CANNES, France (Reuters) - There was an empty chair in Cannes on Thursday for a Russian film director under house arrest back home for a fraud case his producer called “ridiculous”.
“Leto” (“Summer”), a biopic about the early days of a Russian rockstar in the Soviet era, is the first of two films in the festival’s main competition to screen without their director.
Kirill Serebrennikov was arrested during the shoot and had to complete editing the film at home, alone, without being able to communicate with his cast and crew.
While the Iranian Jafar Panahi, whose movie “3 Faces” will screen on Saturday, is officially banned from making films or leaving the country, Russian authorities say Serebrennikov’s fraud case has nothing to do with censorship.
“We received an answer from Mr Putin yesterday (to a request to allow Serebrennikov to travel) who told the Cannes Film Festival and the French government that he would have been pleased to help ... but in Russia justice is independent,” said Joel Chapron, who was chairing the news conference for the festival.
“Leto” portrays the rock scene of early 1980s St. Petersburg where musicians have to submit lyrics for official approval and audiences at the city’s one rock venue are policed to ensure they stay seated and do not show too much enthusiasm.
Established frontman Mike takes a younger singer-songwriter, Viktor, under his wing, setting up a love triangle with Mike’s wife Natasha.
Western audiences may be unaware that this is based on a true story and that Viktor Tsoi went on to become one of the most successful and influential rock musicians in Russia before his death in a car crash in 1990, aged 28.
Tsoi, who had a Soviet-Korean father, is played by Teo Yoo, a South Korean actor who had to learn the script phonetically as he does not speak Russian.
“I knew about Viktor. He is also famous in Korea,” Yoo told the news conference, saying it was scary to play a character familiar to millions of people in the former Soviet Union.
“For them, it’s like me playing Jesus,” he said.
With flashes of animation added unexpectedly by Serebrennikov during post-production, and scenes on a train and tram where members of the public break into song, the film has moments of surrealism and, according to Variety’s Guy Lodge, “avoids the bland structural pitfalls of the musical biopic”.
Not overtly political, the film will get a theatrical release in Russia, but its theme of state censorship and oppression will not go unnoticed as its auteur - who also directs theater and ballet - remains under arrest.
“This was more of a historical film – talking about the context of that time, not stressing any similarities (with the present),” producer Ilya Stewart said.
“Although, in my personal opinion, anything Kirill does in his work, whether it’s ballet, theater or any of his film, it’s about today. He speaks about today.”
“Leto” is one of 21 movies in competition for the Palme d’Or in the festival that runs from May 8 to May 19.
Reporting by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Andrew Heavens