Russian cinema's romcom answer to ‘La La Land’

21:15, 11 august 2017

Window to Europe film festival

This year’s Window to Europe film festival in Vyborg, just outside St. Petersburg, featured the debut of “Love Story,” the first motion picture by Peter Todorovsky Jr., starring Alexander Petrov and Vilma Kutaviciute. Film critic Egor Moskvitin weighs in on Russia’s new musical romcom, reviewing the inevitable comparisons to last year’s “La La Land.”

The film begins with a successful actor (played by Alexander Petrov) recording a TV interview, recalling how he once accidentally crossed paths with the first woman he’d ever loved. Meanwhile, a beautiful, sarcastic character (played by Vilma Kutaviciute) tells a journalist her version of the same events. The movie then flashes back to their unexpected rendezvous, when Petrov’s character hadn’t yet made it in show business, and he was still stumbling through life as a limousine driver. For some reason, the woman orders a limo to take her 1,000 miles from Moscow to Sochi, and of course the driver turns out to be our male lead. Years earlier, they’d been in love and living on the Black Sea coast.

Russian cinema hasn’t seen chemistry between two actors like Petrov and Kutaviciute since Igor Plakhov and Vasily Rogov starred as police officers in the detective comedy series “Deadly Force,” which ran on Pervyi Kanal from 2000 to 2005.

Ten minutes into Todorovsky Jr.’s film, however, and you’ll forget you’re watching a Russian movie at all. This is a purely Hollywood romcom, and Vilnius native Vilma Kutaviciute’s accent (in the film, they cleverly explain that she decided to become “mysterious” like the actress Renata Litvinova when she moved from Sochi to Moscow) only highlights the enormous distance between this picture and everything else being produced in Russia today.

Though the script was written well before “La La Land” ever hit theaters, and filmed while the American picture was only premiering in Venice and Toronto, the involuntary import substitution of “Love Story” becomes especially strange (and wonderful) in a scene where the hero runs between casting calls, until he’s fatefully singled out and asked to tell a story from his life. The heroine is a pianist, and before long she’s forced to make a decision that crushes any lasting reunion with our hero.

He’s named Sev and she’s Maria, which sounds almost like Seb and Mia. At the film's climax, the two stars dance in a stunning crowd scene, running between piers and living out alternative paths their lives might have taken. He brings her coffee in the morning, and she sometimes teases him for being a loser. Instead of jazz, we get rock musician Sergey Mazaev, and Viktor Tsoi’s song “Eighth Grader” belts out at a crucial scene, but could it really be any different in Russia? Rock, after all, is our jazz.

Лавстори (Lovestory)
Russian film festival Window to Europe

The acting by Alexander Petrov and Vilma Kutaviciute is as great a delight for the performers as the audience, and both stars each have extended scenes that demanded remarkable discipline and concentration. Petrov, wearing a driver’s cap and sitting behind the wheel of a taxi, repeats lines from Jude Law’s 2004 film “Alfie,” while dressed in ripped jeans and a crumpled t-shirt that recalls a young Ashton Kutcher. Kutaviciute’s look and voice, on the other hand, are so unique that it’s impossible to place her in any Hollywood type. As a result, these two superb actors spend 90 minutes together on screen, opening up to one another and most importantly avoiding the genre’s worst pitfalls.

At the Window to Europe festival, everyone in the audience is a member of the grand jury. Before every feature, they distribute voting ballots for you to rank the film on a 10-point scale and answer a handful of questions: Are you a filmmaker? Are you a man or a woman? Are you older than 30? Don’t expect the festival to hand out awards to directors who charmed “women under 30 who aren’t in the industry,” but it’s easy to guess which demographic the movie “Love Story” won over.

Some “non-filmmakers over 30” left the theater saying, “The characters hadn’t seen each other for 10 years, and they found nothing to talk about? What a bunch of crap.” A few colleagues noted the stunning cohesiveness, composure, and pacing of Todorovsky Jr.’s big screen debut. Others complained that he was following a well-trodden path with a first film so commercial and predictable. Only the youngest audience members left the theater in a euphoria, lazily arguing about the ending. Explaining the ending’s weakness, however, would be impossible without spoilers (and even saying that much is something of a giveaway). This film expertly works the young generation’s issues, dealing with difficult choices about how to live (do you prioritize your own goals or hitch yourself to someone else’s?) and the discrepancies between the expectations of youth and the reality of adulthood, not to mention society’s tiresome pressure on unmarried women who are “almost 30.”

There’s still a long time to wait before “Love Story” gets its wide release, and the critical response will probably depend largely on the reviews that come out immediately after its festival debut or much later. The morning after it was screened in Vyborg, many were comparing the film, mostly unfavorably, to “La La Land.” In “Love Story,” there’s no serious character conflict and no unresolvable problems like those found in “Hipsters” (Stilyagi), the 2008 film by Todorovsky Jr.’s father. And there’s nobody in “Love Story” who comes close to being what might be called a revolutionary. “Perhaps, there is no greater love than that of a revolutionary couple, where each of the two lovers is ready to abandon the other at any moment if revolution demands it,” wrote Slavoj Žižek in his “Leninist reading” of “La La Land,” describing the power of that film’s unconventional narrative path.

On the other hand, for at least one evening in Vyborg, Todorovsky Jr.’s romantic comedy gave viewers a taste of what they felt when they first saw “La La Land,” and we’d be kidding ourselves if we expected anything more from a movie that’s due out next Valentine’s Day.

Russian text by Egor Moskvitin, translation by Kevin Rothrock