Issue 69 (2020)

Andrei Smirnov: The Frenchman (Frantsuz, 2019)

reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2020

In his own telling of it, Andrei Smirnov was a model Soviet youth, an enthusiastic Pioneer and Komsomolets, a “young bureaucrat” [chinovnik iunyi]. When he was sent to France on a school delegation in August 1957 at the age of 16, he spent time persuading people to read the Communist Manifesto. On his return he was officially thanked in the Regional Committee of the Komsomol for propagandizing the Soviet way of life (Smirnov 2004; Arkhangel’skii 2016, 32; Matizen 2019). But in 1958 he entered VGIK, the All Union State Cinema Institute, to study with Mikhail Romm. And that changed everything. In the words of his father, the Soviet writer Sergei Smirnov, “while he was growing up in my family, he was a pioneer and a member of the Komsomol, but after your wretched [poganyi] VGIK he started making abominations like Angel” (to which I shall return) (Smirnov 2004).

Smirnov dates his interest in Russian history to the age of eighteen and stresses the importance of his first encounter the following year with Mikhail Shatrov, whose plays about the early Soviet period were so influential in deepening Soviet citizens’ understanding of Party history in the years of glasnost'. Attention to the Soviet past, particularly the formative experiences of the Revolution and the Second World War, and to its legacy in the Soviet and Russian present has been a dominant factor in Smirnov’s films. In recent interviews he has unequivocally called the Revolution a catastrophe from which Russia has still not recovered (Pozner 2017) and the Revolution’s violent aftermath is the subject both of his first solo film as a director, Angel (1967), part of a film compendium The Beginning of an Unknown Era (Nachalo nevedomogo veka), made to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution but truncated, banned and shelved till the late 1980s; and of the first film he made after a thirty year break from direction, There Once Lived a Woman (Zhila-byla odna baba, 2011), which, by telling the story of a young peasant woman in Tambov province from 1909 until the crushing of the Antonov Rebellion in 1920-1921, addresses a subject which, he contends, Soviet literature scarcely touched upon (Banerjee 2012).

Smirnov’s first feature film An Inch of Land (Piad' zemli), co-directed with Boris Iashin in 1964, tells the story of the defense of a bridgehead on the banks of the River Dniestr in the summer of 1944. Like other, more famous, Thaw period war films, it seeks to examine the lives and fates of ordinary soldiers, their faces lit as if they were the saints of icons. At the end of the film, as Soviet troops advance across the Dniestr, their battery commander is killed by a stray bullet. And his most successful film of the Soviet period, The Belorussian Station (Belorusskii vokzal, 1970) though set in the present of its making, is informed by similar sentiments and dominated by the memory of war. The four ageing protagonists, who had fought together at the Front, have not seen each other for 25 years but meet again at the funeral of a comrade. With great tenderness the film examines their post-war difficulties and disappointments, as well as the lack of respect shown to them by some representatives of the younger generation. It ends with the singing of Bulat Okudzhava’s song “We Need One Victory” (Nam nuzhna odna pobeda) and with solidarity through shared memory as the four men dream the same dream of the Victory Parade.

Like The Belorussian Station, Smirnov’s next film, Autumn (Osen', 1974), is set in the present, but once again events that happened many years ago, this time the result of rash personal decisions, continue to cast an overwhelming shadow. His last film of the Soviet period. By Faith and Truth (Veroi i pravdoi, 1979) an epic story of Soviet architects and their accommodations to the evolving Party line, has the greatest historical sweep of all. Beginning in the immediate post-war period and paying particular attention to the ambiguous changes that came about after Stalin’s death, it moves through the Thaw to its present in an unblinking examination of the consequences of compromise.

Andrei Smirnov is adamant that the Soviet past must be better understood. He stressed to Dar'ia Zlatopol'skaia the fundamental importance of studying and knowing history and he reminded Vladimir Pozner that the history currently being taught in Russian schools is fake [lipa], connecting this with the fact that the bodies of Lenin (whom he insists on calling “Mr Ul'ianov”) and others remain in Red Square (Zlatopol'skaia 2016; Pozner 2017). In a press conference held for The Frenchman in October 2019 he complained that, because of this lack of knowledge of history, “we continue to live in Sovietness [v Sovke]. We continue to walk along Dzerzhinskii streets, along Lenin Prospect” (Smirnov 2019). (It is not lost on me that as I write these words in the capital city of another former empire at the other end of Europe, vehement demonstrations are taking place over the continuing presence in our cities of statues to men who were slave-traders or espoused racists theories, and of the streets named after them, while far-right thugs are violently attacking the police in the name of “defending our history.” Imperialist mindsets take a long time to die.)

