Still Art House after All These Years: Perceptions of Russian Cinema Abroad
At a recent domestic film event, one prominent Russian film critic recalled a recent article in a French newspaper. The piece compared the cinematography of Everybody Dies But Me, a film by young Russian director Valeriya Gai Germanika screened at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, to the camera work in the movies of Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky.
The comparison serves as an example to illustrate how Russian cinema is viewed abroad, where critics’ perceptions of a “Russian cinematic style” are still dominated by the auteur films of the 1970s and 1980s (read: deeply art house). Today, the endurance of such outdated stereotypes about Russian film have become limiting and inaccurate, to say the least. More specifically, they have made it harder for other kinds of Russian films to attract viewership and attention abroad.
If we look at domestic films that have collected international prizes over the last few years — or have, at least, been invited to major international festivals — we see that just about all of them fall into the “art house” category. Some of them bear similarities — on the aesthetic side, primarily — to films by Tarkovsky, arguably Russia’s most internationally recognized film director of the 20th century. Others of them could easily be interpreted along the lines of the stereotype of “a mysterious Russian soul.” Sometimes, the boundaries between these two categories are blurred.
For example, Vozvrashcheniye [The Return] by Andrei Zvyagintsev, which won the main prize at Venice in 2003 — the highest achievement of a film by a Russian director in this decade so far — employs Tarkovsky-like visuals (e.g., long takes, careful work with colors etc.) as well as an element of “mystery” about its characters and the relationships among them. Anna Melikyan’s Rusalka [Mermaid], which collected the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Panorama prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and the directing award at Sundance this year, tells the story of a girl who, again, could easily be seen as a mysterious Russian soul.
The biggest problem here is that movies from Russia that are not in line with foreigners’ stylistic expectations for Russian film are often overlooked at an international level. As a result, movies that do not fit squarely into the art-house mold and that may have some broader commercial appeal have few chances of being seen by international festival crowds, let alone by regular filmgoers through commercial theatrical release abroad.
That said, the situation seems to have begun to change, albeit slowly. A recent landmark example was Timur Bekmambetov’s Nochnoy Dozor [The Night Watch], which was commercially released in a number of foreign countries, including the United States and Great Britain. (Bekmambetov’s name may be more familiar to foreigners thanks to his first Hollywood effort, Wanted, starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, and Morgan Freeman, which was released internationally in summer 2008.)
The very fact that a Russian “blockbuster” was released in markets heavily focused on Hollywood cinema is certainly positive for the domestic film industry and may be the first step toward changing perceptions of Russian cinema as predominantly art house and hardly anything else.
Even though Nochnoy Dozor’s box office performance in the U.S. and U.K. was not particularly good, the first step has been made. Now we’ll have to see if within a few years there will be more Russian commercial movies that will break through to foreign mass audiences. If that happens, perceptions of cinema coming from Russia may also begin to change.