Issue 47 (2015)

Nikita Mikhalkov: Sunstroke (Solnechnyi udar, 2014) 

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin© 2015


The Russian intelligentsia today loves to hate Nikita Mikhalkov. It is understandable: not only does he get the biggest, juiciest, state-sponsored budgets for his films, but he is too much of a power-broker and a media animal, the “mustachioed bumblebee” with his own idiosyncratic, yet thoroughly conservative TV show in which he seeks to impress his views on the audiences through patriotic (i.e., pro-Putin) sermons, some of which consist entirely of him reading long articles and blog posts that all Internet users interested in the subject had read months before. He calls himself a besogon, which he thinks means “exorcist” or “witch-hunter” but in fact is a slang term for “liar” or “blabbermouth.” That he continues to soldier on regardless is entirely up to him, of course. Knowing Mikhalkov’s political views is helpful for the understanding of his personality, but artists should be judged on the merits of their art. That’s why we are interested in them in the first place. In the case of Mikhalkov, however, art and politics are very hard to tell apart, and his new film is no exception. Warning: spoilers galore.

It should be stated up front that whether you love or abhor Mikhalkov’s recent films, they are never boring. Even the much-maligned sequels to Burnt by the Sun: Exodus (Predstoianie, 2010) and Citadel (Tsitadel’, 2011) were consistently engaging, with never a dull moment. What seems wrong is the director’s turn from chamber dramas at which he excelled to the epic mode of film narration which he just cannot handle. In early Mikhalkov, a small vignette could be more telling than a long story. There is a scene in Five Evenings (Piat’ vecherov, 1979), probably his best film, that has a naval officer in a 1958 Moscow restaurant just standing up and smoking by the window. Not a word is said, but one senses drama behind this character. That was intriguing, and imparted depth to a simple story. That was what made Mikhalkov great—an ability to ignite the imagination at a single glance, leaving the viewers hungering for more.

sunstrokeUnfortunately, the latter-day Mikhalkov is exactly the opposite. He still knows how to intrigue the viewer, but he spells out too much, and his films are now bloated where they once were well trimmed and economical. There is no better example than Sunstroke. The eponymous short story by Ivan Bunin, written in emigration in 1925, takes up all of four pages; the film lasts three hours, and an even longer TV serialization is in the works. Bunin’s story is light and poetic, the film plodding and pompous. Mikhalkov was not content to stay within the bounds of Bunin’s summertime romance, which may have made it into a much more compelling (if modest) film. He went further, imagining the hero, an amorous lieutenant in 1907, thirteen years later, caught up in the murderous Red campaign in the Crimea in November 1920. Bunin’s diary, Cursed Days, which Mikhalkov cites as the other source for his film, has little or nothing to do with it; in subject and spirit it is closer to Ivan Shmelev’s Sun of the Dead. The “sun” metaphor seems to never leave Mikhalkov. The entire film is constructed as a series of flashbacks (or flash-forwards, if you wish) between the golden sunset of Russia (1907) and its harshest darkness (1920). Instead of jumping to and from, let us look at these two worlds in sequence.

sunstrokeIn 1907, the young lieutenant (Mārtiņš Kalita) sails down the Volga on a new steamship full of bells and whistles—the sequence was filmed in Switzerland because presumably there are no such ships left in Russia—when he is struck by the vision of a beautiful young lady (Viktoriia Solov’eva). He is engaged and she is married, with children, but that doesn’t stop him from wooing her. It’s a sunstroke. The affair falls into several setpieces, including the pursuit of a blue scarf (a reference to a popular pre-revolutionary song and Mikhalkov’s own A Slave of Love [Raba liubvi], 1975), some hocus-pocus with the lieutenant’s broken and replaced watch, his erroneous disembarkation and triumphal return aboard, and, finally, the consummation of love in a small-town hotel room after the two leave the ship together. Their love-making is accompanied by the heated movement of the ship’s pistons and cylinders—any reviewer who has not commented on this Freudian metaphor must be really lazy. In the morning, the Beautiful Stranger—the hero never learns her name—leaves him and the town, with only a brief note and a candy for our hero to remember her by. On a languorous summer day the lieutenant sets out on a quest. This is perhaps the best section of the film, and the closest Nikita Mikhalkov has ever come to magical realism, Russian style. En route, the lieutenant meets and befriends a 12-year-old altar boy who lectures him on the local wonders and asks questions about the mysteries of evolution, while the hero is distracted by his own mystery. After one more improbable adventure including—pay attention!—submersion into water as the boy looks on, he too leaves town,  forgetting his new watch. Oh, that watch again. How utterly symbolic is that—historical time is out of joint.