Another continuing enthusiasm of Smirnov’s is for France and French culture. His last three years of schooling were spent at the French Special School in Moscow, though when the school sent him to Paris in 1957 he was not yet ready to appreciate the art of Matisse and Van Gogh (Matizen 2019). After the Moscow Film Festival was reinstated in 1959 he worked at the first two festivals as a translator (Solodnikov 2019). In the brief list of his favorite works of art that followed his interview with Dar'ia Zlatopol'skaia he mentioned both The Three Musketeers and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960) (Zlatopol'skaia 2016). Indeed, he told Nikolai Solodnikov that he so loved the lighting (“natural, expressive, contrasted, temperamental”) in that film that he determined to shoot his first film as a solo director, Angel, with only natural light. This so alarmed established cinematographers that they declined to work with him. (Famously, another young experimenter, Pavel Lebeshev, later to become one of the most fabled of Russian cinematographers, agreed to take on the assignment “even without film stock” [khot' bez plenki]) (Solodnikov 2019). Impressed by a production which he saw in Paris in 1991 of the 1989 play Le Souper by Jean-Claude Brisville, about a dinner between Talleyrand and Fouché, Smirnov brought his own production to Moscow in 1994, staging it with the star actors Oleg Tabakov and Armen Dzhigarkhanian at Tabakov’s Theatre-Studio. And in April 1997, Smirnov staged Turgenev’s A Month in the Country at the Comédie Française (Smirnov 2004).

The Frenchman
History and France, these two abiding passions, come together in The Frenchman, a film set in the early years of Khrushchev’s ambiguous Thaw, a period of tentative liberalization, the paradoxes of which had already been addressed in By Faith and Truth.[1] In the film’s prologue, itself a fully satisfying “film within a film,” set in an open-air café on the banks of the Seine in August 1957, Pierre Durand (Antoine Rival) and two young friends discuss politics and his forthcoming departure for Moscow as a student. The lovingly knowledgeable nature of this scene, which romanticizes both the beauty of the city itself and the youthful energy and passion of its Byron-quoting protagonists, fits into a long tradition of the Russian and later Soviet cult of this city, unattainable yet achingly familiar.

frantsuzHaving drunk a final bottle of Chablis with his friends, Pierre takes an Aeroflot plane to Moscow. The story of Pierre can thus be seen in the context of the enduring Soviet and Russian cinematic trope of the adventures of a visiting foreigner. Some of these people are curious and open-minded while others arrive intent on doing harm. From the very beginning of Soviet cinema, a large number of them come from France, some of them the children of émigrés, since France was the destination of choice for those fleeing the Revolution. In Nikolai Petrov’s Hearts and Dollars (Serdtsa i dollary, 1924) two young members of émigré families visit Leningrad in search of their relatives, while in Sergei Komarov’s The Doll with Millions (Kukla s millionami, 1928), two unscrupulous Frenchmen attempt to marry a young Soviet student whom they imagine to have inherited the estate of a deceased French widow. A French émigrée returning to reclaim her property was treated with surprising sympathy in Konstantin Zhuk and Aleksandr Seryi’s The Female Foreigner (Inostranka, 1965) while fairy tales about love affairs with visitors from France were popular in the 1990s (Graffy 2018). Indeed, Smirnov’s is the third feature film called The Frenchman to be made in Russia since the late 1980s. The second of them, made by Vera Storozheva in 2003, is a conventional New Year’s fairy tale about the love affair of a French Baron and a young Russian translator living in the Russian provinces. (In the first, made by Galina Daneliia-Iurkova in 1988, the titular “Frenchman” is actually a Russian soldier who, after escaping from German captivity, served in the French Resistance before returning to the Soviet Union.)

For the well-intentioned and impartial foreign cinematic visitors, headed by the eponymous hero in Lev Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Neobychainye prikliucheniia Mistera Vesta v strane bol'shevikov, 1924) and Marion Dixon in Grigorii Aleksandrov’s The Circus (Tsirk, 1936), arriving in the Soviet Union marks the beginning of a journey to understanding, understanding of the goodness and rightness of the Soviet project. But Pierre Durand already understands, he is a member of the French Communist Party, whose faith in the cause has been broken neither by Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956 nor by the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution at the end of that year. He is also the child of an émigrée. Though his stepfather was French, a Communist member of the Resistance who was captured by the Germans and died in Ravensbrück, he has a Russian mother and has been studying Russian literature at the Sorbonne. Thus he is already committed to Russia for both personal and political reasons, and the understanding that he will have come to at the end of the film will not be that of his predecessors.

At Moscow airport, Pierre is a met by a woman guide who, speaking loudly in the way she has been taught to do with foreigners, sings the glories of the Soviet capital, reminding him that Moscow, in a boast first made by Stalin at the opening of the Moscow-Volga Canal, is “the port of five seas.” When asked to elucidate by Pierre, she comically forgets the Sea of Azov (in a subsequent scene, Pierre’s interlocutor will have better luck listing the four meats which must go into the classic version of the soup solianka). What follows draws upon the stratagems of both picaresque novel and Bildungsroman. Through a succession of instructive encounters with Soviet citizens of different generations and different contemporary experience, Pierre Durand will achieve a deeper understanding of the current state of the country of his ancestors.

