Issue 61 (2018)

Kirill Serebrennikov: Summer (Leto, 2018)

reviewed by Natalie Ryabchikova © 2018

letoAfter one of the pre-release screenings of Kirill Serebrennikov’s Summer ahead of the Cannes and Kinotavr festival premieres, it seemed that there would finally be a Serebrennikov film that most viewers would be ready to get behind, much more so than behind the figure of the director himself. This was especially important, after the polarizing Yuri’s Day (Iur’ev den’, 2008) and The Student (Uchenik, 2016), and despite the initial reports that the Leningrad/Saint Petersburg rock crowd had responded negatively to the script by Mikhail and Lili Idov. The numbers after the first couple of weekends, however, were disappointing, and some even blamed it on the political situation around Serebrennikov who remains under house arrest for alleged embezzlement of state funds (Maliukova 2018). I want to argue that, whatever the reasons may be, the numbers can be disregarded in this case. Summer can and should be treated on its own merit: it is a masterful film, which shows Serebrennikov at the top of his game.

The story of Summer revolves around the early period of the career of Soviet rock legend Viktor Tsoi (1962-1990), including his mentorship by another rock legend, “Maik” (Mike) Naumenko and Tsoi’s will-they-won’t-they, or, perhaps, did-they-didn’t-they relationship with Naumenko’s wife Natal’ia. The film is about much more than that, of course. Some early critical responses said that Summer was about fandom and fans, whether old ones or potential new ones (Sukmanov 2018). The fans of Tsoi and his band Kino have been active for years, writing—after his tragic death in 1990 at 28, “Viktor Tsoi is alive” over and over again on residential buildings and garages, continuing to sing his songs on the streets of cities and towns, big and small.

letoFor others, the film raised the question of who told stories about these cult figures and who had the right to tell these stories and in what way (Mel’man 2018): hence the initial negative assessment of the project (Kagermazov 2018) and the subsequent division of opinion. The script is based to a large part on the memoir of Natal’ia Naumenko, who has been accused of inventing her affair with Tsoi (Mel’man 2018). The beauty of Summer, however, lies in the fact that, while Naumenko’s narrative agency and point of view is very evident in the film’s structure, her story is not taken at face value. Instead, the director—in the best manner of contemporary discussions of feminist history and historiography—lets us see the unreliability of his narrator and the poignancy of her point of view: she, the wife of an artist, thinks there is something between her and her husband’s protégée, but in fact both men are more interested in their music and their art. The feelings of all three are both real and not real, fodder for more songs like Naumenko’s “My Sweet N.” (“Moia sladkaia N,” with the refrain “Where did you spend the night, my sweet N.”—where “N.” does not stand for Natal’ia, although in the space of the film it becomes about her). She, however, has no such recourse.

letoSo, in the end, the film is about artists, about the creativity that potentially can exist (in a Leningrad communal apartment or under house arrest in Moscow), even without anyone really knowing about it or really appreciating it—apart from another artist. It’s the Hamburg score, as Viktor Shklovsky said. Fittingly, then, Summer is highly meta-textual. The symbiosis between the rock scene and cinema is, of course, most evident in one of the two male leads, Roman Bilyk, better known as Roma Zver’ (Roma the Beast) from the pop-rock band Zveri, which became hugely popular in the early 2000s. He is, to an unprepared viewer, quite unrecognizable as Mike Naumenko but at the same time carries just enough of a hint of something familiar, something rock-n-roll: a lesser star of another, of a different generation, already in the past as well. Another mise-en-abyme of this kind is that another rock guru, Boris Grebenshchikov, is played by Nikita Efremov (b. 1988), son of the actor Mikhail Efremov (b. 1963) and grandson of the great Oleg Efremov (1927-2000).

Serebrennikov, who famously began his film Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2006) with the phrase “Russian cinema is in deep shit [v zhope], only Fedya Bondarchuk is a cool guy [prikol’nyi chuvak]”, saturates Summer with references to other films, mostly of the late Soviet period. Of course, the scene in the rock club’s cafeteria, where the more established musicians try to persuade the club’s manager to let Tsoi and his band perform, echoes the ending of ASSA (dir. Sergei Solov'ev, 1987), in which a similar scene takes place in the restaurant administrator’s office, with the real Viktor Tsoi, right before an electrifying performance of Kino’s “We Want Change” [“My zhdem peremen”]. And, of course, Aleksandr Bashirov, who played both in ASSA and another film starring Tsoi—The Needle (Igla, dir. Rashid Nugmanov, 1988)—appears in Summer to mark that connection.

letoEqually inevitable was a tongue-in-cheek scene, in which the band finally comes up with the name Kino (“cinema” in Russian). Less obviously, the phenomenal Elena Koreneva appears at a crucial moment as an emblem of the Soviet musical tradition, where she had gained fame for her star appearance in Romance for Lovers (Romans o vliublennykh, dir. Andrei Konchalovskii, 1974), while her actual character is more reminiscent of a film by Kira Muratova or Renata Litvinova, with the violent red of her dress against the black-and-white background, creating almost the comic-book palette of Sin City (dir. Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, 2005).

