Issue 44 (2014)
Iraklii Kvirikadze, Rasputin (2013)
reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2014
Rasputin, it seems, is fated to live forever. The real Grigorii Rasputin, as his assassins discovered, was hard enough to kill. But the so-called Mad Monk has enjoyed a long afterlife on the page, in musical lyrics and onscreen, serving as a malleable symbol for many decades. He has been portrayed as an evil villain, a sympathetic starets, a reincarnated helper to the Nazis (in the comic book and movie, Hellboy), and, of course, as “Russia’s greatest love machine.” The first film version of Rasputin’s life appeared within a year of his death, with silent film star Montagu Love playing him in the September 1917 Rasputin, the Black Monk. Since then, Conrad Veidt, Lionel Barrymore, Christopher Lee, Tom Baker (before his turn as Doctor Who), and Alan Rickman (just to name a handful) have all played the character onscreen. In one sense, therefore, no one should be that surprised that a heavyweight actor such as Gerard Depardieu should take a turn playing Rasputin, even if he is nearly 20 years older than the mystic was at the time of his physical death. While Depardieu sought to make his subject human again, the story of Iraklii Kvirikadze’s Rasputin has more to it than yet another reappearance of the man who cannot truly die.
The movie mostly focuses on the First World War and Rasputin’s assassination. Kvirikadze reworked a poorly-received 2011 French television series directed by Josée Dayan and turned it into a 90-minute feature film for Russian audiences. The director declared that the original version “was like a very fat man who needs to run a marathon […] and needs to lose 40 or 50 kilograms to become lean and energetic” (Kas’ianova 2013). His Rasputin consists of a series of vignettes taken from the French series that reveal the royal family’s reliance on Rasputin’s ability to deal with the tsarevich’s hemophilia and the growing conspiracy to eliminate the so-called holy devil.
Rasputin opens with the 1918 murder of the Romanov family at the hands of Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg. One of the murderers strips Empress Alexandra of her jewels and discovers a locket with Rasputin’s picture on it. The film then jumps back to a brief, obligatory scene that explains how Rasputin came to be an intimate of the last tsar and his family, an excuse for the director to include stereotypical shots of Russianness, complete with wintry Siberian landscapes, a troika, and an Orthodox Church. The action then transfers to Petersburg, where Rasputin heals Alexei and others brought to him, dances drunkenly, and, in one scene, lounges in bed with three naked women around him. Just 20 minutes into the film, the war breaks out, an event that guides the plot to its inexorable conclusion: Nicholas II’s larger family, including his cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, warns him about Rasputin’s baleful influence and the rumors that are spreading in the press. Angered by this perceived influence and the threat it represents to Russia’s political system, a group of conspirators plot to get rid of Rasputin. The conspirators are led by Prince Feliks Iusupov, Grand Duke Dmitrii Pavlovich, and the monarchist politician Vladimir Purishkevich. The last 20 minutes of the film focus on the murder, which occurs in the basement of Iusupov’s palace. After Iusupov poisons and then shoots Rasputin (which does not kill him), he toasts with Dmitrii “to Russia,” only to be corrected “to Imperial Russia.” The very last scene consists of the plotters throwing Rasputin’s body into the Malaia Nevka River.
This story is a well-known one and Rasputin does not offer much that is new or fresh to the tale (Edvard Radzinsky’s bestselling The Rasputin File, now more than 15 years old, certainly offered more sensational details). The film does acknowledge Iusupov’s sexuality, suggesting that he and Grand Duke Dmitrii had an affair, as well as the Prince’s love for dressing in women’s clothing and frequenting night clubs. Above all, though, Rasputin adheres to what is known about the murder, the reasons for it, and the events themselves. What is perhaps most notable about this film version is the number of well-known actors who appear in it: Vladimir Mashkov plays Nicholas II, Filipp Iankovskii is Iusupov, Danila Kozlovskii is Grand Duke Dmitrii, Anna Mikhalkova plays Anna Vyrubova, one of Rasputin’s followers, Kseniia Rappoport plays Mariia Golovina, and Konstantin Khabenskii has a small role as Aron Simanovich, whose son is healed by Rasputin.