The initial narrative line of the film is devoted to his discovery, through his studies at Moscow University and the friendships that he makes, of the political attitudes and cultural concerns of young Russians of his own generation. His arrival in Moscow comes only weeks after the epoch-making Sixth International Festival of Young People and Students, which ran from 28 July to 11 August 1957 and had brought thousands of young foreigners to the city. The Youth Festival has entered Russian mythology as a hugely significant event in enhancing knowledge of the outside world and of its vibrant youth culture and it is perhaps this that impelled Smirnov to set his film when he did. Some demanding viewers will no doubt complain that certain of the developments alluded to in the film did not occur until a couple of years later, but it is the heady but contradictory general atmosphere of the Thaw years, to which the Youth Festival so powerfully contributed, that Smirnov is seeking to evoke. [2]

frantsuzPierre and four other young Russian students live and study in the newly constructed Moscow University complex on the Lenin Hills. They attend seminars led by the university’s legendary Professors Gudzii, Bondi and Duvakin. Eager to practice their French, two young women invite them to a party at which they are asked to give a lesson in rock and roll. One young student tells of her love of Gérard Philipe and of Fanfan la Tulipe, the 1952 Christian-Jaque film in which he starred with Gina Lollobrigida and which had been a huge hit with Soviet audiences, a fact marked at the time by the excitement caused by its inadvertent showing to children in a Young Pioneer summer camp in Elem Klimov’s Welcome, or No Unauthorised Admittance (Dobro pozhalovat’, ili postoronnim vkhod vospreshchen, 1964). Another young woman startles Pierre by desperately asking him to marry her and take her away from here “even to the moon,” giving him one of the many lessons about Soviet life that will punctuate his visit. Later he learns from the Ukrainian student who shares his block in the hall of residence of the pressure that Soviet students would routinely be put under to report on their foreign neighbors, and a gathering of the French students in his room leads to the discovery of a bugging device hidden in the radio receiver.

As well as studying Maiakovskii and Pushkin, Pierre wants to continue his research on the French choreographer Marius Petipa during the years in which he led the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg at the end of the nineteenth century. This takes him to a dance class at the Bolshoi, where he meets both a member of the corps de ballet, Kira Galkina (compellingly played by the Bolshoi prima ballerina Evgeniia Obraztsova) and her photographer friend, Valera Uspenskii (in a superb performance of fearless youthful energy by Evgenii Tkachuk). Pierre is immediately smitten with Kira and there is another comic episode in which he gives her an impassioned precis of his research so far on a crowded metro train. In a later conversation Kira talks of her visit to London with the Bolshoi, of her delight in cod and chips, but, most tellingly, in a reference to the British exceptionalism that continues to blight this country till this day, she remembers bridling at being made to feel like a “poor relation”: “after all I was the one on stage, and they were in the audience.” Now working on the newspaper Moskovskii komsomolets, Valera had previously graduated from the cinematography faculty of VGIK. As Mikhail Shchukin pointed out in his masterly engagement with Autumn, Smirnov has chosen the professions of his characters with great care from the time of The Belorussian Station (Shchukin 2019). Thus, Pierre’s friendship with Kira and Valera can take him into their worlds and acquaint him with the real-life participants of the unofficial culture of the period. For, like the young people who rebel against the bureaucratic organization of their cultural activities in El'dar Riazanov’s Carnival Night (Karnaval'naia noch', 1956), released for New Year just a few months before Pierre’s arrival in Moscow (“Five minutes” [Piat' minut], Liudmila Gurchenko’s celebrated song from the film, will be played for New Year 1958 in a later scene in The Frenchman), they have cultural interests and connections which extend beyond the official world.

frantsuzHaving surprised Pierre with their knowledge of American Jazz, including Gerry Mulligan and Charlie Parker (they listen to Willis Conover on The Voice of America), Kira and Valera take Pierre to a cellar jazz club. On the way the trio break into an impromptu be-bop dance sequence in what can be seen as Smirnov’s homage to the magical “Madison dance” scene performed by Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur in Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (Bande à part, 1963) (Just as Karina goes on dancing after the young men have stopped, so Kira sways hypnotically on as Pierre and Valera break off to help a stranded motorist start his car.) In the club—in a lovingly conjured sequence that will remind viewers of the evocation of the underground Leningrad music scene of the 1980s in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Summer (Leto, 2018)—, Pierre is stunned by the playing of the jazz pianist Vladimir Terletskii and the saxophonist Aleksei Zubov.

Also en route for the jazz club, Kira gives back to Valera a borrowed copy of the non-official almanac Gramotei, which he then passes on to Pierre. (It is obvious that, like Pierre, Valera is in love with Kira and there is a tragi-comic significance to their confrontation in a later scene. When Pierre delights her with a New Year’s present of a bottle of Chanel No. 5, Valera can counter only with the latest issue of Gramotei.) Valera explains to Pierre that he works on the editing of the almanac, run by his “mate” Aleksandr Ginzburg, who has committed the extraordinarily brave act of publishing his name and address. Like the fictional Valera, Aleksandr Ginzburg did indeed work on the newspaper Moskovskii komsomolets in the late 1950s. Though the dates are not exact, Gramotei is transparently based on the samizdat almanac Sintaksis, which Ginzburg edited (the first issue of which was compiled in 1959) and the film bears a dedication to Ginzburg and those like him “who did not wish to live in lies.” Thus Pierre gets to know the poetry of Igor' Kholin and Aleksandr Kushner, and the young Iosif Brodskii’s “Piligrim.”

Kholin was associated with the group of unofficial artists based in Lianozovo, and in a later, winter scene the trio take the short suburban train trip out there to meet the painters Oskar (Rabin) and Vladimir (Veisberg). On the way Pierre expresses dissatisfaction with the Socialist Realist paintings he has seen at the Tret'iakov Gallery (“it’s as if the Impressionists and Picasso hadn’t happened”). So he is captivated by Rabin’s signature paintings, displaying herring wrapped in newspapers and the Moskovskaia vodka that Pierre has been learning to drink. The fact that Rabin is only now going to be able for the first time to earn a living through his art, albeit by painting posters of “Soviet youth marching into the bright future” and of kolkhoz poultry farming, further contributes to Pierre’s education in the complexities of Soviet life.

