Issue 24 (2009)

Pavel Lungin’s Lilacs (Vetka sireni, 2007)

reviewed by Tim Harte © 2009

lunginIn Russia, film biographies have been anything but conventional. When turning to the “biopic,” as this popular genre of moviemaking is known today in Hollywood, Russian filmmakers have typically opted for stylization over standard narrative. As far back as 1934, Georgii and Sergei Vasil’ev’s seminal Chapaev portrayed its Civil War hero in a humorous, yet strident manner that helped establish Socialist Realism on the Soviet screen, while Eisenstein, in both Aleksandr Nevskii (1938) and Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (Ivan Groznyi, 1944-58), fashioned a biographical treatment of Russia’s bygone leaders in the ominous shadow of Joseph Stalin.  Several decades later and under less restrictive circumstances, Andrei Tarkovskii’s Andrei Rublev (1966) offered an elliptical form of film biography, as disparate episodes with little biographical specificity constituted this epic look at the eponymous 15th-century icon painter. More recently, in His Wife’s Diary (Dnevnik ego zheny, 2000), Aleksei Uchitel’ has delved into the stormy domestic life of Russian writer Ivan Bunin and his travails as an émigré in southern France, Iurii Kara has explored the tragic years of the engineer Sergei Korolev (Korolev, 2007) or Andrei Kravchuk has turned to the life of Admiral Kolchak (Admiral, 2008), while Pavel Lungin’s Tycoon (Oligarkh, 2002) offers a loose, semi-veiled biography of powerful Russian businessman and media tycoon Boris Berezovskii. 

lilacsLungin’s Lilacs examines the life of the renowned Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Jumping back and forth between Rachmaninoff’s later years as an émigré in the United States and his youth in pre-Revolutionary Russia, Lungin utilizes narrative techniques linked to the Hollywood biopic—most notably, detailed period-piece scenes of turn-of-the-century Russia and 1920s America that dramatize recognizable events from the composer’s life—to probe Rachmaninoff’s creative malaise in the U.S. as well as his earlier rise as a Romantic composer and pianist in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Throughout Lilacs, we encounter crucial events from Rachmaninoff’s biography, including the unsuccessful debut of his first symphony, his dabbling with psychotherapy under the guidance of renowned Russian physician Nikolai Dahl, his controversial and somewhat tumultuous marriage to his cousin Natalia, and his extensive touring of the U.S. in the 1920s, as arranged by Fred Steinway of the famous piano-producing family. But not so fast! Despite the familiar events from Rachmaninoff’s life and a soundtrack replete with Rachmaninoff’s music, Lungin concludes Lilacs with a startling disclaimer: “The main hero and the events of the film constitute an artistic invention and have been used only for the creation of the film. They do not represent any particular person and do not reflect events from this person’s life.”

So is Lilacs a film about Rachmaninoff’s life, or is it an imaginative cinematic exposé about a fictional musician’s maturation, highly active love life, and creative ennui once separated from Russia?  Many of the events shown in the film clearly tend toward fiction, such as a brief affair the protagonist enjoys with a young Marxist-leaning pupil (based loosely on the Soviet writer-to-be Marietta Shaginian, an ardent follower of Rachmaninoff’s), who later helps the composer and his family flee Soviet Russia in the tumult following the Revolution, but other scenes in the film correspond closely with episodes from Rachmaninoff’s life. The main actor, Evgenii Tsyganov, does his best to capture Rachmaninoff’s famously dour looks and melancholic demeanor. Lungin clearly wants it both ways. On the one hand, he includes enough recognizable events from Rachmaninoff’s life so audiences know full well who this Russian composer is, yet the film’s central theme of lilacs as well as a series of titillating sex scenes—particularly the one with the young Marxist and another one with a sultry, Gypsy-like woman modeled after Anna Lodyzhenskaia, wife of Rachmaninoff’s close friend and to whom the composer dedicated his first symphony—veer into invention.  Granted, Lungin may have used his closing disclaimer to ward off the complaints of music aficionados objecting to inaccuracies in his depiction of Rachmaninoff (unavoidable, one might contend, in any biopic); or perhaps Lungin hoped to delve into broad issues of love, creativity, and emigration by shying away from strict biographical faithfulness.  The travails of the protagonist—referred to as Sergei Vasil’evich, sans the famous surname—arguably take on more weight without the historical veracity, but the film ultimately forces us to assume that this must indeed be Rachmaninoff’s life we see on screen. Hence, Lungin’s postscript is sure to confound viewers. 

lilacsLungin, it seems, has attempted in Lilacs to expand on his melding of fiction and biography so pronounced in Tycoon. But whereas the earlier film alluded to real-life events and people through dramatized, fictional events, much in the vein of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, in Lilacs the fiction remains secondary to an array of familiar biographical details presented in the conventional style of the biopic. The fact that at the end of his film Lungin has to remind audiences that what they have seen should not be attributed specifically to Rachmaninoff suggests that he has struggled to find the right balance between invention and biography. Lilacs also contains echoes of Tarkovskii’s Andrei Rublev, a film that, due to the dearth of referential material on the 15th-century icon-painter Rublev, likewise blends invention with biography. Given how Lungin’s prior film, the widely praised The Island (Ostrov, 2006), featured stark imagery and themes of faith close in spirit to those permeating Andrei Rublev, one can see Lungin’s deference toward Tarkovskii’s masterful work. Andrei Rublev and Lilacs, moreover, highlight the creative frustrations of their respective protagonists. But whereas Tarkovskii created a film that cinematically replicates the brilliance and beauty of its subject’s art, Lungin’s Lilacs lacks both an adequate, comparable expression of Rachmaninoff’s Romantic compositions and a satisfactory illustration of the composer’s originality.

