Cannes 2024 review: Limonov – The Ballad (Kirill Serebrennikov)

“An overly dramatic though handsomely shot slog that takes its audience on a whirlwind tour of its protagonist’s Wikipedia page, all the while forgetting to probe into the nature of this controversial character.”

The adaptation of French writer and journalist Emmanuel Carrère’s biographical novel about Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko, nom de plume Limonov, has had a difficult journey. Originally the brainchild of Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, he backed out of the project after reportedly losing interest in the character. In stepped exiled Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, who picked up the pieces (which is why Pawlikowski is still credited as screenwriter), cast Ben Whishaw as his lead actor, and made Limonov – The Ballad. It is interesting to ponder how Pawlikowski, a more subdued and subtle director, would have handled the life story of the poet-slash-politician. Primarily a stage director, Serebrennikov unfortunately can’t suppress his theatrical impulses, making Limonov an overly dramatic though handsomely shot slog that takes its audience on a whirlwind tour of its protagonist’s Wikipedia page, all the while forgetting to probe into the nature of this controversial character.

Limonov is born in 1943 in the Soviet Union, spending his younger years in Kharkiv. In his early 20s he moves to Moscow with his first wife, who he soon ditches for an alluring fellow poet, Elena Shchapova. After achieving modest success and becoming a fixture in Moscow’s artistic circles, the KGB gets him in its crosshairs. He gets a choice: become an informant or go to prison. Limonov chooses exile, and moves to New York with Elena, even if their turbulent marriage (at one point he tries to strangle her) is destined to fail. Working odd jobs that barely make him a living, Limonov drowns his misery in casual sexual encounters with homeless men, dressed in Elena’s clothes and makeup. Eventually he finds a job as a butler, but his disillusionment in the United States has already set in, and doesn’t subside even after his first novel is published. He moves to Paris and lives there for more than a decade, although the film breezes through this period with little more than a ‘montage’ in which Whishaw runs through the major events of the ’80s; an impressive set piece, but also a box-ticking of sorts. In 1991 Limonov returns to post-perestroika Russia as a minor celebrity, but regime change doesn’t mean he can’t ruffle Russian feathers anymore.

As Whishaw runs past Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Michael Jackson to jump between his exile in New York and his return to the motherland, the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant blaring over the scene is an unintentional musical metaphor for the film as a whole. “We’re so pretty,” snarls Johnny Rotten; Limonov certainly is, but it fails to elucidate who the man is behind the artist it follows for over two hours. Serebrennikov’s manic editing and his penchant for cinematic excess make for a restless movie that never settles and digs into its character, preoccupied as it is with skirting past key moments in Limonov’s life, and in particular in his New York period. Some of these moments are sexual, even lurid, but there is little poignancy to them as they fail to deepen our understanding of, for instance, Eduard and Elena’s tempestuous relationship. This emperor has no clothes, and when the production design (courtesy of Lyubov Korolkova and Vladislav Ogay) is the main draw, no quick-fire editing and elaborately staged set pieces can hide it; it only makes the film exhausting. Serebrennikov’s soundtrack of easily recognizable tracks is as always top notch, although Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, complete with a chorus of black women doo-do-dooing to Limonov in a laundromat, is more on the nose than on point.

As a portrait of a tortured artist Limonov is overwrought, and Whishaw’s self-serious performance doesn’t help diminish the sense of excessive theatricality. The film also conveniently leaves out Limonov’s more questionable political beliefs and actions, such as siding with convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić in the wars in the Balkans, or supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and actively encouraging his countrymen to fight on Russia’s side in the war. Even if this was not part of Carrère’s novel, failing to go into it feels like whitewashing. This leaves a bitter aftertaste to a film that is otherwise bland despite trying to throw every bit of cinematic spice it can find into the mix. In the end, all you taste are the spices, and none of the true flavours.