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May 11, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

At the Cannes Film Festival, two films, set in the waning years of the Soviet empire, have debuted to reviews so lukewarm that some critics attending the festival have wondered in print whether they’re not a portent of even inferior things to come. After all, the festival usually makes a noticeable effort to launch with a bang, often displaying in its first days films that evoke the energy and imagination of veteran cineastes and budding film talents. But several critics have found Russian director Krill Serebrennikov’s Leto and Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War puzzling and artistically self-indulgent. Presumably to emphasize the time and mood of the era, both films are presented in black and white. Pawlikowski goes one step further, employing the 1.375:1 aspect ratio of early sound movies. The two films’ protagonists are individuals disillusioned with and oppressed by Soviet bureaucracy. But that’s where the similarities end.

Serebrennikov (who incidentally is currently under house arrest in Russia after being charged with embezzling state funds and was therefore unable to accompany his film to Cannes) focuses his camera on a group of merry rock-and-rollers in the late-70s/early-80s (it’s loosely based on the life of an actual Russian rock star of the time) and their bristling encounters with Soviet authorities. Pawlikowski’s film, on the other hand, is about two mismatched Polish lovers, both musical talents, who escape to the West also in the hope of escaping the creative strictures of the Communist state but who find their careers and love lives in shambles nonetheless. Where Leto falters, the critics appear to agree, is in its effort to integrate rock-video-type sequences into its graphic account of rebellious Russian youth against an oppressive state. It also represents a “conflicting blend of austerity and excess,” commented Guy Lodge in Variety. And while the title can be translated as “Summer,” Peter Bradshaw in Britain’s Guardian observed that “it’s a distinctively wintry movie, with some longueurs and mood swings to nowhere.” There are some gloriously arresting musical scenes in Cold War, too, but they’re 180 degrees apart from those in Leto: enormous choruses singing “songs of the peasants” and dancers choreographing folkloric numbers. The cinematography is equally gorgeous. Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter concludes that the film’s “anti-romantic message may be too bitter a pill for general audiences to swallow, even if the rhapsodic musicality of the film helps it go down easier.” But in a generally favorable review, David Sexton in the London Evening Standard sums up: “At its heart there’s a relationship that doesn’t wholly move you as it needs to do. The rigor of this film-making is nonetheless ravishing.”