6 MUST-SEE Russian movies at Cannes 2021

Aleksei German Jr./Меtrafilms, 2020; AFP
A selection of engaging Russian movies will be showcased at the 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, to be held from July 6 to 17. Some will vie for the coveted Palme d’Or and others will play outside the hustle and bustle of film competition.

Several movies will be flying the flag for Russia at the Cannes Film Festival’s two main programs, ‘Competition’ and ‘Un Certain Regard’. Three of them have been made by cutting-edge Russian directors. 

“It’s a great comfort to know that as many as three full-length feature films, shot by Russian directors, will premiere at Cannes,” says Joël Chapron, an internationally renowned expert on Russian film and adviser for the Cannes Film Festival for 25 years. “The last time it happened was [in] 2007, when ‘The Banishment’ by Andrei Zvyagintsev, ‘Alexandra’ by Aleksandr Sokurov and ‘Rebellion. The Litvinenko Case’ by Andrei Nekrasov were presented in Cannes.”

“The Russian films that will be unveiled at this year’s festival do a great job of describing modern Russian society,” Chapron notes. 

1. ‘Petrov’s Flu’ 

All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Leo Tolstoy believed. And yet, the Petrovs are, at best, a double-edge sword, as their unhappiness is a delusional flight of fantasy.

Petrov is a car mechanic and his ex-wife is a librarian. They are divorced, but still live together with their son, a primary school student. Petrov, who is approaching his thirties, is on a trolleybus on the way home from work when he feels feverish. Shortly after he finds himself in a… hearse, where he drinks a lot of vodka with a casual acquaintance. After that, he continues to drink in the company of a philosophy professor. After downing shot after shot after shot, Petrov finally gets home, where his ex-wife and his son are waiting for him, all down with the flu. It would prove to be a life-altering experience for all of them.

The movie from acclaimed Russian stage and screen director Kirill Serebrennikov is in the running for the Palme d’Or at the 74th Cannes Film Festival. In ‘Petrov’s Flu’, Serebrennikov fiddles with different genres as masterfully as circus artists walk on stilts simultaneously swallowing fire. The movie is a mix of reality and imagination starring Semyon Serzin, Chulpan Khamatova, Yulia Peresild and Yuri Kolokolnikov (whose credits boast the ‘Game Of Thrones’ series.)

‘Petrov’s Flu’ is based on the famous novel ‘The Petrovs In And Around Flu’ by Aleksei Salnikov, which saw the light of day in 2016, winning a number of awards.

“It’s an attempt to describe our motherland through empathy, and to depict my childhood, fears and joys, love and hatred, rage and adoration, loneliness and dreams. I wanted this film to have a lot of sensuality, a lot of love. <...> This piece of cinema is absolutely sincere and honest,” the director said.

It will be Serebrennikov’s third flick to premiere in Cannes. His rock’n’roll saga ‘Leto’ was vying for the Golden Palm in 2018 and ‘The Student’ drama played in ‘Un Certain Regard’ in 2016. 

2. ‘Compartment No. 6’

A Finnish student takes a train from Moscow to Murmansk in an effort to escape from her mysterious admirer. As fate would have it, the runaway girl has to share a compartment with a somber Russian miner. All of a sudden, this unwanted scenario helps both passengers soothe their loneliness. 

‘Compartment No. 6’ is a Finnish-German-Estonian-Russian co-production set in the late 1990s. Leading Russian producers, screenwriters and actors worked on the movie, including veteran producer Sergei Selyanov (‘Brother’ and ‘Brother 2’) and Yuri Borisov, the star of the ‘Mikhail Kalashnikov’ biopic. ‘Compartment No.6’ is directed by Juho Kuosmanen, whose debut, ‘The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki’, won the main prize in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ program at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

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Kuosmanen filmed his Russian-language movie in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Murmansk, Petrozavodsk and the village of Teriberka, where Andrei Zvyagintsev’s ‘Leviathan’ was shot.

‘Compartment No. 6’ was created with the support of Russia’s Ministry of Culture. “We are very pleased that the film entered the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival. It’s reassuring to know that this is the first bright result of the ministry’s 2019 minority co-production competition,” Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova said

3. ‘House Arrest’ 

The drama tells the story of a middle-aged university professor, who is fighting for his ideals of social justice and for life itself. The protagonist takes to social media to voice criticism of local authorities, but soon finds himself under house arrest. He feels as if he is fighting a losing battle. 

