Nikita Mikhalkov has made some greatly admired movies that left me cold (though I missed his famed Oblomov), but with Burnt by the Sun he has completely won me over. It is a film in which we often don't know whether reality is surreal, or surreality real. And why, in Stalin's Russia of 1936, should we know? This was the moment when the Revolution lost all conceivable sense and began to devour its most faithful children to satisfy the insane lust for power of one of our century's two bloodiest dictators.
Colonel Sergei Kotov is a distinguished hero of Bolshevism, a friend of Stalin's, a leader in war, a popular favorite in peace. He now lives in a delectable dacha amid bounteous wheatlands with his much younger, loving wife, Marusya, and their beguiling 6-year-old daughter, Nadia. They are surrounded by Marusya's extended family, which includes a great-grandmother and a devoted but benighted maid, made for teasing. It is a summer day of an intensity, preciousness, and lingering sweetness known only where winters are long and punishing and where such a rare, irreplaceable day is felt as a matchless benison.
But there is trouble in paradise. Even as Sergei is enjoying an early-morning sauna with his wife and child, someone comes to fetch him because tanks on maneuver are about to overrun and destroy the farmers' wheat, and who but Colonel Kotov, the living legend whose uncannily Stalin-like face is a folk icon, could stop them? He does so, with a wonderful mixture of gruffness and charm, and the young lieutenant whom he jokingly bullies into submission is so entranced that he momentarily forgets his own name.
It is a Chekhovian day; more precisely, a Chekhov-first-act day, before the clouds have gathered. But already we saw a prologue in which a young man, Mitya, returns to his well-appointed Moscow apartment at dawn and contemplates shooting himself. A bit later in the film (but earlier in time), he shows up in comical disguise at the dacha. Absent for years, he is a family friend who, in extreme youth, had been Marusya's lover. His unexpected dropping in troubles Marusya and instills jealousy in Sergei.
Yet like a ubiquitous ray of sunshine (a good ray – there is also a destructive, fireball-like ray that burns a swath through the film), little Nadia spreads her now cajoling, now spunky warmth over all. Perkily precocious one minute, she is cozily cherubic the next and, in either mood, irresistible. But she is still a child, unable to comprehend, for example, that when Mitya left her mother to go abroad, Marusya tried to commit suicide, then waited over a year for him to return before yielding to Sergei's blandishments. What Marusya doesn't know is that Mitya, a former White, had to choose between jail or spying abroad for the Reds. All sorts of things emerge during this summer day on which various relatives, friends, and the maid indulge in their humdrum activities and ludicrous chatter, while something monstrous brews at the heart of farce.
Marusya behaves neurotically as Mitya twits and torments her, shuttling between buffoon and memory-wielding inquisitor. Some of this takes place on the lakeshore, where the uneasy Sergei takes Nadia boating so as to leave his wife and her ex-lover to their reminiscences. Meanwhile a nearby work crew is busy on what seems to be the launching pad for hot-air balloons; draped across it is a huge red banner proclaiming the glory of Stalin's balloon builders. A free concert of "music by a Soviet composer" is announced by loudspeakers to the holiday crowd, but what we hear mostly is a swoony popular tango, first sung to a small-band accompaniment, later played on a phonograph, and often tunelessly chirped by Nadia. Reminiscent of the andante of the Villa-Lobos String Quartet No. 7, and even more of Nino Rota's scores for Fellini, it has a lyric that begins with the eponymous words "burnt by the sun." The soundtrack takes it up as a leitmotif, sometimes romantically appropriate, sometimes cruelly ironic; it should fill anyone who remembers the sentimental dance music of the European Thirties with a sympathetic tremor.
The movie achieves a unique aura of timelessness. You keenly feel a sense of transcendence, of the temporal falling away, of moments of joyously foolish activity spilling out of an inexhaustible cornucopia. Time appears as a fabulously wealthy benefactor who has invited these privileged guests to a never-ending house party to bestow upon them the gift of his standing still. And with that comes a sense of incomparable weightlessness.
That, however, is in the higher register, in the melody. Down in the bass, the accompaniment starts growling ominously. Mitya, who improvises a portentously doomy fairy tale for Nadia – its threat not lost on the parents – is less of a prankster now and more of a veiled menace. And not unlike Eduard Artemiev's deceptively lulling music, Vilen Kaluta's cinematography is almost treacherously beautiful: the world takes on a lacquer that cannot but be brittle.
Let me mention one more marvel, a scene of conjugal lovemaking of discreet yet pervasive sensuality. Aroused again by Mitya, Marusya flees from Sergei, who chases her up into the attic, whence she threatens to jump if he comes any nearer. With infinite, fatherly tact, the husband woos his fragile wife back into his arms, and the ensuing coupling may just be the only one on film you experience not as a voyeur but as a participant. It is a hymn to married love, but also a trenchant image of the transience of bliss.
Nikita Mikhalkov co-wrote the screenplay, directed it, and plays Sergei, all three with equal finesse. As an actor, he can twirl his Stalin mustache with twinkling joviality, take command with more lightning than thunder, or suffer with wrenching bewilderment. I have problems with the Mitya of Oleg Menshikov: the comedian, the wastrel, the snake are all properly in place, but I miss the charm, the seduction. As Marusya, Ingeborga Dapkunayte has all the feyness and volatility of this precariously balanced young woman, along with an otherworldliness that negates guilt. Nadia, played by Mikhalkov's daughter Nadia, is a child in a million, and an actor in rather more than that. Knowledge and innocence, coquetry and naïveté, bubbly brattiness and un-self-conscious pathos exude from her as naturally as breath from the mouth. And she really was 6 at the time.
Some have found Burnt by the Sun slow-moving, yet this slowness is imbued with meaning, and a necessary foil for the dreadful accelerando of the last part, where surreal-seeming elements abound. We have heard much about the banality of evil; here we get its grotesquery. And its illogic. The questions that remain unreplied are deeper than any answers.