Finally, the episode by the sea, where the main characters meet for the first time, calls to mind an emblematic scene from Roman Balayan’s existential pre-perestroika drama Dream Flights (Polety vo sne i naiavu, 1983). Neither this nor other episodes are necessarily deliberately constructed in this meta-textual way; they are perhaps more properly read as indicators of the quality of the film itself. Summer is indeed a FILM, not a pseudo-obsequious biopic, like the recent Dovlatov (dir. Aleksei German Jr., 2018) or a TV-movie, like the majority of contemporary Russian cinema. There is nothing accidental in Summer and yet everything feels alive and uncontrived.

letoFrom the meta-textual point of view, Summer follows a direct line of descent from the 1980s, the period when the story is set. It is, in fact, best read as one point of a triangulated cinematic event of this season’s releases. Apart from Summer, the two other points are Evgenii Grigor’ev’s tragicomic documentary Your Rock (Pro rok, 2017) and the official DVD and internet release in 2018 of a batch of early short films by Aleksei Balabanov, including his documentary Nastia and Egor (1989), which is especially important here.

Nastia and Egor paints a double portrait of two Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) rock musicians, Egor Belkin and Nastia Poleva, and has a scene very similar to the one in Summer: a scene of a picnic or a camping trip somewhere between a forest and a beach, which combines music and existential conversations in passing; a scene which attempts to present creative artists in nature and in life. Grigor’ev, who just last fall presented his own take on the figure of a rock star in the modern world and inscribed himself into it, appears in Summer as a nameless documentary filmmaker with a Super-8 camera. In fact, it is not a dummy camera but a real one, which Grigor’ev operates in the shot, and his footage is later included in Summer as its only color sequence. He is then, as an imaginary contemporary chronicler of the events that will later prove to be momentous for Russian culture, a stand-in for Serebrennikov himself. I would even argue that it is Grigor’ev who is the most significant figure in the film, which is so concerned with the way narratives are constructed. It is not the abstract naysayer hipster, a “skeptic from the future” (played by Aleksandr Kuznetsov) who exists to preempt, a bit too forcefully in the end, the “this did not happen, this could not have happened” accusation; it is an artist who records as much as he creates—stories, reputations, or even cults.

letoGrigor’ev started his own documentary with newsreel shots of the leaders of the Yekaterinburg rock scene, such as Vladimir Shakhrin—taken by none other than Aleksei Balabanov in 1986 for the “film journal,” The Soviet Urals. The musicians complain that they are not allowed to perform freely, that the authorities find their music to be not exactly harmful (because no one can say what the actual harm in it is), but not beneficial to the Soviet listeners either, which matches exactly the atmosphere of the 1980s in Leningrad that Summer presents. The initial goal of Grigor’ev’s film, which was more than five years in the making, was to find a new generation of Russian rock stars. What he found, following his three main young characters and their bands, was a not a lack of heroes per se, but a lack of determination in these heroes, a lack of energy that disregards any obstacles on the way from the artist to the audience. This artistic energy, the desire to be heard or seen or recognized, is something that the figure of Tsoi embodies, both in real life and in his cinematic rendering by Teo Yoo.

This energy is evident in Summer at large. It is in the freedom of the film, the freedom of the artist: to change the picture from color to black-and-white, to scratch and to draw on the surface of the film, to make stern, “shovel-faced” Soviet suburban train riders sing the “fa fa fa fa” chorus from Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” (1977). It is in the freedom to quote Blondie’s “Call Me” in Russian and then do a rendition of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” instead. It is in the magical transformative power of art, which makes every imaginary heartbreak real but bearable at the same time. Summer tells us that, perhaps, Russian cinema is still “in deep shit,” but rock-n-roll is very much alive.

Natalie Ryabchikova
American Studio, Moscow Art Theater School

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Works Cited

Kagermazov, Sergei. 2018. “Grebenshchikov raskritikoval fil'm Serebrennikov o Tsoe.” 15 February

Maliukova, Larisa. 2018. “Skromnoe ‘Leto’ 2018-go.” Novaia gazeta 21 June. 

Mel'man, Aleksandr. 2018. “Govorit’ o romane Tsoia s zhenoi Maika Naumenko—peregib palki.” Moskovskii komsomolets 16 February.

Sukmanov, Igor’. 2018. “Vot i LETO proshlo…”  Facebook 10 May, 2:40 pm.

Summer, Russia, 2018.
Color, 126 minutes
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Script: Mikhail Idov, Lili Idova, Ivan Kapitonov, Kirill Serebrennikov
Cinematography: Vladislav Opel’iants
Production Design: Andrei Ponkratov
Costumes: Tat’iana Dolmatovskaia
Music: Roman Bilyk, German Osipov
Cast: Teo Yoo (voice Denis Kliaver, vocals Iurii Pogodaev), Irina Starshenbaum, Roman Bilyk (Zver’), Fillip Avdeev, Iuliia Aug, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Aleksandr Bashirov, Elena Koreneva
Producers: Ilya Stewart, Pavel Burya, Georgy Chumburidze, Mikhail Finogenov, Murad Osmann, Iurii Kozyrev
Production: Hype Film, KinoVista, Charades

Kirill Serebrennikov: Summer (Leto, 2018)

reviewed by Natalie Ryabchikova © 2018

Updated: 2018