Pierre and his young friends seem to be living a kind of parallel existence, a non-Soviet life in a Soviet state (it is striking how few portraits of Soviet leaders appear in the film). Smirnov has said that this reflects his youthful enthusiasm of the time and calls The Frenchman “a tale of the formation of the generation of the 60s [shestidesiatniki]” (Smirnov 2019). The crisp black-and-white cinematography of these scenes (this is Smirnov’s first return to black and white since Angel) suggests that The Frenchman is also in dialogue with key films about the lives and concerns of the Thaw generation, and especially with Marlen Khutsiev’s The Il'ich Gate (Zastava Il'icha, 1964, also known as I Am Twenty) and July Rain (Iiul'skii dozhd', 1966), though of course the digitally produced black-and-white of 2019 looks and means something different from that of the Thaw years.[3]

But in addition to studying the career of Petipa, Pierre has come to Moscow with another mission, which is to find out whether Aleksei Apollonovich Tatishchev, a man whom he describes as “a relative of my mother’s,” is still alive. This too will take him into other areas of the Soviet world. First of all he pays a visit to the hitherto well-connected writer, Nikolai Chukhnovskii (Roman Madianov), who has written a book about his Communist stepfather and whom he had met when the latter visited Paris. Chukhnovskii lives in a grand flat with paintings by Ivan Aivazovskii and Ivan Shishkin on the walls (when Pierre asks if they are originals, he grandly replies “I don’t keep copies”). A maid serves the family lunch. While the men drink vodka, there is a bottle of good Georgian Saperavi for the writer’s wife and daughter. His little grandson departs to play tennis. Nevertheless, Pierre gradually detects the tension that has the writer and his family by the throat. The shifting political ground after the death of Stalin has disorientated previously favored writers and Chukhnovskii loudly proclaims his contentment that times have changed, as if to satisfy the microphones that he suspects may be listening in. An edgy phone call leads him to complain that he has been removed from a delegation to Italy and that his latest book has been withdrawn from the schedule of the Sovetskii pisatel' (Soviet Writer) publishing house. A question from the naïve Pierre as to whether the Security Organs are still all powerful provokes a particularly sharp reply. But the anxieties that beset Chukhnovskii’s family seem also to have a personal dimension. When Pierre shows the writer’s wife a photo of his mother, a woman still strikingly beautiful at 53, he tactlessly adds that she is worried about losing her looks, leading Chukhnovskaia to rush from the room. It is this, rather than his politically charged questions that provokes Chukhnovskii’s parting advice, recalling a famous wartime poster, that Pierre should “blab less. And don’t trust anyone” [Boltai po-men'she. I ne doveriai nikomu]. Later indiscretions will show that Pierre has not fully absorbed this advice. But Chukhnovskii does send him on to an acquaintance in the newly established KGB. Sitting under a portrait of Dzerzhinskii, this official promises to help Pierre, but he stresses that in return he will expect him to report on the political statements of the other French students.

Chukhnovskii, however, is not Pierre’s only lead, and through a succession of encounters with other members of the older generations, The Frenchman will extend the scope of its historical investigation back to the pre-Revolutionary past. In his meetings with victims of the state, now living in evocatively shot tiny rooms in overcrowded and raucous communal flats, and having to contend with the whims of aggressive and indifferent neighbors, he will learn a great deal about the camps of the Gulag and about the classes that had endured them. Hearing about these fates, Pierre repeatedly asks “for what reason” [Za chto?] people had been imprisoned, provoking pityingly mocking replies: “here if there’s a reason they shoot you on the spot.”

frantsuzThe first of these visits takes him to see his mother’s distant relatives, sardonic, mobile, chain smoking Ol'ga Kirillovna Obreskova and her sister Mariia Kirillovna. (While the Obreskovy are indeed an ancient Russian aristocratic family, it is a wonderfully suggestive choice of name by Smirnov, since the word “obrez” can mean a piece of material discarded as not needed for making up a pattern.) Both had graduated from the Smol'nyi Institute for Noble Maidens [Smol'nyi institut blagorodnykh devits] in St Petersburg, though for the younger sister, Mariia, this had happened in 1919 “in Novocherkassk, under fire,” just before the Institute fled from Bolshevik Russia to Serbia. After the Revolution they endured years in the camps, sustained by memories of their pre-Revolutionary youth and rare correspondence with contemporaries lucky enough to have emigrated to Paris. Pierre takes them a letter from his Sorbonne teacher, and their acquaintance Nataliia Osorgina, and they are delighted to establish exactly how they are related to his mother. His enquiry about Aleksei Tatishchev inspires a harrowing tale of the camps in which they were incarcerated and he learns that “Aliks, the artilleryman” was the star math student at the Mikhailovskoe Artillery Academy and that “the young ladies were mad about him.” He had fought in the army of the White General Kornilov and taken part in the Ice March of early 1918. His first arrest in the 1920s led him to Solovki. The last time they had seen him was in the early 1930s but they knew that he was in a camp in Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan when the Soviet Union entered the War in 1941. The magnificence of the acting of Nina Drobysheva and Natal'ia Teniakova in this brief episode is unforgettable, but Antoine Rival is also superb here, the emotional intensity with which he welcomes news of his “mother’s stepbrother” suggesting mysteries yet unplumbed.

