in 2016. Serebrennikov, also a theater director and outspoken dissident, now languishes under house arrest, accused of corruption, while his new film “Leto” (or “Summer”) plays in competition in Cannes.
“Leto,” a rousing experience, is a drama-comedy-musical paean to the early-80s era of Russian underground rock. Serebrennikov’s young protagonists are would-be stars, composing songs while working mundane day jobs and playing by night in what appears to be the scene’s sole rock club, overseen by the Party and subject to censorship. These ambitious, naïve wannabes are heavily influenced by the Western bands and artists that had become their idols, including David Bowie, T-Rex, the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground, the Talking Heads, Ziggy Pop, and more.
“Leto” is based in part on the early career of Russian rock pioneer Viktor Tsoi, although it’s not at all necessary to know that. It’s not even necessary to be familiar with the music of the Western bands referenced, although most viewers will be. In fact, greater knowledge may get in the way of allowing this film’s melodic, danceable tunes to stand on their own in the context of the story. The film vibrates with music, but is simultaneously heavy with nostalgia and a sense of loss. It’s a love triangle, a story of struggle, of conflicted loyalties, and most of all a story of passion for a whole package of things in life that may be out of reach for most of these young rockers.
Director Serebrennikov cuts loose stylistically, making “Leto” in effect a musical, starting with a scene at a beachfront picnic, where Mike (Roman Bilyk), the hero of this loose group of band members and friends, begins a song, and suddenly it’s a staged number with backup singers in three-part harmony. Two strangers with guitars show up to pay homage to Mike, and to try out one of their own songs. Viktor (Teo Yoo), a self-possessed, tousle-haired Asian guy, is the composer and lead singer of this band of two that doesn’t even have a name or a drummer.
It’s early in the film, but Viktor’s first song is the key spark that sets the rest of the plot in motion. The song is rough but it has the galvanizing, sing-along quality of an anthem, and these disenfranchised, alienated twenty-somethings do join in—passionately, energetically, as if their lives depended on it. This is a small but singularly galvanizing moment. Mike, standing at the edge of the group sees the future and his own eclipse. Mike’s loyal, sexy wife Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum), mother of their toddler son, sees it too. Showing surprising depth of character, Mike becomes Viktor’s mentor. Natasha longs to become his lover.
“Leto” has the feeling of a profoundly personal story for Serebrennikov, and its emphasis is primarily on the dynamics of relationships in music. The politics of the time come to the fore very little, and then are treated lightly. The rock club has a female boss who is apparently the go-between with Party officials. Musicians submit their lyrics to her for advance approval prior to being allowed to perform. “Soviet musicians must find all that’s good in humanity,” she scolds, as Viktor and Mike defend Viktor’s line, “I’m a slacker, ooh ooh, Mama, Mama.” “I added the Mama,” says Mike helpfully.
“Leto” is shot in wide-screen black-and-white, with selected color inserts and accents. Scratch-animation is one of the film’s most dynamic strategies, visually overlaying and conceptually underlining the rhythms of many live-action musical numbers with rude and funny illustrations—haloes and rocket ships, lightning bolts, lyrics, arrows, crazy faces, and more. Each one of these hybrid animation sequences is a kickass gem, a set of music videos within the film. Serebrennikov makes it matters not a bit that the songs are derivative and emanating from what was for its time the rock backwater of the world.
Memory, longing, regret, and love figure into “Sorry Angel,” set in 1993, against the background of the AIDS crisis in Paris, a film that director Christophe Honoré (“Sophie’s Misfortunes”) states that he made out of “a desire for consolation.” Jacques (Pierre Delandonchamps), a handsome and worldly published novelist in his late-thirties, is HIV-positive but still healthy. He knows he’s living on borrowed time, and his resistance to new romance is challenged when he meets Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), a young man only beginning to fully acknowledge his attraction to men.
In the film’s press notes, Honoré wrote, ”I wanted to use fiction to bring back to life the student I was at the time and revive the figure of the writer that I would have dreamed of meeting, which never happened.” “Sorry Angel” boasts an elegant, frank eroticism in its portrayal of sex, but the bonds of friendship, companionship and encompassing love are its overriding themes. Jacques and Arthur each live multi-faceted lives that include relationships with both men and women. Jacques has a congenial female ex with whom he shares co-parenting of their young son; Arthur has a girlfriend.
“Sorry Angel” meanders and sometimes plods, but Honoré has created some powerfully standout sequences. Jacques brings a former lover in the last stages of AIDS to stay briefly at his apartment because he has nowhere else to go. He holds the emaciated, bruised man in his arms in the bathtub, tenderly caressing and bathing him and kissing his cheeks in what both know will be the last act of their friendship. Much later, when Jacques himself is suffering the debilitating effects of AIDS, a homemade dinner with Arthur at the apartment of Jacques’ best friend Mathieu (Denis Podalydes) is followed by too much hard cider and silly dances in the living room, as Arthur and middle-aged Mathieu perform pantomimes to pop music while Jacques, the IV plugged into his arm, laughs with pleasure and abandon.
The festival’s A Certain Regard sidebar can always be counted on to deliver the adventurous, unusual, out-there films if they are to be found. There are dissidents, like the former Soviet rock bands in “Leto,” and then there are true outsiders, like Tina (Eva Melander), of “Gränz” or “Border,” by Ali Abbassi (“Shelley”).
“Border” first appears to be a naturalistic drama about an odd-looking and ungainly woman with a unique talent suited to her job as a customs inspector at a Swedish ferry port. She has a sense of smell so acute that she can sniff out “shame, guilt, rage,” as she explains to a superior, even discovering a phone card containing child pornography by smelling the offender’s phone. Off-duty, she visits her father in a nursing home, lives with a redneck roommate who dotes on his three prize-winning pit bulls, and takes long walks in the woods, where she has an exceptional affinity for wild animals. This is only the beginning, as “Border” takes a slow sly slide into the fantastical genre to become a fairy tale; not a pastel lace-winged fairy tale, but the dark kind, not meant for children.
One day, Tina detains a man passing through her workstation, and although he proves innocent of smuggling there is something that troubles her. For one thing, this man Vore (Eero Milonoff) echoes her own appearance so closely that he could be a relative. He has the same, puffy florid face, the bulging brow that renders his eyes recessed slits, and the same thick stubby body.
She pursues him out of curiosity, and then out of newfound friendship and wary attraction. They both have unusual scars and are afraid of lightning. They will turn out to have more in common, what Tina refers to as “chromosomal abnormalities,” but there’s much that she has yet to discover about herself and about Vore when they become lovers in a fierce, growling, drooling act of copulation that holds surprises.
Director Abbassi, who has dealt with out-of-this-world concepts before in “Shelley,” has a delicate balance to maintain as the story becomes more chameleon-like and outlandish. There’s lyrical romance at one point, investigative mystery, and talk of revenge and world domination. It’s not a comedy, but there are funny moments, and it’s not clear to what extent this is intentional. The film has a major reveal, which can’t be described here without giving away too much. Rest assured it’s a whopper of a piece of critical information that today’s audience wasn’t going to swallow without a huge burst of laughter. Once the truth is out, it’s clear that “Border” really is about borders, be they between human and non-human or between right and wrong.