“Not Quite Soviet, Not Quite Western”: Close-Up on Kirill Serebrennikov’s "Leto"

Soviet ideals meet the youth of the 1980s and the latest rock and roll music in Kirill Serebrennikov's exuberant black and white drama.
Savina Petkova
Kirill Serebrennikov's Leto (2018) is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United Kingdom. It is showing from August 16 - September 14, 2019.
A constrained, silenced audience claps along to electric guitars and drums that produce distinctively rock and roll tunes. Young men only dare to tap rhythmically with their toes, while the one attempt for fangirls to lift up a love-heart poster is hushed in seconds. As the camera glides past the band into the audience, the lead raises his voice only slightly to deliver the chorus finale: “You’re trash!” Amidst the loud bangs on cymbals and the bass riffs, something both cynical and liberating is taking form on stage: a chronotope, a lifestyle, Soviet rock and roll, a love story. In Leto fact meets fiction in reconstructing a time (1980s) and space (Leningrad) in a nostalgic manner, to tell the story of Russian idol Viktor Tsoi and his coming-of-fame within the Leningrad Rock Club circles. While his film attempts a search of times lost, director Kirill Serebrennikov was absent from the film’s final shoots and stages, as he was, until recently, under strict house arrest. Taking in account Serebrennikov’s quest of artistic freedom against the bulldozer of political oppression, Leto feels surprisingly breezy as it meanders through songs, affairs, and animated sequences. However, this archive of memories takes a strong stance on the slacker culture as a stance of independence.  
Leningrad Rock Club was a state-controlled space which encouraged young comrades to creatively inspire their fellow youth by performing censorship-approved songs to a still, sitting audience. Leto explores its circles, atmosphere, and milieu—which were an important voice in the 1980—by imagining its past. While it’s a past not personally experienced by the director, the film’s glossy black and white look and free-spirited narrative comprises a recollection so well that we can all peak in and see some memories that can or could have belonged to us.
The plot gravitates around rock veteran Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk, who also composed the film’s music) and his enigmatic wife Natalia (Irina Starshenbaum), whose marital bliss wears off with the arrival of Tsoi (Teo Yoo), a young hope for Soviet underground music. Shaped by their interpersonal dynamics, this love triangle is a subtle, yet defining feature of the plot, paralleling Viktor’s advent in the couple’s life with his ascent as a rock star. Serebrennikov teamed up with cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants again after The Student (2016), whose long takes and smooth zooms frame the courtship between Natalia and Viktor as delicate while concealing its sizzling sexual undercurrents with a rapid cut. Whether it’s a shared bite into a ripe tomato (a dripping version of the Apple of Discord?), or a kiss cut as soon as their lips locked, the sensual cinematography leaves much to the imagination and lingers on all that’s left off-screen. 
Just like its memorable music, there is something infectious about Leto beyond the inevitable humming of the title song on your way out of the cinema. In the film’s beginning, a beach shelters the rock crowd, as it transforms from intrigued listeners to a group sing-along, when Viktor presents his author song for the first time. A visual equivalent for this aural synergy is composed by the film’s camerawork. Rarely static, often investigative and curious, the camera flirts with the characters’ personal space, as its tilts and zooms are meticulously paced with both admiration and provocation towards its objects. While retraining visual proximity, the film favors close-ups and interior spaces, mirroring the intimate world of the underground rock scene and its limitations. Long shots and exteriors that function as markers of the outside (governmental oppression and Communism) are a rare find, and usually depict architecture and nature in magical brushstrokes. The pipes of a factory resemble a labyrinth, a tram symbolically becomes a space rocket, strokes of color temporarily decorate the black and white canvas of the film—this is how the creative world leaves a mark on the world outside. 
In fact, Leto’s narrative is punctured by five musical interludes that shatter the diegetic status quo, defy the censored normative behavior, and act out artistic rebellion. In a whimsical manner, these episodes showcase a desired revolution, as they burst with creativity and color, as extras sing along to Iggy Pop’s “Passenger” or Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” in thick, Russian accents. Yuriy Karikh’s editing that pieces together whim with grimmer reality achieves somewhat of a poetic contamination between sequences. Even if all these interludes end with a sign reading “This never happened,” this imagined revolt infects the outside world while retaining a homogenous tone of levity and cheerful nostalgia throughout the film.
A particularly charming sequence finds Mike illustrating album covers, as he skillfully copies the original picture on a blank canvas. Later in the film, a sequence of vignettes recreates famous vinyl covers with the film’s characters, while the split screen functions also as a notepad for song lyrics and their Russian translations. Imitation and translation play a crucial role in both the film and its social context. “Not quite Soviet, not quite Western, it’s like some third space.” Mike’s words sum up the life of a whole generation that came of age in the last years of the Soviet Union. In the imperfect translations of English lyrics, misreadings acquire poetic qualities and, in a sense, revitalize the original songs. The tangible line between mimicry and authorship is also present in the narrative-halting animation episodes. Writings over the film frames, color patterns, and scribbles become a statement for a multi-surfaced notion of history, in which reinventing, adapting, and appropriating come from the same yearning to belong. For Soviet rock musicians this is a longing look to the West, for us—a desire to realign with their past. 
Leto is a black and white feast of the senses: bright, bursting with sun and spotlights, featherweight and tasty as a ripe fruit that, as summer usually does, turns melancholy and bittersweet. Rather than a static retrospective of a nostalgia-laden past, the film is remarkably vibrant even in its portrayal of quiet suffering. As a rock ann roll transition into blues, Leto’s lyrical end lingers on the essence of memory and the inevitability of future times.

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