Soon after his visit to the Obreskovy sisters Pierre gets another lesson in Soviet history when Valera takes him to see his father, Vladimir (Mikhail Efremov) a former teacher of Marxism who had been seriously wounded at Stalingrad, but who was sentenced soon after the War to ten years in the camps. Released after Stalin’s death he sits in his room, surreptitiously listening to foreign radio stations. On his wall (where it is joined by a portrait of Hemingway put up by his son) is a picture of Winston Churchill, one of his two heroes, along with the commentator of the BBC Russian Service, Anatol Goldberg. Vladimir Uspenskii has no knowledge of Tatishchev, since they were imprisoned in different parts of the Gulag system, but an acquaintance, Ivan Ustiugov, was also in the Dzhezkazgan camp and Pierre and Valera go to visit him at the vehicle repair workshop where he is working as a mechanic. Ustiugov (Aleksandr Anisimov) does, indeed, remember Tatishchev, whom he calls “the count,” but harbors a searing resentment towards him for not taking him along when he organized an escape from the camp. Pierre learns a little more about Tatishchev from this encounter, that he was still alive a year later than the Obreskovy sisters had suggested. But his ill-considered suggestion that Tatishchev’s refusal to include him in the escape had “saved your life” earns Ustiugov’s contemptuous rebuke “you young fool!” [sopliak] and brings the encounter to a premature end. It would seem that Chukhnovskii’s advice has not yet been fully assimilated.

Pierre’s own endeavors have led him to learn that the man he is searching for was alive later than he had known hitherto, and to establish the place of his later incarceration. It is, however, through the offices of his disturbingly courteous KGB minder that he discovers that the man is living in the ancient town of Pereslavl'-Zalesskii, 140 kilometers to the northeast of Moscow, and that he is free to visit him there.

Perhaps the most powerful scene in Smirnov’s Autumn, in which Il'ia, a Leningrad doctor and Sasha, the woman he loves, take an October train to spend a week in the bleakly beautiful Karelian north, is set in a crowded bar, where drink and the desire for community have brought together locals of different ages and professions.[4] Moved by the experience, Il'ia declaims Pasternak’s 1941 poem “On early trains” (“Na rannikh poezdakh”). In the “burning stuffiness of the carriage” [V goriachei dukhote vagona], the narrator “silently got to know the unrepeatable features of Russia” [Ia molcha uznaval Rossii / Nepovtorimye cherty]. Pierre had already experienced the “stuffiness of the carriage” on the elektrichka trip to Lianozovo, but now a winter coach brings him too to the heart of a provincial, wooden, horse-drawn Russia where the man he has been representing as a relative of his mother’s but whom he secretly knows to be his father is working as a night watchman in a bread factory.

frantsuzIll and prematurely aged, Aleksei Tatishchev (Aleksandr Baluev) has been physically diminished by the camps, just as a victim from the other side of the Stalinist machine of power, General Klenskii, is a shadow of his former self at the end of Aleksei Iu. German’s Khrustalev, My Car! (Khrustalev, mashinu!, 1998). But it soon becomes apparent that, unlike Klenskii, he has not been morally broken by the experience. Initially surly and mistrustful, he suggests that Pierre may be an American spy, but gradually he softens. In search of somewhere where they can talk in privacy, away from his room in the communal barracks, he leads his son through snowy streets to the local House of Culture.[5] Tatishchev knows the caretaker of the building, Anna Fedorovna, whose son had died in the camps, and she is able to find them a place to sit, despite the presence of a gluttonous group of bigwigs from the regional capital of Yaroslavl.[6] Here Tatishchev impresses his son with his intimate knowledge of Paris and of the place of Pascal’s grave and drinks a toast to Perrault’s Marquis de Carabas.[7] But affection does not curb his sardonic wit. When Pierre tells him proudly that his mother used to remind him, whenever things seemed difficult, to “Remember, you are a Russian nobleman. You are a Tatishchev,” he replies drily: “But you drink vodka like a Frenchman.” He had spent his time in the camps mathematically proving the existence of God, taking due notice of the incompleteness theory of Kurt Gödel and the writings of Bertrand Russell, so when Pierre tells him that he is a member of the French Communist Party, he counters, witheringly: “The Lord’s sense of humor is incomparable! Absolutely merciless…”

When it is time for Tatishchev to start his nightshift at the factory, Pierre accompanies him and promises to return in the morning. But for all the passionate and sincere intensity of his reaction to meeting his father, for all his ecstatic triple repetition of his mother’s words that he has no right to behave badly because “you are a Russian nobleman. You are a Tatishchev!,” he oversleeps. And so he arrives at the local hospital only after his father has died, a fecklessness that leads to another rebuke from a Soviet citizen, this time a woman doctor. This lateness, this inadvertently broken promise, can perhaps be seen as a microcosmic failure to comprehend fully the imperatives of living in the Soviet Union.