Of course, the main story of the film has little to do with the supporting cast or the plot particulars, but with Gerard Depardieu, the award-winning French actor who plays Rasputin. Depardieu lurches through the role, which he claimed in an Izvestiia interview was one he was drawn to in part because both of his grandmothers were clairvoyants and hypnotists (Pevchev et al.). Rasputin attracted him because he was also “a very Russian, idealistic, solid and even sometimes too perfect” of a figure (ibid). Playing Rasputin, in other words, gave Depardieu a chance to demonstrate his Russianness, for the movie appeared less than 10 months after Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the actor a Russian passport and with it, citizenship. His role, as he explained, was one meant to provide “a human dimension” to the part, one he saw as lacking in previous Rasputins.
With a distracting voice-over provided by Sergei Garmash, Depardieu’s Rasputin was off-kilter from start to finish. Critics trashed the actor’s performance. Writing in Kommersant’, Lidiia Maslova dismissed the film as a comical attempt to tell Rasputin’s story, one that would have ended better if the “simple French muzhik” Depardieu-Rasputin would have clinked glasses and shouted “glory to Russia [slava Rossii]” and “Vive la France” with his new Russian colleagues (Maslova 2013). Denis Korsakov also saw humor in the film’s attempt to render history onscreen, comparing this Rasputin not to Elem Klimov’s more serious 1970s Agony (released worldwide in 1982, in the USSR in 1985), but to the 20th-Century Fox animated movie Anastasia (1997) and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) (Korsakov 2013). Aleksandr Kolbovskii (2013) also trashed Depardieu’s performance, writing that the actor “practically tears the soul in the frame.” The most common word throughout these reviews was: “kliukva”—literally: cranberry, a term used for the stereotypical images formed by foreigners of the mysterious Russian soul. For Maslova, the final product is a “cranberry result” [kliukvennyi rezul’tat] that was entirely predictable. Valerii Kichin declared the film to be one where the Frenchman “spread cranberries to grow on Russian themes,” ultimately likening Depardieu’s performance to a dancing bear (another commonality in the reviews) (Kichin 2013). Kolbovskii declares that “the vodka, birch trees, and onion domes” of the film amount to “a ‘cranberry’ collection of Russian stereotypes.” Even his Izvestiia interviewer asked him if he could play the part without turning it into a cranberry. If Russia had the golden cranberry equivalent to the Razzies (officially known as the Golden Raspberry Awards), surely Rasputin would have dominated them.
At the end of his review, Kolbovskii notes that Rasputin, much like the Terminator, always seems to come back from the dead. “Clearly,” he concludes, “Rasputin will be back when the time calls him,” or “when business demands it,” or even “when a desire to rewrite the history books” appears. That time will be soon: Vladimir Mashkov is currently playing the role in Andrei Maliukov’s 8-part television serial Rasputin, which will air later this year. The holy devil has outlived even Depardieu’s performance.
Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)
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Kas’ianova, Ol’ga (2013), “Zhestkii montazh daet fil’mu energiiu,” Kommersant’ , 21 June.
Kichin, Valerii (2013), “Na ekrany vykhodit ‘Rasputin’ s Zherarom Depard’e,” Rossiiskaia gazeta , 8 November.
Kolbovskii, Aleksandr (2013), “Omut vozvrata,” Kommersant’ , 18 November.
Korsakov, Denis (2013), “Rossiisko-frantsuzskii ‘Rasputin’: Uznaite, kto etot moshchnyi starik,” Vedomosti , 12 November.
Maslova, Lidiia (2013), “Prostoi frantsuzskii muzhik,” Kommersant’ , 8 November.
Aleksei Pevchev, Mariia Gorkovskaia, Viktoriia Ivanova, “Zherar Depard’e: ‘Rasputin ochen’ russkii, idealistichnyi, tsel’nyi’ (2013),” Izvestiia, 7 November.
Rasputin, Russia, 2013
Color, 97 minutes
Director: Iraklii Kvirikadze
Screenplay: Iraklii Kvirikadze
Cinematography: Ennio Guarnieri
Music: Enri Lolashvili
Production Design: Vera Zelinskaia, Igor’ Kotsarev, Yann Mercier
Film Editor: Iraklii Kvirikadze
Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Fanny Ardant, Vladimir Mashkov, Filipp Iankovskii, Danila Kozlovskii, Anna Mikhalkova, Irina Alferova, Iurii Kolokol’nikov, Kseniia Rappaport, Konstantin Khabenskii
Producer: Arnaud Frilley, Iuliia Matiash
Iraklii Kvirikadze, Rasputin (2013)
reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2014