Death of a Poet
The news about the death of Alexey Balabanov fell like a heavy burden — although even those who were not in his inner circle were somehow aware of its imminence. Balabanov was preparing himself and others for it. He sent himself, a member of the European Film Academy, into the light with his final film, Me Too (2012). He hinted at his possible death in his last interviews, warning that we shouldn’t expect “any more new Balabanov films.” At the same time, he completed a screenplay and was preparing for two additional projects. His health even seemed to improve, and he started to show interest in previously-hated trips abroad. Mexico? I’ll go. Transylvania, Dracula’s birthplace? These are my characters. I’ll go.But he didn’t go. He didn’t make any new films either, and now he never will. But what he did make in his 20-something-year filmmaking career will keep us deep in thought for a long time. Balabanov is a classic example of the so called “cursed poet.” At the same time, he is the only national hero of modern Russian cinematic folklore. He is the sole creator of the post-Soviet mythology — the mythology of “the brotherhood.” This mythology is not global, but at the same time, it is not as limited to Russia as some would wish. This mythology is criminalized, like the criminal culture itself, while nevertheless maintaining the “ideals and codes of the underworld.”
Balabanov’s first two films, Happy Days (1991, adapted from Samuel Beckett) and The Castle (1994, adapted from Franz Kafka) had remote, purely metaphorical connections to Russia. They were filled with the absurdity of timelessness. They invoked a feeling of claustrophobia, and at the same time, the terror of freedom. Balabanov’s knowledge of European languages and cultures made him stand out among fellow directors of his generation. He was embedded in the St. Petersburg landscape, but belonged to the “Leningrad School” solely due to his address, rather than his nature. His aesthetic challenge, his artistic universe fully matured in the decadent masterpiece Of Freaks and Men (1998). Balabanov’s filmography can be divided into two parts: before and after Brother (1997). Brother’s main character, Danila Bagrov, is blinded by love for his brother and sensitive to art — as represented by the rock group Nautilus Pompilius — but he nevertheless transforms into a cold-blooded killer. Various political forces — leftists, nationalists, and government election campaigns — tried to use the image of this most provocative character of the seminal Russian film of the 1990s, who was again presented to the international public in Brother 2 (2000). But they failed, as they always do, by trying to unite politics with “big art.” Balabanov still belongs to “pure art,” and he has made an impact like few others have.Just as it is for the “cursed poet,” national triumph comes at a high price. Since 2000, Balabanov and his faithful producer Sergei Selyanov have been haunted by a series of fatalities. Projects were cancelled, and the leading actress in their unfinished Siberian epic film The River (2002) died in a car accident. Balabanov himself, along with his wife/costume designer Nadezhda Vasilyeva, suffered heavy injuries in the same accident. After his provocative, politically incorrect movie War (2002) came the tragedy of Karmadon Gorge, in which Russian cinema’s most charismatic actor, Brother star Sergei Bodrov, Jr., was lost in a fatal rock slide. Perhaps this series of events prevented the Selyanov-Balabanov studio from becoming a professional film school, as originally intended.
Having overcome the Karmadon tragedy, Balabanov showed the bewildered public his comic side in Dead Man’s Bluff (2005). He appeared tender and somewhat sentimental in It Doesn’t Hurt (2006). Then, suddenly came Cargo 200 (2007), in which one pathological instance becomes an example of the social subconsciousness that matures under the “superstate society,” one that sends its children to the slaughter of war while killing time with idle drunken chatter in the City of the Sun. Cargo 200 provides the key to the meaning of Balabanov’s entire creative endeavor: transgression, going beyond the limits, which is most often achieved through sexual perversion, violence, alcohol, or drugs. But transgression also happens as a result of sudden societal mutation, when the Soviet past resembles a decaying corpse, spellbinding and repulsive at the same time. This is what forms our modern, stagnant Neo-Soviet style. Balabanov is by nature as an artist a radical conservative, a contradictory but extremely productive combination. It forces us to compare him to Dostoyevsky or John Ford, since for Balabanov what is important is not the social universe of discourse, but the moral one. But even this conclusion is amended through his latest masterpieces, Morphia (2009) and The Stoker (2010). Balabanov’s expressions become more and more intimate — as intimate as possible, in fact — in Me Too (2012). He becomes increasingly preoccupied with thoughts about God, although I am not sure it should be spelled with a capital letter. In Me Too, the relationship between the characters, God and Death is almost familial, in the spirit of folk religions rather than official ones. The ragged frame of the bell tower, the dilapidated church with worn-out frescos — this is the corporeal and ghostly world that Balabanov so masterfully and thoroughly portrays. In the St. Petersburg section of the film, one can see the surrounding harshness, but at the same time, as you fail to escape the semitransparent trains running back and forth, you are surrounded by the feeling that somewhere around here, sometime in the past, someone has lived through happier days. Everyone wants a part of this happiness, and vaguely suspects that it can be attained in a different, better world. But that world does not accept everyone; the competition is tough and the stakes are high.The tragic news of Balabanov’s death came in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival, where Happy Days and Brother have screened in the past. Since then, Balabanov has fallen considerably out of international favor. Not a single Balabanov film has shown at Cannes in recent years — a shame upon Cannes, just as it is a shame upon Berlin and Venice. Western Europe, where people are still perplexed by the secrets of the Russian soul, has completely ignored the most important director of our time. Although Balabanov himself was quite indifferent to festival glory, this injustice still hurt his feelings. Just as painful for him was the injustice within the country that he continued to love, despite all, with its brothers (by birth) and “brothers” (in crime).
The Honorable President of FIPRESCI
Originally published in Kommersant.
Translated from the Russian by Katya Belyakova