All Pierre Durand’s encounters with representatives of older generations are profoundly historically and morally powerful and the acting of the “supporting players,” Roman Madianov, Nina Drobysheva, Natal'ia Teniakova, Mikhail Efremov, Aleksandr Anisimov and Aleksandr Baluev in these episodes is beyond praise. The film’s subsequent return to his student life and to the development of his romance with the ballerina Kira Galkina initially seems bathetic by comparison (Tiut'kin 2019; Petrik 2019). Nevertheless, the theme of love under threat, by history, by fate, by circumstance or personal weakness, has been important for Smirnov since Hey, Someone (Ei, Kto-nibud') a short, co-directed with Boris Iashin in 1962 and taken from William Saroyan’s one-act play Hello Out There!, which tells of a fleeting but doomed connection between a young man and a young woman in a prison basement in an imagined America. In The Frenchman it is politics that tears the lovers apart. Aware of her relationship with Pierre, and clearly fearing a defection, the Organs have summoned Kira and have removed her name from the list of Bolshoi dancers due to perform in Paris in June, something she keeps from him until he is about to board his plane.[8]

Kira and Valera’s experiment in living in the Soviet Union as if it did not exist was, of course, doomed to failure and the ever-watchful KGB colleagues of the man who was “monitoring” Pierre’s visit have kept them too in their sights. Weeks (or perhaps days) later, the smashing of the samizdat almanac Gramotei will lead to the arrest of Valera Uspenskii, just as Kira is about to visit him to tell him that she has news from Pierre. Defiantly she gives him the Churchillian V for victory sign which she has seen in the portrait on his father’s wall.

That The Frenchman does not come over as a meticulously over-stuffed inventory of the non-conformist art and opinions of the Thaw period, and a role call of real life figures and places from art and academia on both sides of the iron curtain, can be ascribed to the wit and vigor of the text (that there is lively slang but no swearing is probably explained by the exigencies of cinematic distribution in Russia in 2019), the charisma of the trio of young actors, Antoine Rival, Evgeniia Obraztsova and Evgenii Tkachuk, the brilliance of the supporting actors and actresses, and the visual and observational accuracy of the detail of daily life (byt), from borrowing a room from a friend for a romantic encounter to depending upon the favor of a buffet worker to get the occasional pork sausages. The film is graced with humor, of language and gesture, behavior and situation. Crucial too is the soundtrack, which combines Western Jazz, Soviet hits and, most potently, the String Quartet No. 8 by Dmitrii Shostakovich. This is the music that we hear when Pierre Durand arrives in Moscow airport and when he walks out into the town for the first time. It accompanies him on his journey to Lianozovo and it plays as he arrives in Pereslavl'-Zalesskii. Finally, and most somberly, we hear it as Kira Galkina witnesses the arrest of Valera Uspenskii at the end of the film. Smirnov has asserted that no one has expressed the spiritual experience of living under the Soviet regime musically better than Shostakovich and that the String Quartet No. 8 “not only embellishes but shapes the content” of The Frenchman (Solodnikov 2019).

frantsuzFor all his seeming sophistication in the Parisian scene that opens the film, for all his apparent worldliness, by the film’s end Pierre Durand has been revealed as clumsily naïve in almost all his encounters in the Soviet Union, from his rash blurting out of dangerous questions to his comically inappropriate toasting of the health of two drunks with whom he finds himself sharing a drink on a grubby staircase landing. His initial inability to “drink Soviet” leads him to sleep drunkenly through a performance of Swan Lake, an indiscretion that brings to mind his Parisian friend Jean-Marie’s contempt for а “rentier” who had dozed through a production of Molière. He has not been able to fulfil either of his rash promises to the two most important people in his Russian life, his father and his lover, the first through personal frailty, the second through his underestimating the power of the Soviet juggernaut. There will be no sentimental walks in the Bois de Boulogne in June, no trip to the Château de Malmaison. Pierre has been required to undergo not just a political but also a behavioral journey, an éducation sentimentale Soviet style. At the end of this journey he has discovered and lost his father, but he himself has also been fundamentally changed. Like his cinematic forebears, Pierre is now well on the way to “understanding,” in both the political and personal dimensions of his life, but that understanding is utterly different from theirs. He agrees to smuggle out a microfilmed copy of the seized issue of Gramotei and to hand it to a Parisian émigré publisher. “Damn them!” [bud' oni prokliaty!], he exclaims when he learns that Kira has been banned from the trip to Paris and that he and she are about to re-enact the Franco-Soviet separation of his parents.

It is, however, crucially important that the film does not end with Pierre: like so many of his cinematic foreigner predecessors, he is, in the end, an instrument, an instrument for the analysis of the Soviet state and of the lives and desires of its citizens. Pierre can board a plane for Paris (Smirnov taunts both him and the viewer by having its departure delayed for “technical reasons”) but his friends have to stay behind, to live through the consequences of their choices and of their closeness to him. Soon after his departure, Kira Galkina receives sustaining news from Paris, just as the Obreskovy sisters had done earlier in the film. We do not hear what the French correspondent who approaches her in the street tells her, leaving us uncertain of her fate, in a microcosm of the mood of mid-1958, when contradictory signals, difficult to interpret at the time, meant that the fate of the Thaw itself was still uncertain and unresolved.

Pierre Durand is also a cypher for the younger generations of Russian viewers whom Smirnov sees as his most important audience. His geographical journey across Europe mirrors their temporal journey across the decades. His quest to find and know his father is symbolic of what is being asked of them. In watching The Frenchman they will discover both what motivated their parents and grandparents to live as they did and how the legacy of their choices has influenced the country they now inhabit. Perhaps they will be moved to reassess their nostalgia for the USSR (Matizen 2019).

