Maria’s Lovers and Siberiade: Andrei Konchalovsky’s Cannes Evolution

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Maria’s Lovers and Siberiade: Andrei Konchalovsky’s Cannes Evolution

In 1984, Andrei Konchalovsky—the famed Soviet filmmaker who had more recently made a stunning move to the U.S.—was back at the Cannes Film Festival, this time not in competition and with a new challenge: selling a film. Maria’s Lovers seemed like it was a surefire for arthouse acclaim, being a post-WWII drama starring Nastassja Kinski (one of the principal performers in that year’s Palme D’Or winner, Paris, Texas), John Savage (revisiting aspects of his character Steven Pushkov from the Oscar-sweeping The Deer Hunter), a troubadourish Keith Carradine, and even an elderly Robert Mitchum. Yet the film was without distribution, and had no apparent buyers in sight. 

It was a far cry from where Konchalovsky was five years before, taking home the Grand Prix for Siberiade, a film with the full force of the Soviet film industry behind it. This wasn’t a fall from grace, but a self-imposed exile, not unlike his contemporary and former colleague Andrei Tarkovsky’s exit for Western Europe in search of an escape from perceived censorship. While Tarkovsky was largely frustrated with the Soviet Union’s atheism, Konchalovsky was displeased specifically with the bureaucracy, seeing it as a limit to artistic potential. But Konchalovsky would soon find that even his privilege in industries on both sides of the Iron Curtain wouldn’t lead him to a perfect world of filmmaking.

Andrei Konchalovsky was born in Moscow in 1937 to the poets Natalia Konchalovskaya and Sergei Mikhalkov, the latter of whom came from an old aristocratic clan that survived from pre-imperial Russia to the present. Sergei enjoyed an extraordinary position within the Soviet arts world, having been commissioned by Stalin to write the lyrics of the Soviet National Anthem. While theoretically coming up in a classless society, Andrei and his brother, Nikita, grew up in an emerging haute-bourgeois world in post-war, post-Stalinist Moscow. First thinking he would become a pianist, Andrei studied at the Moscow Conservatory until he switched to pursuing a career in film and enrolling at the VGIK (originally the Moscow Film School, the oldest in the world), being taken under the wing of Mikhail Romm. 

It is here that Konchalovsky would meet Andrei Tarkovsky, his collaborator who would ultimately eclipse him and the rest of his generation of Soviet filmmakers in the eyes of the wider film world. But while Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky were having their own artistic fallout over the course that Tarkovsky was taking with Andrei Rublev, Konchalovsky was seemingly coming into his own as an artist with his sophomore feature Asya’s Happiness, which developed a new Soviet style of neorealism that blended the professional trio playing the central love triangle with a massive cast of non-professional actors. However, Konchalovsky’s frank portrayal of real kolkhoz farmers in rural Russia would prove too critical of current Soviet Union policy for the censors, and Asya’s Happiness found itself becoming one of the few films in Soviet history to be genuinely banned. This experience led Konchalovsky to spend the rest of his time directing in the U.S.S.R. carefully compromising—his next two films would play it safe with Turgenev and Chekhov adaptations. It wouldn’t be until Siberiade that we would see another “statement” from Konchalovsky.

It would be easy to say that his greatest Soviet film, Siberiade, is Konchalovsky trying to make the filmic equivalent to prolix Russian novels like Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. But Konchalovsky would be quick to point out that his contemporary Sergei Bondarchuk already literally made War and Peace, not to mention that Konchalovsky was also one of the many to deride using the Soviet industry to attempt a “Hollywood film.” 

Siberiade is, instead, more like the decades-spanning, era-defining epic that we’ve come to expect from film school generations across the world. It is in good company with the American mob epics of Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino or The Irishman) or the Revolution films of China’s Fifth Generation (Zhang Yimou’s To Live, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite, Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine)—that is to say, it is a national epic seeking to construct an overarching narrative about the development of a modern country through cultural and aesthetic specificity. 

In Siberiade’s case, this means blending the realist mise-en-scene that Konchalovsky developed in Asya’s Happiness with the emerging poetics (sumptuous natural light, the quiet motions of the natural world, cameras that glide with the wind, a free-flowing mix of present, past-tense and dream logic) that became exemplified by Tarkovsky’s cinema but was never exclusive to Tarkovsky himself. Siberiade also adds referentiality to the agit-prop, montage roots of Soviet cinema by way of archival sequences watching the history of the 20th century fly by, which are beautifully brought to life by Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Peleshyan (these sequences would later be strung together in his own masterpiece Our Century). 

Siberiade is a multi-generational epic set in the remote Siberian town of Yelan. From the October Revolution to the ‘60s, the Ustyuzhanin and Solomin families weave in and out of each other’s lives. It starts with the poor Ustyuzhanins—the crazed father Afanasi (Vladimir Samoylov) building a road to nowhere through the woods and swamps, and his son Nikolai (Vitali Solomin) who is forced to steal food to survive. Nikolai quickly runs into trouble with the Solomins, the local gentry in their nowhere town, but also falls for the Solomins’ daughter, Nastya (Natalya Andreychenko). The two become revolutionaries, leaving Yelan to fight for the Bolshevik cause, with the Civil War ultimately claiming Nastya’s life. During the first five-year plan of the ‘30s, Nikolai returns to Yelan with his son Aleksei, to find the village unchanged and still virtually trapped in the Middle Ages—it would seem it is harder for the Revolution to upend the old ways than it would at first seem. 

