Sunday 26 April 2020

Constructivism: "A Russian Youth"

This week's other release to bear the Russian Ministry of Culture's imprimatur - radically different from Why Don't You Just Die! - sees an Aleksandr Sokurov protégé, the writer-director Alexander Zolotukhin, undertaking what is simultaneously an act of homage and deconstruction. For most of A Russian Youth's 72-minute duration, we're watching a grainy mock-up of a Soviet war movie following a plucky young private's progress through the trenches of WW2. The twist is that we're doing so at one remove, in a recording studio where this film is being scored or rescored by the contemporary Tavrichevsky orchestra - and so its sound and effects are periodically dialled down in the mix while the composer gives instructions on which notes and phrases to punch up. The other day, I was reminded of Director's Commentary, a one-series ITV wonder inspired by the then-fashionable DVD extra, in which Rob Brydon voiced a fictional filmmaker talking viewers through his repertoire. (The conceit has since been refined, rather brilliantly, by the Inside No. 9 lads, and inevitably scuzzed up in a more than typically cacophonous episode of Family Guy.) Zolotukhin's film has some of that inbuilt cleverness; what he's inherited from Sokurov is the keenest of interest in film form and the myriad ways image is married to sound. Part of A Russian Youth's project is to flag up that the flagwaving film at its centre is a construction, engineered to make audiences respond in a particular fashion at particular moments.

Yet equally, I think you could enjoy Zolotukhin's reconstruction of such a film in its own right, as he gets so much of it spot on: the hardy, unglamorous faces, the attractively muted colours, the flaring image that indicates the film is being projected from old stock. The filmmaker sets about his task with a sincerity we might describe as recognisably Russian. It'd be easy for a 21st century cineaste to take cheap shots at the corniness of a narrative that sees its protagonist first blinded, then deafened, but no: Zolotukhin affirms that this - with its broad, knockabout comedy (see the blind lad stumble into a sauna tent!) and time-honoured redemption arc (see him assume a new role and soldier on!) - is just what these films were, and that audiences responded to them in their time as modern multiplex crowds have to the contrived ups-and-downs of any Avengers movie. (Daringly, Zolotukhin cuts in a shot of one soldier riding his steed not just bareback but bare-arsed, an image of Russian masculinity of the type that surely imprinted itself on the imagination of a young Vladimir Putin, today's foremost practitioner of shirtless equestrianism.) The other part of A Russian Youth's project is to point up how even a crude, scratchy narrative such as this - one in the process of being finished off and polished up - can still hook us and tell us something. You might want one element without the other - as my colleague Peter Bradshaw opined in his Guardian review - or the two fully integrated, and it's true the whole never quite shakes off an air of the student graduation film, a work quite literally in progress. Yet Zolotukhin announces himself here as a gifted student, and his film has a quaint, playful charm - the charm of something like The Artist - which crept up on me. Sokurov, established master though he is, has never come close to that.

A Russian Youth streams on MUBI UK from Thursday.

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