Like all Smirnov’s films, The Frenchman did not have an easy path to the screen. The script was written in 2014 and published, as “Temnaia voda” (“Dark Water”), in his collection Lopukhi i lebeda (Smirnov 2016: 349-440). Private financing was got together and filming was due to start in May 2016, but in March of that year the bank in which the funds were held collapsed, losing two million dollars of sponsors’ money (Arkhangel'skii 2016: 33; Matizen 2019). After new funding was finally secured, filming took place in 2018 and the film was first shown at Kinotavr in June 2019. The Frenchman was nominated nine times for Russia’s most prestigious film award, the Nika. It appeared in the categories of best film, best director, best script and best costume design. Evgeniia Obraztsova was nominated as discovery of the year, with Aleksandr Baluev, Mikhail Efremov, Nina Drobysheva and Natal'ia Teniakova all nominated for best supporting actor roles. At last, it seemed, one of Smirnov’s films was going to be feted in exactly the form in which he had made it. But then the Coronavirus intervened: the Nika ceremony, scheduled for April 2020, has been postponed until the end of the year.

The Frenchman is clearly informed by personal passion and personal memory, and perhaps that will excuse my ending this review on a personal note. While Andrei Smirnov insists that his film is primarily intended for contemporary Russian audiences and that foreign viewers will have trouble interpreting all the period detail, it also speaks especially keenly to those who, like Pierre Durand, first went to the Soviet Union as students in the Soviet period. My own first year studying in the Soviet Union began in 1968, a decade after Pierre’s departure, so the artistic markers, both Soviet and Western, were different (not Charlie Parker but Jimi Hendrix). But the language, the artefacts and the details of daily life were potently familiar. Among the first words spoken to Pierre are remont (repair) and obshchezhitie (hostel, hall of residence), words that I too soon learnt, along with vakhter (a caretaker) and dezhurnaia (a lady on duty in a building). Like him, I sampled Moskovskaia vodka and sovetskoe shampanskoe, portvein (definitely not Port) and spirt (almost pure alcohol). I ate seledka (herring), ogurchiki solenye (little pickled cucumbers) and salo (animal fat highly prized by my room mates and sent to them by their village relatives). I learnt about defitsit sausages, delivered po blatu (through connections) from under the counter. I watched people chain-smoking their Sever and Priboi cigarettes (papirosy).

In my shared room in the university hostel, unless someone had remembered to pull out the plug of the receiver, we would be awoken at 6.00 each morning by the blast of the Soviet National Anthem. My Russian “room neighbors” sheepishly apologized for having to report on what I said and did. Their knowledge and curiosity about “English” culture was touching, sometimes outdated (“foggy Albion”) and sometimes surprising. It was a revelation to me that Richard Aldington and James Aldridge were “classic English writers.” (It was only years later that I realized that the latter’s popularity was based upon the fact that all my friends had loved Teodor Vul'fovich and Nikita Kurikhin’s film version of his story “The Last Inch” [“Poslednii diuim”, 1958] as children.)

I immediately recognized the stone-faced woman at the Pereslavl'-Zalesskii bread factory who initially told Pierre “I can’t help you” [Nichem ne mogu pomoch']; and then, when hope was lost, softened and came to his aid. I remembered taking letters and news from and to émigré relatives. I remembered the émigré cult of (then completely inaccessible) Borodinskii bread. I squirmed at the reminders of my own naïveté and of my capacity to “blab.” Of course, I had my own difficult encounters with Soviet officials whose default position was to tell us that anything we wanted to do was forbidden [nel'zia]. I noted that my friends’ interest in my country and culture was combined with a ferocious pride in their own and a resentment at any perceived sign of cultural condescension that is shared in The Frenchman by Kira Galkina. Eventually I had a crushing sense that my ties to my Russian friends were likely to cause them harm. But this first year of study in the Soviet Union was a time of such powerful emotional closeness both to the country’s language and culture and to individuals that, as Pierre Durand had also found, it marked me for life. I became, in the wise words of Anna Filippova in her review of The Frenchman,a “hostage” [zalozhnik] of the country myself. “Russia sucks you in” [Rossiia zasasyvaet] (Filippova 2019: 101).


1] I wish to express my very sincere thanks to Tamuna Cheishvili, James Mann and Ol'ga Soboleva. My discussions of The Frenchman with them have contributed very significantly to the development of the ideas articulated in this review.

2] Among the consultants listed in the film’s credits are the late Arsenii Roginskii, the Head of the Memorial historical and civil rights society and the preeminent French Slavists Georges Nivat and the late Louis Martinez, both of whom studied at Moscow State University in the mid-1950s. The French were the first small group of foreign students to live in the university building on the Lenin Hills and their experience is closely mirrored by the film (Aucouturier 2016).

3] Stunning black-and-white cinematography contributes powerfully to the evocation of the early Soviet past in another masterly recent cinematic examination of Soviet history, Konstantin Lopushanskii’s The Role (Rol’, 2013).

4] The scene is superbly analyzed in Shchukin 2019.