As the story continues through the years, and Aleksei becomes an adult (played by Andrei’s brother, Nikita Mikhalkov), there is one mysterious character who keeps returning: the Eternal Old Man (Pavel Kadochnikov). The Eternal Old Man is a rather pagan figure in an otherwise grounded, if at times surreal, melodrama. His animistic existence gives the ineffable power of the land on the people a human face, and a Russian one too. Whereas Tarkovsky’s films can be considered broadly spiritual, here Konchalovsky is making a point about Russian culture, specifically: Despite the slow march of history, there is something ancient underlying the Russian people. Underneath the new industrialization, exemplified by the attempts to drill oil around Yelan in Siberiade, is a world of ghosts and spirits. While Tarkovsky’s exploration of Christian faith and Konchalovsky’s look at contemporary poverty were unfavorable to the censors in 1966, Siberiade’s multi-generational attempt at explaining modern Russianness lined up well with the international image that the U.S.S.R. was looking to put out at the time, and the film would be a high point for Konchalovsky’s powers within the film industry. 

But Konchalovsky’s ambivalence to the U.S.S.R. and its bureaucracy led him to abandon his privileged position within Soviet society (and his Russian noblesse name Mikhalkov) and head to Hollywood, where any amount of good luck he had was marred by the realities of the capitalist industry he found himself within. 

Konchalovsky landed in the American industry at just the right time: Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were seeking to raise the profile of their B-movie schlock house, The Cannon Group, by bolstering their ranks with arthouse projects. This led to the courting of the likes of John Cassevetes, Norman Mailer and even Jean-Luc Godard (whose King Lear that Canon funded opens with an angered phone call from Globus). Cannon would also act as the artistic landing pad for Konchalovsky, financing his first four films in the U.S. (although it would take until their third try, Runaway Train, to get distribution off the bat). His first film with Cannon, Maria’s Lovers, would show off his prowess as a director unleashed from any of his prior privileges or expectations, but also foreshadow his eventual irrelevancy. 

Konchalovsky shot Maria’s Lovers like it was Asya’s Happiness, playing in an Eastern European diaspora community in rural Pennsylvania, with bodies framed against flowing fields on rolling hills, and tightly packed crowds dancing and singing together as our characters move in between the many lives that make up their community. The most stunning example of this exemplary mise-en-scene is a sequence on a ferry in the fog, where Carradine’s character tries to seduce Kinski on a packed bus. She rejects him and runs out the door, turning back to face him—on one side of the screen is Carradine’s profile, on the other is a young girl singing, and right in the middle between the windows is Kinski standing against the fog. 

Maria’s Lovers feels as out of place—out of the culture it’s supposed to inhabit—as the first and second generation people that inhabit its world. It follows Ivan Bibic (Savage), as he returns to his hometown after being captured and held prisoner by the Japanese in the Pacific. In his mind, he married his hometown sweetheart Maria (Kinski), but she’s fallen for another man while he was away. After a quite a bit of romantic back-and-forth, Maria and Ivan agree to be married, but Ivan can’t bring himself to consummate it and instead falls back into the arms of Mrs. Wynic (Anita Morris), an older woman whom he treats as both the mother and the whore to his own psychological arrested development, stunted by his PTSD from the war. 

“I can’t make love to her,” Ivan tells Mrs. Wynic. “You dreamed about her too long,” she replies. “She lives in your dreams, not in your body.” But Ivan can’t live in reality, so he runs. 

Konchalovsky made his first film abroad not that different in reminiscence to Tarkovsky’s, even though both artists try to separate themselves from the other. Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia is a cold, ghostly film set in a decaying northern Italy—a film obsessed with home and a loss of sense of place, the listlessness of knowing you can’t go back but feeling like you don’t understand where you’ve gone. Siberiade showed a clear and confident command of the place Konchalovsky had come from, or at least the mythic ideal of it from Konchalovsky’s Moscovite perspective, yet his frustration with his home led him to leave like so many others.

It is beautiful and tragic that Konchalovsky’s first film away would open with clips from John Huston’s Let There Be Light, where soldiers are debriefed on their wartime experiences and break down in front of psychologists. It is important, too, that a Soviet filmmaker who had his film banned for unearthing an uncomfortable reality about his present would choose images from an American film banned for the same reasons. Konchalovsky weaves Savage’s character into this sequence, saying how excited he is to go home, even though, as we’ll learn, his struggle is in accepting the reality of what home has become. “I dreamed you up,” Ivan tells Maria, “and I’m through with that. I wanna keep it that way.” 

It seems that Konchalovsky was wrestling with something similar and, ultimately, upon his post-Soviet return, all he seemed capable of doing was reliving the past again and again. Be that an aesthetic past—trying to recapture some of the magic of Asya’s Happiness by literally making a sequel in Ryaba, My Chicken, or figuratively doing so in borrowing its form for The Postman’s White Nights—or his living in the literal past as like in Paradise or Dear Comrades!, the latter film briefly putting him back on the map of the international film world. But Dear Comrades! fails in its ambivalence, one that matches Konchalovsky’s own: He can’t resolve what his country is, even if he can understand how to navigate it. He hasn’t been able to since Siberiade, and from Maria’s Lovers on he’s apparently resolved to keep wandering, because oftentimes it is too painful to step outside of the dream.

Alex Lei is writer and filmmaker currently based in Baltimore. He can usually be found on Twitter.

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