Now to the 1920 scenes. Mikhalkov is not a newcomer to the subject of the Russian Civil War, having treated it in his directorial debut, At Home Among Strangers (Svoi sredi chuzhikh, chuzhoi sredi svoikh, 1974) and in A Slave of Love. Both times he tried to conceal his sympathies behind generic conventions of the Western and melodrama, respectively. This time, taking sides is unavoidable, and Mikhalkov comes out firmly on the side of the (mostly) noble White officers who are languishing in a makeshift filtration camp in the Crimea. There is no sun in this gate to hell, only the eternal magenta-gray dusk. The motley crew of military men, stripped of their epaulettes and their pride, are still harboring some hope: they are promised pardon and repatriation to mainland Russia or, if they so wish, permission to emigrate—if they agree to lay down arms and recognize the new rulers. They acquiesce—a few enthusiastically, the majority with resentment and consternation. They don’t have a choice anyway.

sunstrokeA conflict erupts between an aging colonel (Iumatov) who is openly servile to the new regime and a defiant cavalry captain (Kishchenko). Soon the captain disappears, reported to the guards by the colonel. The next morning, the colonel is found dead— strangled, as we eventually learn, by the aristocratic junior lieutenant (Biković). The grim proceedings are enlivened by an ever-optimistic young cadet (Michkov), a tongue-in-cheek Cossack captain (Boltaev) and a svelte, liberal-minded naval officer (Ustiugov). The prisoners’ fate is in the hands of three Red commanders—two of them historical characters, the firebrand revolutionary Rozaliia Zemliachka (an arresting—there is no other word—Miriam Sekhon) and the Hungarian communist Béla Kun (Bachurskii), and the third, a fictitious character, Georgii Sergeevich (Karpov), who turns out to be none other than the altar boy from 1907 who has grown up and changed faiths even if he is still trying to reconcile Communism and Christianity. Mikhalkov hasn’t lost his knack for selecting actors—these are all fresh faces and even the minor characters are memorable. The protagonist is now a captain. Mārtiņš Kalita, who gained 20 kg for these scenes, has a less winning role here—he is mostly called upon to look brooding and morose behind his glasses and repeat the questions: “How did it happen?” and “When did it all begin?”

Mikhalkov builds his story not so much on historical fact as on historical conjecture. His answer to the hero’s questions is: things had already begun to go wrong in the sunny world of 1907. The clues—he calls them “little bells”—are dispersed throughout the film. Look closer. However, this answer is not quite satisfactory. We do notice that smart-looking Tsarist army officers are not terribly interested in ordinary people’s issues; that priests are lazy or venal; that small-time entrepreneurs, like the local photographer, are venal and corrupt; that hoteliers are prone to theft; that waiters are obsequious or rude, depending on who they serve. But does any of it explain, much less justify, the horrible bloodbath that followed, the millions killed for a utopian idea(l)? Hardly. Mikhalkov himself admits that these small pecadillos could not amount to a root cause of the revolution. Yet, in his inimitable smooth-talking fashion, he insists that they did, in a way, somehow, obliquely, incrementally, and then he comes full circle saying yes, they mattered. 

Mikhalkov’s position is expressed and explained most clearly through the obnoxious character of the touring prestidigitator (Avangard Leont’ev) who has accidentally destroyed the hero’s watch. This personage, enamored of all things European—even, improbably, Marx—is meant to provoke contempt as he sings praises to the West, while the “enlightened” viewer should only see hypocrisy and double-thinking in his soliloquy. The hero’s reaction, meanwhile, is rather indifferent: he does regret the lost watch he traded for a cheap imitation, but he doesn’t see anything particularly inappropriate in the magician’s reasoning—and neither will the viewers unless their brains have been thoroughly picked by the Bumblebee and other anti-Western propagandists.

sunstrokePerhaps the most risible bit of “evidence” is the proposition that Darwinian theory helped destroy the Faith and thus was the catalyzer for everything that went wrong in Russia. This sounds like a joke. However, knowing how much time the man spends battling the imaginary “enemies of Russia” and his devotion to Orthodoxy, he is probably serious. “If there is no God, anything goes,” his logic concludes. Even funnier, some Russian reviewers take it for granted that Darwin was a fraud. After Marx and Darwin, the next culprit is classical Russian literature, which, according to one of the characters, had “taught us to hate Russia for a whole century.” Russian literature taught readers to question the authority of the state, but for Mikhalkov, the powers that be and the nation are the same. It is indeed ironic that the self-proclaimed anti-Westerner Mikhalkov becomes a casualty of the same fallacy that many Western observers of today’s Russia succumb to: equating authority and the people. Seriously, he—an heir to an illustrious family whose members changed allegiances several times, depending on the prevailing political wind—should know better.

