The news of the passing of Alexey Balabanov came as a shock, although even people who were not close to Alexey had been “in the know,” so to speak. The director had been preparing us and himself for this news for some time. He sent himself—“a member of the European Film Academy”—to meet his maker in his film Me Too. He gave us hints about his imminent passing in his last interviews, warning us that “there probably will be no new Balabanov films.” At the same time, while finishing the script, he was preparing two new projects. He even seemed to have addressed some of the health issues to the point that he began expressing an interest in trips abroad, which he used to hate. Mexico? Sure, I’ll go there. Transylvania, the homeland of Count Dracula? Those are my characters. I’ll definitely go.
He didn’t. Nor did he make any more films. Those that he has made throughout his two decades of work in the film industry are left for us to ponder. And that is plenty. Balabanov is latter-day poète maudit. He is the only people’s hero of contemporary Russian film folklore, creator of the first post-Soviet mythology—the mythology of “brotherhood.” A brotherhood that is not on an international scale, but that cannot be reduced to “Russianness,” as some would certainly wish to do. A brotherhood that has already been criminalized—much like the Russian society itself—but at the same time preserving “ideals” alongside “criminal notions.”
The two first films by Balabanov—Happy Days (based on the play by Samuel Beckett), and The Castle (Kafka)—were only indirectly, metaphysically related to Russia. Full of the absurdity of timelessness, they instilled in the viewer a feeling of claustrophobia mixed with the fear of total freedom. It was that, as well as the knowledge of European languages and culture, that distinguished Balabanov from other film directors of the same generation. He was part of the St. Petersburg landscape, but he belonged to the Leningrad School only by virtue of his place of residence. In his decadent masterpiece Of Freaks and Men he gave mature shape to his artistic universe and his esthetic imperative.
Balabanov’s film directing career can be divided into two parts—before and after Brother (1997). Danila Bagrov, the protagonist, loves his brother to the point of self-forgetfulness, is drawn to art in the form of the band Nautilus Pompilius, yet becomes a coldblooded assassin. When Brother 2 came out and took the international stage, leftists, national-revanchists, and pre-election propagandists bent over backwards to take their cue from the most provocative protagonist of the key feature film of the Russia’s 1990s. Yet no one succeeded. Everyone failed, just like politicians have always failed, to rub elbows with Great Artists. The character of Danila Bagrov continued to belong to Art. And he influenced it as few have done it before him.
As you would expect, Balabanov, the poète maudit, had to pay a high price for the nationwide triumph of his character. To use a metaphor from antiquity, Fate began following Balabanov and his trusty producer Sergey Selianov. One after another their projects fell through. The leading actress in the film The River, a large-scale Siberian epic, died tragically in a car accident, leaving the film unfinished. Balabanov and his wife, costume designer Nadezhda Vasilieva were both seriously injured in that accident. After War, which was defiantly un-PC, came the infamous Kolka-Karmadon rock-ice slide. The death of Sergey Bodrov Jr deprived Selianov/Balabanov’s film crew, and Russian cinema in general, of one of its most charismatic actors, Perhaps it was Fate, culminating in the Kolka-Karmadon tragedy, that splintered the group of professionals that had just begun to form at and around Selianov/Balabanov’s film studio.
After recovering from the shock of the Kolka-Karmadon disaster, Balabanov confounded audiences by revealing his comedic, jesting side in the movie Dead Man’s Bluff. Then followed the affectionate and even slightly sentimental melodrama It Doesn’t Hurt. Suddenly, he shocked us again with his Cargo 200. In this film, one pathological case is treated as a boil of the unconscious, which festers in a superpower society that sends its children to the slaughterhouse of war, all the while biding its time in inebriated chatter about Utopia. Cargo 200 provides us with the key to understanding Balabanov’s entire oeuvre. This key is a transgression, i.e. an exit from the natural state, which most often is carried out through sexual perversion, coercion, and alcohol or drugs. It can, however, also be the result of an acute societal mutation: the Soviet past acquires the necrophilic signs of the living dead—simultaneously repugnant and mesmerizing—which forms the today’s neo-Soviet style of stagnation.
Balabanov the Artist is a radical conservative: a contradictory, yet very fruitful mix of traits. He invites comparison with Dostoevsky or John Ford, because for Balabanov the social universe takes precedence over a moral society. Yet even this conclusion was modified by his later works—Morphine and The Stoker. His statements became more intimate, reaching their absolute degree of intimacy in Me Too. Balabanov became more and more preoccupied with thoughts about God, though I’d argue about the appropriateness of spelling it with a capital G. The relationships of the characters of Me Too with Mr. God and Mr. Death are almost informal, along the lines of a folk religion vs. the official variety. The dilapidated carcass of the belfry, the church with gaping holes and semi-faded frescos—this is the material yet illusory world, which Balabanov depicted so masterfully and precisely. The first part of the film, which takes place in St. Petersburg, depicts the cruelty around us. At the same time, there is no escape from transparent streetcars (Balabanov’s favorite image), following their routes, and the general feeling that somewhere here, some time ago, someone lived out his “happy days.” Everybody longs for his piece of joy, all the while guessing, albeit vaguely, that you will only reach it in the next world; but then there is no guarantee that you’ll ever get there—the competition is tough.
The tragic news came in the midst of the Cannes Festival, at which Happy Days and Brother had been shown previously. After that, interest in Balabanov waned. None of his films has even been entered into competition at Cannes, which is a shame for Cannes (as well as for Venice and Berlin). Europe, which is still striving to decipher the enigma of the Russian soul, has overlooked the most important film director of our era. While he has been demonstratively indifferent to the fame and glory of film festivals, this injustice hurt him. It hurt him just as much as the injustice that has become the norm of the society of the country which he—despite everything—loved, along with its “brothers” and “bros.”
CTB Film Company
Author: Anredy Plakhov