F. Kreisel

Montreal World Film Festival 1996

This movie, despite its cast of brilliant actors in every role, is a coarse and vulgar debasement of the biting social satire written by Nikolai Gogol one and a half centuries ago. Gazarov eschews appealing to the viewers' intelligence and turns every scene into a lightweight farce.

Gazarov added a large number of farcical scenes and strokes to Gogol's script. The roles of Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky have been combined and this Bobchinsky-Dobchinsky has been told to act the part of a lunatic with a split personality, always accompanied by his alter ego Dobchinsky-Bobchinsky. While Gogol wanted to satirize the interchangeability of the petty landlords, their lack of uniqueness, Gazarov just goes for the physical laughs.

There is much stumbling and falling throughout the movie, especially in the scene of the first encounter between the governor, played by Mikhalkov, and Khlestakov, played by Mironov. There is a ridiculous scene of duck shooting from the window of the hospital in which Khlestakov shoots a couple of ducks, then a fish. This scene is worthy of the Three Stooges. The scene of the town gentry meeting with Khlestakov at the governor's house was turned into a vaudeville number: the governor's wife whistles, his daughter plays the harp, Khlestakov sings and dances, everyone else stumbles, jumps and applauds.

The discussion between Khlestakov and the hospital administrator about the ill "getting healthy like flies" is emphasized and expanded. Where Gogol wanted to show the callousness of the tsarist administrators for the public, Gazarov does not see this point of view at all. Average people do seem to be flies to him, "expensive medicine or medical treatment is not needed, if they are fated to die, they will die". On the other hand, the final scene of the movie has been designed to evoke sympathy for the governor, to somehow make him out to be an innocent victim.

There was an hour long press conference with the director, Gazarov, and the two leading actors, Mikhalkov and Mironov. The first question quite obviously referred to the lack of social satire in the movie, although the journalist went out of her way to compliment the director by finding some parallels (invisible to the rest of us) between the tsarist bureaucracy portrayed in the movie and the Soviet or post-Soviet regime. In response, Gazarov took the bit between his teeth and vehemently declared: "There is in principle nothing political and social here, this is a pure comedy. I took all the politics out". The audience was taken aback at this outburst since normally the directors and actors try to do just the opposite and impute some deeper meaning to their work. But questions of official corruption and theft of state assets obviously strike a nerve in present-day Russia, and Mikhalkov and Gazarov see their job as deflecting any such discussion.

Mikhalkov went on at length about art being pretense, developing the idea that "both the director and the actors must fool the viewer". The idea of Art being Truth is these days taken for an obvious truism, so Mikhalkov's and Gazarov's rationalization for misleading and desensitizing the public comes as a shock when expressed so directly and unequivocally. The Montreal audience of journalists and moviegoers included, however, a large number of celebrity hounds and middle-class yahoos. Mikhalkov skillfully played up to their mood of uncritical adulation and acceptance of status quo. When one hostile critic asked about Mikhalkov's own fake political campaign (Mikhalkov supported Chernomyrdin during the parliamentary elections), Mikhalkov refused to discuss politics. Instead he claimed that since this movie needed special sets and costumes, it required a special kind of civic courage to stage, that the director (and by implication, Mikhalkov also) were heroes for staging it. Not a single journalist present pointed out that such "courage" was quite commonplace, since most of the movies presented at the Festival were historical costume films (Baryshnia, Return of the Battleship, Road to the End Of the World, etc.).

At times it seemed that both the critics and these hack director and actors were united by a common goal: to distract the viewing public from any discussion of contemporary problems of the Russian society, to leave hidden the destruction of popular culture taking place in the former Soviet Union and the regime's responsibility for this catastrophe.

Sixty years ago Trotsky noted that the cultural efforts of totalitarian Stalinism "in the last analysis it came down to taking care that art assimilates its [the Stalinist bureaucracy] interests, and finds such forms for them as will make the bureaucracy attractive to the popular masses". With Trotsky we exclaim: In vain! No literature can fulfill that task. No movie director's tricks can make Khlestakov attractive to the Russian people.