So how does it all end? The officers pose for a large group photograph, urged on by the indefatigable young cadet, the man with a photo camera. Such photographs were all the rage in that era, and were done surprisingly well, giving us an opportunity to ponder the faces of people who are no longer with us. The thought that usually comes to mind when we look at such pictures is: where did each of them go after that photo session? How did their lives diverge? In this case, we learn soon enough that all these people will share the same grisly fate. The prisoners are told they are evacuated and ordered to get aboard a huge barge. The viewer understands where they are going—the characters do not. Trapped inside the dank iron belly of the leviathan, they continue their discussions of the eternal Russian questions. Suddenly, our hero receives a little package from Georgii Sergeevich. The boy who has grown up is returning to him the watch the man has left behind in that summery, dreamy town of long ago. The captain is overwhelmed by the gift, by the happiness of restoring the flow of time—and at that very moment the barge is sunk, killing him and hundreds of others. Georgii Sergeevich—for whom it is a macabre sort of déjà vu— tries to make a sign of the cross, but stops short of it. He has finally made his choice between Christianity and revolution. Mikhalkov says he has nurtured the idea of this film for 38 years. That must be true. The song that we hear as the end credits roll is the same song that Stanislav Liubshin’s character tries to sing in Five Evenings—“The Spring Will Come, But Not for Me”—only now we hear it in full, in all its naked grief and horror.

sunstrokeIt is good that Mikhalkov’s film provokes discussion; this is more than can be said of the vast majority of films made today that are cinematic equivalents of fast food. Once asked what is worse, McDonald’s or Stalinism, Mikhalkov answered, “That is a matter of opinion.” He may have a point there. On the other hand, Sunstroke is not the first film to depict the tragedy of the White movement. Some Western readers may be surprised, but that motif did exist in Soviet cinema. The Flight (Beg, 1970, Aleksandr Alov and Vladimir Naumov) and The Days of the Turbins (Dni Turbinykh, 1976, TV, Vladimir Basov), both based on Mikhail Bulgakov, Two Comrades Were Serving (Sluzhili dva tovarishcha, 1968, Evgenii Karelov, with Vladimir Vysotskii as Lieutenant Brusentsov in 1920 Crimea), and even the popular TV miniseries The Adjutant of His Excellency (Ad’iutant ego prevoskhoditel’stva, 1969, Evgenii Tashkov) all had sympathetic White characters. Come to think of it, a young Nikita Mikhalkov himself played a noble White warrant officer in a cameo in the Hungarian film The Red and the White (Stars and Soldiers; Csillagosok, katonák, 1967, Miklós Jancsó). The perestroika-era film The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon (Povest’ nepogashennoi luny, 1990, Evgenii Tsymbal) deals with War Commissar Mikhail Frunze and partly with his duplicitous promise to the White forces in the Crimea that opens Sunstroke. The doomed barge is also there. So Mikhalkov’s film is only the latest contribution to the existing body of cinematic works and should be considered in that context.

As we face the concluding cathartic moments that seem to bring all viewers, regardless of political persuasion, together, we can almost forgive Mikhalkov his mannerisms, his folie de grandeur, his cheap shots at Chekhov and Eisenstein, worthy of Titanic or some other Hollywood nonsense he professes to hate, his penchant for long-winded narratives, his manipulation of history, the overblown budgets of his films, and so on. However, as the tears dry out, questions linger. The film premiered in Serbia— it has some Serbian connections —but then, before even the Moscow premiere, it opened in the Crimea, which was a purely political decision. Condemning past injustice committed on that soil, Mikhalkov at the same time endorses Russia’s annexation of Crimea, branding every opponent of this action as an enemy of the people in the best Stalinist tradition (even if the Stalinists were not happy with his Burnt by the Sun trilogy). The bitter irony of it seems to be lost on the director. Art and politics in Mikhalkov have proven to be inseparable, after all, and at odds with each other. His new films may be enjoyable and even poignant, but political connotations are leaking into his work, poisoning it. If you want a really great Mikhalkov film, see An Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano (1976) or Oblomov (1979). There is not a single false note in them. For decades we have been waiting for his Griboedov film. Now there is talk about it again. Will it turn into another paean to authority and Orthodoxy? Time will tell, but it is probably wishful thinking to expect the man at 69 to return to making masterful films with no political strings attached.

Sergey Dobrynin
Toronto

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Sunstroke, Russia, 2014
Color, 174 mins.
Director: Nikita Mikhalkov
Screenplay: Nikita Mikhalkov, Vladimir Moiseenko and Aleksandr Adabash’ian
Cinematography: Vladislav Opel’iants
Music: Eduard Artem’ev
Production design: Valentin Gidulianov
Costumes: Sergei Struchev
Cast: Mārtiņš Kalita, Viktoria Solov’eva, Miloš Biković, Anastasia Imamova, Avangard Leont’ev, Sergei Karpov, Aleksandr Adabash’ian, Kirill Boltaev, Aleksandr Michkov, Aleksei Diakin, Vitalii Kishchenko, Miriam Sekhon, Sergei Bachurskii, Aleksandr Ustiugov, Vladimir Iumatov.
Producer: Leonid Vereshchagin
Production companies: Studio TriTe, Fond Kino

Nikita Mikhalkov: Sunstroke (Solnechnyi udar, 2014) 

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin© 2015

Updated: 12 Jan 15