Cannes (Official Selection) – Nikita Mikhalkov's 1994 Burnt by the Sun won both Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and the Grand Prix at Cannes. Some fifteen years later, Mikhalkov is back with a follow-up film in which he reprises his role as General Kotov. But, asks Emma Rowley, was it worth the wait?
Towards the end of the film festival, there were a few films playing in the main competition whose inclusion really surprised us. To contextualise, this was our first visit to Cannes and we really had few expectations beyond the fact that we were about to view some Very Good Films. In fact, on our first day, so numerous were the venues and so confusing was the queuing process and so overwhelming were the number of booklets and contact details we received that we were convinced we wouldn't be seeing anything at all. But armed with the advice of a couple of friendly fellow journos and after poring over the (various, and often updated) screening guides, our two-person team saw about 38 films over 12 days. And we were thrilled to get into every single one.
The reviews of some of the final films then may have been influenced by expectation or comparison with the sheer glut of quality flicks we had already seen. Or it may have been, as some have suggested, that the line-up this year (though not the prizes awarded) favoured established directors who were rewarded for a whole body of work, rather than a specific entry.
This must have been the case where Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun 2. Exodus was concerned. Watching it in Cannes' largest and most prestigious cinema, the Grand Théâtre Lumière, was a baffling experience. It was a mind-blowingly terrible film that seemed surreally terrible in those surroundings. And at two and a half hours, it told only half of a story. Let me explain – director Nikita Mikhalkov has created an epic to follow-up his Oscar and Palme D'Or winning Burnt by the Sun. But what was screened at Cannes was in essence only the first chunk of this film, or the central section in the trilogy. There is still more to come.
Anyone who's seen Burnt by the Sun may be wondering how the second film can follow the story of three characters who were killed off at the end of the first (one onscreen). Allow me to enlighten you: it turns out to have been the result of a clerical error, something that's explained labouriously over the first forty minutes. This is the sort of bilge that Hollywood regularly rams down our throats, and indeed what follows is the sort of film that Hollywood equally regularly churns out: bloated with unlikely near-escapes, explosions and convenient exposition. Perhaps it's not surprising to learn that Mikhalkov was inspired to make the film after seeing Saving Private Ryan. His aim was to make a film that showed the Russian troops' role in the war. It's a noble desire, but unfortunately he took more from Hollywood than just inspiration.
The plot is as follows. General Kotov makes a miraculous escape (and it would have been – the man is 65 and his action-man scenes are frequent and unlikely) from the labour camp at which he was interred and is then sent to the front lines with a group of fellow convicts. His daughter, Nadia (played by Mikhalkov's real-life daughter, reprising her role from the first film), refuses to believe her father is dead and begins a long search for him, while also experiencing war for herself as an army nurse. Someone else is also looking for Kotov: his old enemy Major Arsentyev, who has received orders in person from Stalin to find the missing General.
The film opens with a dream-sequence (never an auspicious sign). The dreamer is our hero, Kotov – played once more by director Mikhalov. He is entertaining Stalin in his dacha, but the role of Stalin, rather than being taken by an actor of similar appearance, is played by some poor dupe whose entire head is covered in a spectacularly unconvincing latex mask. Moreover, the mask is immobile, so Stalin looks like a ventriloquist; his mouth staying rigid when he speaks. The scene concludes with Kotov suffocating the Father of Nations in a giant cake, then waking up screaming. So, it's broad comedy? Well, no. Stalin is the architect of Kotov's misery and he returns (again, in the joke-shop mask) in a later scene which is played for tension.
These kind of bizarre moments are found throughout the film, like the scene in which a German bomber is practising diving over a Red Cross boat. The people on the boat, including Kotov's daughter, are cowering in fear, flattening themselves on the decks. Then the bomber decides to take a dump on the head of the ship's captain. The whole thing is so flabbergasting that I was pinching myself to make sure I was awake.
It's scenes like this (and they are legion) that prevent us from caring too much about the film's protagonists – that, the comic overacting and the madly bombastic score. This turns out to be a good thing, however, as, at the end of its coma-inducing running time, Kotov and his daughter are still separated and any kind of resolution is still far away. The film has some wonderful imagery but the symbolism is laid on so thickly that it makes the output of fellow Cannes competition winner Michael Moore look ambiguously understated.
I found it so difficult to believe what I had seen that I pretty swiftly caught up by watching Burnt by the Sun, to see if the first film's reputation had come about via some kind of conspiracy or collective delusion. In fact, it's an excellent movie, with a fable-like and deceptively simple plot that explores in miniature the effect of Stalin's purges. It sets up a scene of prelapsarian happiness in the Russian countryside, where the semi-retired General Kotov and his extended family are summering in their dacha. Kotov is a friend of Stalin and a staunch believer in the regime. During the day, a visitor arrives. It's the aristocratic Major Arsentyev, who was Kotov's wife's first fiancé. While joining in the fun and charming the family who greet him as an old friend, the terrible truth slowly emerges. He has arrived to take Kotov to a penal camp, where he will die in disgrace.
To follow up a film that says so much, so subtly, with something as lumbering and confused as Exodus almost makes me want to see the third film, out of some kind of masochistic curiosity. But not quite. So, if you haven't seen Burnt by the Sun, watch it now. But give its monstrous follow-up a miss.