From the glasnost’ classic Taxi Blues (Taksi bliuz, 1990) to the recent The Island, Lungin’s films have garnered considerable attention and much critical acclaim. Lilacs, however, suggests a filmmaker oddly unsure of his material.  Whereas The Island was able to overcome several conspicuous flaws (its didactic screenplay and weak supporting cast) through powerful imagery – shot by the late Andrei Zhegalov, who also produced the intermittently impressive cinematography of Lilacs—and the conviction of its fine lead actor Petr Mamonov, Lilacs features no such compelling aesthetic, figure, or performance. Tsyganov struggles to convey the travails of the Russian composer, his limitations as an actor revealed in those scenes where he must play Rachmaninoff as frustrated, aging émigré. A rising young star in Russia, Tsyganov has appeared in a series of films—e.g., The Stroll (Progulka, 2003), Piter FM (2006), and The Mermaid (Rusalka, 2007)—that tap into Russia’s youth culture by making good use of his reticent masculinity and sex appeal, but in Lilacs, Tsyganov offers insufficient nuance or insight into Rachmaninoff’s predicament. Similarly, Viktoria Tolstoganova, as the composer’s faithful, enduring wife, has trouble making the shift to middle-aged émigré. And oddly enough, all scenes featuring the celebrated Russian actor Evgenii Mironov, who according to press releases at the time was slated to play Petr Tchaikovsky, have been removed from the final cut of the film. (Bezruk)

lilacsThe Lilacs screenplay—written by Mikhail Dunaev (with help from Lucinda Coxon and Pavel Finn)—likewise suffers from a number of conspicuous flaws, chiefly some clumsy dialogue.  Initial interaction between Rachmaninoff and his wife lands with a loud thud, like an off-key note at the outset of one of the composer’s famous piano concertos: “We’re in New York and you have a concert tonight in Carnegie Hall,” Natalia informs her husband as she pulls back the curtains in their hotel room. And what follows is an awkwardly staged, fictionalized scene in which Rachmaninoff refuses to perform before the Soviet ambassador to the U.S., an act of defiance that compels Fred Steinway to incite the audience to expel the ambassador and his entourage from Carnegie Hall.  Equally off-putting is the tiresome interaction between the Rachmaninoffs and the ever-persistent impresario Steinway. Furthermore, the film’s overarching narrative comes across as somewhat contrived, bolstered artificially by the resounding, lurid chords of Rachmaninoff’s unmistakably Romantic compositions.  Instead of fostering the drama cinematically (perhaps by better utilizing Zhegalov’s lush cinematography, which goes part way toward replicating the spirit of the composer’s music) or through an engaging narrative, Lungin relies too heavily on the Rachmaninoff score to accentuate the climactic moments of Lilacs.

Lungin’s recurring penchant for the didactic and xenophobic, quite marked in his earlier work, surfaces in Lilacs as well.  Whether the anti-Semitic sentiments expressed in Taxi Blues, Tycoon, and Roots (Bednye rodstvenniki, 2005) or the moralizing of The Island, Lungin’s dogmatic tone tends toward chauvinism.  In Lilacs, a measure of patriotic anti-Americanism emerges as Sergei struggles in his American setting and fails to compose any new works outside of Russia.  America and its capitalism are implicitly at fault: the incessant touring from city to city, the commercialism of Rachmaninoff’s adopted country, and the overbearing, avaricious wrangling of Steinway all contribute to the Russian composer’s creative impasse. It is true that Rachmaninoff was creatively at sea in the U.S., where he performed and conducted to the detriment of his compositional work while yearning for the Russia of his youth, yet Lungin’s heavy-handed approach reduces to caricature his depiction of the composer as victim of American capitalism. To delve appropriately and insightfully into Rachmaninoff’s artistic travails, Lungin needed to go much further than the one-dimensional dramatics and dogmatism of Lilacs

It comes as little surprise that Lilacs, following its premiere at the 2007 Moscow Film Festival, virtually disappeared from Russian movie screens. Taking on such a hallowed figure of Russian culture demands a sensitive hand, yet Lungin and his young actors lose their way amidst all the eroticism and lilacs.  The film’s underlying floral theme—stemming, one would guess, from the 1902 Rachmaninoff song Lilacs (Op. 21, No. 5) —provides a measure of intrigue, as these flowers appear in both the composer’s dreams and mysteriously on stage at his performances in the U.S., sent by some secret female admirer, yet they ultimately become a contrived prop, a distraction that offers little insight into Rachmaninoff’s life or art. Coincidentally, another film biography of the Russian composer is expected later this year, when Bruce Beresford’s Rhapsody will delve into Rachmaninoff’s life through the perspective of his wife Natalia. One can only hope that this time the Russian composer’s complex personality and undeniable artistry will receive a more worthy cinematic examination.

Tim Harte
Bryn Mawr College

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Works Cited

Bezruk, Maria (2006), “Evgenii Mironov sygraet Chaikovskogo,” Trud 30 June.


Lilacs, Russia, 2007
Color, 97 min.
Director: Pavel Lungin
Scriptwriters: Mikhail Dunaev, Lucinda Coxon, and Pavel Finn
Cinematography: Andrei Zhegalov
Music: Dan Jones
Cast: Evgenii Tsyganov, Viktoria Tolstoganova, Aleksei Kortnev, Viktoria Isakova, Miriam Sekhon, Aleksei Petrenko, Liia Akhedzhakova
Producer: Jimmy de Brabant, Mikhail Dounaev, Michael Schlicht, and Sergei Shumakov
Production: Thema in association with Gemini Entertainment and TV Channel Russia

Pavel Lungin’s Lilacs (Vetka sireni, 2007)

reviewed by Tim Harte © 2009

Updated: 27 Mar 09