‘House Arrest’ stars Merab Nindze, Anna Mikhalkova, Rosa Khairullina, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Alexander Pal and Alexandra Bortich.

Meanwhile, the film’s director, Aleksei German Jr., is a festival veteran. His drama ‘Paper Soldier’ won Venice’s best director award, his film ‘Dovlatov’ took Berlin’s 2018 Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution, while his drama ‘Under Electric Clouds’ scooped Berlin’s Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution in 2015.

‘House Arrest’ will have its world premiere in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ program, reserved for up-and-coming and experimental filmmakers. 

“For me, this is an experiment, because the movie was filmed just on one location, so getting to the Cannes Film Festival is a source of pride,” Aleksei German Jr. said. 

It’s a low-key movie with big ambitions. 

“By and large, this movie is our declaration of love to the great Russian literature - my beloved Gogol, Griboyedov and Dostoevsky. For me, the topic of respect and responsibility of a citizen before his country is very important. Our main hero is fighting for, as it seems to him, a better future, for justice.” 

4. ‘Unclenching The Fists’ 

Zaur is a helicopter parent who hovers 24/7 and his children are fed up with their father’s fanatic overprotection. The family lives in the village of Mizur, high in the mountains of North Ossetia, and when an opportunity to escape arises, Zaur’s eldest son, Akim, flees to the nearest large city of Rostov-on-Don to look for work. His youngest brother Dakko is still fairly clueless about life, while his only daughter, Ada, is also actively making plans to escape from her father’s custody, in the search for freedom.

“The first impetus for creating this story was a catchphrase from [William] Faulkner’s novel ‘Intruder in the Dust’ that very few of us can withstand slavery, but no one can withstand freedom,” Kovalenko said. Her film is among the highlights of the ‘Un Certain Regard’ program.

Kira is a student of Aleksandr Sokurov, a master of cinema of the darkest corners of human existence. Her debut movie ‘Sofichka’, based on the story of the same name by Fazil Iskander, was showcased at the 2016 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

‘Unclenching The Fists’ is produced by Aleksandr Rodnyansky, whose credits include Andrei Zvyagintsev’s award-winning ‘Elena’, Oscar-nominated ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Loveless’ and Kantemir Balagov’s ‘Closeness’ and ‘Beanpole’ (which won the ‘Un Certain Regard’ Best Director Award at Cannes in 2019.) 

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According to Rodnyansky, ‘Unclenching The Fists’ is a “bold and unexpectedly mature work that combines a deep understanding of human psychology and the obvious artistic talent of the author. The movie is also unusual in that it puts the spotlight on North Ossetia, previously unexplored in cinematography and until recently a terra incognita”. 

5. ‘White Road!’ 

This mystical drama follows a man who is trying to find his missing mother in the Kalmyk steppe. When he finally finds her, they go on a metaphysical journey they never had time for during her life. “It’s a modern myth that will be understandable to everyone who has experienced a loss not only of their loved ones, but also of the inner part of oneself,” Manzheeva was quoted as saying. 

‘White Road!’ is a project seven years in the making. Director Manzheeva and her producers, Elena Glikman and Victoria Lupik, hope to find additional funding at Cannes and finally kick the project into high gear, with shooting scheduled for September.

“We have Russia’s Culture Ministry support and have found Mongolian and French co-producers. Now we need to find a sales agent and a distributor. We hope that participation in the Cinéfondation Atelier program will allow us to achieve these goals,” Lupik said

L’Atelier gives filmmakers from across the globe a chance to build contacts with film professionals and find funding for their movies. It picks around fifteen feature length projects and invites their directors to the Cannes Film Festival, where they can boost the production process through new contacts and networks.

A Russian movie has been selected for the Atelier program for the first time in 15 years.

6. ‘Under the Pillow’ 

It’s a multiformat one-stop entertainment project that encourages children to “explore the magical world under the pillow of an old sofa”. 

‘Under the Pillow’ puts ‘Mormitten’ under the spotlight, a handmade kitten-like toy poised to become your kid’s new best friend. 

It’s a “universal story about family values” likely to appeal to kids of all ages, as well as adults. ‘Under the Pillow’ basically kills two birds with one stone, because it’s an interactive VR and an animation series, available in both English and Russian.

Lovers of animation will have a chance to watch ‘Under the Pillow’ at the Marche du Film, a global mecca for film industry professionals held in conjunction with the Cannes Film Festival. 

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