5] Stanislav Rostotskii’s It Happened in Penkovo (Delo bylo v Pen’kove, released on 17 February 1958) is advertised as showing currently, helping the viewer to date Pierre’s visit and providing further evidence of the scrupulous attention to detail that informs the film. Another 1957 film, released in June of that year, Petr Vasilevskii and Nikolai Figurovskii’s A Polesia Legend (Polesskaia legenda), advertised lower down the bill, would seem to be having a repeat run.

6] The part of Anna Fedorovna is played by Vera Lashkova, a woman who typed Aleksandr Ginzburg’s White Book, on the trial of the writers Andrei Siniavskii and Iulii Daniel', as well as the Chronicle of Current Events, leading her to a year of interrogation in Lefortovo Prison and incarceration in a mental asylum (Sychev 2019). Lashkova’s role is explicitly mentioned by Valera in the scene at the café of the All-Russian Theatre Society at the end of the film in which he reports that “They took Verka today. The typist.”

7] For a brilliant recent analysis of the ways in which cultured Soviet citizens of the Thaw period knew Paris long before they were allowed to visit it, see Gilburd 2018: 278-91. It is perhaps the sustaining force of this imagined Paris that is being celebrated in The Frenchman’s opening scene, with its bereted old painter working at his easel in the background.

8] This plot turn of course alludes to another key cultural event of the Thaw years, for it was exactly three years later, on 16 June 1961, that Rudolf Nureev would defect in Le Bourget Airport. Here again, Smirnov is concerned not with strict chronology but with the general atmosphere and moods of the Khrushchev years.

Julian Graffy,
University College London

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Works Cited

Arkhangel'skii, Andrei. 2016. “Pod podozreniem ia byl vsegda.” Interview with Andrei Smirnov. Ogonek 43 (31 October): 32-33.

Aucouturier, Michel. 2016. “Louis Martinez (Oran 1933, Aix-en-Provence 6 février 2016).” Revue des études slaves 87 (2): 296-98.

Banerjee, Anindita. 2012. “Andrei Smirnov: Once There Lived a Simple Woman (Zhila-byla odna baba, 2011).” KinoKultura 35.

Filippova, Anna. 2019. “Sedogo grafa syn pobochnyi.” Iskusstvo kino 11-12: 100-03.

Gilburd, Eleanory. 2018. To See Paris and Die. The Soviet Lives of Western Culture. Cambridge MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Graffy, Julian. 2018. “‘We’ll meet in Tahiti’: travellers between East and West in Russian Films of the 1990s.” In Ruptures and Continuities in Soviet/Russian Cinema. Styles, Characters and Genres Before and After the Collapse of the USSR, edited by Birgit Beumers and Eugénie Zvonkine, 126-43. London and New York: Routledge.

Matizen, Viktor. 2019. “Proshloe budet vozvrashchat'sia, poka my ne svedem s nim schety.” Interview with Andrei Smirnov. Sobesednik 26 (19 July).

Petrik, Gordei. 2019. “Gid po fil'mam Andrei Smirnova: vliublennost'—besperspektivnaia, smert'— obydennaia.” Iskusstvo kino 7 November.

Pozner, Vladimir. 2017. “Pozner. Andrei Smirnov.” Interview with Andrei Smirnov. ORT YouTube 30 January.

Shchukin, Mikhail. 2019. “Rifma k slovu ‘osen'’.” Seans blog, 3 September.

Smirnov, Andrei. 2004. “Liniia zhizni. Andrei Smirnov.” TV Kul'tura.

Smirnov, Andrei. 2016. Lopukhi i lebeda, Moscow: AST, Corpus.

Smirnov, Andrei. 2019. “Press-konferentsiia fil'ma ‘Frantsuz’.” Startfilm YouTube. 18 October.  

Solodnikov, Nikolai. 2019. “Andrei Smirnov: pizhon Tarkovskii, zhivoi Stravinskii, svet Godara i ‘Frantsuz’.” Interview with Andrei Smirnov. #eshchenepozner 20 November.

Sychev, Sergei. 2019. “‘Ia mogu snimat' tol'ko o proshlom.’ Andrei Smirnov—o dolgom puti k novomu fil’mu.” Interview with Andrei Smirnov. Ogonek 23 (17 June): 38.

Tiut’kin, Aleksei. 2020. “Daidzhest marta: ‘Frantsuz’, ‘Portugalka’, ‘Nezhelatel'nye v Evrope.” Cineticle. March.

Zlatopol'skaia, Dar'ia. 2016. “Belaia studiia. Andrei Smirnov.” Interview with Andrei Smirnov. TV Kul’tura.

The Frenchman, Russia, 2019
Color, 128 min.
Scriptwriter and Director Andrei Smirnov
DoP Iurii Shaigardanov
Production Design Vladimir Gudilin
Editing Alla Urazbaeva
Music String Quartet No. 8 by Dmitrii Shostakovich
Cast: Antoine Rival, Evgeniia Obraztsova, Evgenii Tkachuk, Aleksandr Baluev, Roman Madianov, Nina Drobysheva, Natal'ia Teniakova, Mikhail Efremov, Aleksandr Anisimov, Vera Lashkova
Producers Andrei Smirnov, Elena Smirnova, Elena Gorbunova
Production Marmot-film

Andrei Smirnov: The Frenchman (Frantsuz, 2019)

reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2020

Updated: 2020