Goodbye Lenin: Serebrennikov’s Vibrant Time Capsule More than a Feeling
Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s on-going house-arrest in Moscow lends his latest film, the period piece Summer (Leto) an even greater sense of rebellious urgency in relation to his country’s ongoing creative censorship and limited artistic freedom. A restless, roaming, effortless exploration of the punk music scene taking hold of 1980s Leningrad, Serebrennikov frames his narrative with a loose love triangle involving noted singer-songwriter Viktor Tsoi. Injecting this black and white odyssey with speckles of color plus a couple animated and inspired musical renditions of Talking Heads and Lou Reed tracks (among others) lends this odyssey the requisite textures to conjure the sentiments of a period, which for the most part, existed most vibrantly in the fantasies of those who lived it, allowed only an underground, one-way dialogue with influential trailblazers from the West.
In early 80s Leningrad, local musical sensation Mike (Roman Bilyk) is at the center of the burgeoning musical scene inspired by iconic titans like the Sex Pistols, Bowie, Lou Reed, Led Zeppelin, and other encroaching New Wave alums. Limited guidelines for their musical content, not to mention a lack of venues to perform for their eager audiences, newcomer Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) arrives during this influx to make a name for himself. Mike, excited by Viktor’s talents, attempts to inspire him with own tastes and significant knowledge. But it’s Mike’s wife Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum) who really attracts Viktor to remain part of their musical conquests. Slowly but surely, Viktor’s celebrity begins to eclipse Mike’s, while his dalliance with Natasha is stunted by her commitment to her husband and child.
Strangely, Serebrennikov’s Summer is an interesting conversation piece with Aleksei German Jr.’s Dovlatov (2018), set a decade earlier in Leningrad and focusing on the literary scene through the eyes of an equally ambitious author struggling to break through the censorship trappings which thwarted creative expression and individual thought. Notes of Footloose echo throughout the staged musical performances, where monitors quell anything close to dancing or sign holding from seated audience members of the Rock Club, a platform designed to show how the musical genre could be used to foster proper social sanctions, like any good propaganda machine is wont to do.
But Serebrennikov’s free-spiritedness evokes something more powerful in this shapeless, hazy narrative which at first concerns Mike and Natasha…and then Natasha and Viktor, before everything takes its logical course. Like a funky, punk-infused homage to Jules and Jim (1962), Serebrennikov channels a hybrid of something that feels both Old School and New Wave. The mournful omniscient narrator, credited as Skeptic (Alexander Kuznetsov) confirms after each inspired musical outburst “this never happened,” suggesting, perhaps, if anything like those moments ever had, Russia would have its own global reputation as a contemporary agent of rebellious, creative energy.
If Summer feels a bit slim on narrative, its potent energy more than makes up for the lack of usual dynamics which string together biopics and imagined romantic conflicts. And yet, the soulful longing shared by Irina Starshenbaum and Teo Yoo as Natasha and Viktor is conveyed with the kind of graceful aplomb (assisted with a melancholic gesture from Mike, attempting to orchestrate their consummation one rainy Russian night) to make us believe a song, and to that end, a film, could be structured quite easily around it. Lighter than Serebrennikov’s previous efforts, including the extra-marital affair drama Betrayal (2012) and his uncomfortable and subversive religious themed The Student (read review – 2016), Summer should finally elevate the director’s international status.
Reviewed on May 10th at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival – Competition. 126 Minutes