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Pavel Lungin • Director

"Opera resembles cinema with its emotional charge"


- Russian director Pavel Lungin is back with Queen of Spades, which had its international premiere at Tallinn's Black Nights Film Festival

Pavel Lungin  • Director
(© BNFF)

Russian director Pavel Lungin, who competed at Cannes three times, winning Best Director in 1990 for Taxi Blues, and whose more recent works such as Island were praised at festivals including Sundance, is back with the Russian-Italian co-production Queen of Spades [+see also:
interview: Pavel Lungin
film profile
, an adaptation of both Pushkin's seminal story and Tchaikovsky's opera, which had its international premiere at Tallinn's Black Nights Film Festival. Lungin talked to Nisimazine about his modern staging of the classic story and its relevance today.

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Nisimazine: Where do you see the relevance of this story for contemporary Russian society and the rest of the world?
Pavel Lungin:
Hermann's character seems quite contemporary to me. He does not believe in justice, science or a career; he does not believe in anything except that one can be fortunate by gambling with fortune. I feel like this was rare in the last century, when the common feeling was that one needs to grow, to advance, to struggle. It's not like that any longer, but that sort of feeling is quite inherent to Hermann and to Tchaikovsky’s delirious music. What I wanted was a thriller and an opera at the same time, in which the life story evolves from an aria to a duet.

To me, it was Hermann that other characters of Russian literature grew from, Raskolnikov and many other rebels, who seek to change and to conquer the world at the same time. It was crucial to embed the story of Hermann in modern reality, to do that vibrantly and vividly with all of the details and contexts.

What was your approach to adapting the story, and which elements were the most important to you?
I wanted to insert the characters into surreal set-ups, to blur the distinction between reality and fiction. The emotional climax of the film happens during the "Queen of Spades" opera. Unlike classical stagings of the opera, our version came to life and was intriguing thanks to the set design by the talented Maria Tregubova.

We have infused this masterpiece of classical literature with eroticism. What was Hermann doing in the countess’ bedroom, when he came to uncover the secret of the three cards? It has customarily been displayed like this: the old countess is lying in her bed like a log, and Hermann is standing nearby. I always knew it had to be staged the other way around: it’s a bedroom! He wants to know her secret, he is unwrapping, stripping the countess down. It is Tchaikovsky’s music that dictates the staging, and it's a great pleasure to come up with ideas like that. While I was filming Queen of Spades, I realised that opera resembles cinema with its emotional charge.

How did you decide to give the role of Sofia to Kseniya Rappoport?
Right from the very beginning, I felt Kseniya was the only Russian actress able to play the entire range required by this sophisticated and refined part of an opera diva. Kseniya played quite an uncharacteristic part for her. Actually, she has never had to breathe life into such sinister characters; she used to play positive, intelligent, slightly perplexed and kind-hearted personalities. Thus it perhaps made her uneasy at first, although in the end everything turned out great.

Young actor Ivan Yankovskiy is very powerful in the film; how did you decide to pick him for the role, and how did you work together?
It took me a long time to find the actor for Hermann. There were lots of guys auditioning, but I did not see any of them as the protagonist. I started to worry that the whole story would turn out kind of artificial, lacking a proper personification.

Just before we started to shoot, Ivan came and said that this was his character and his story. I felt that for this film, we needed this sort of Raskolnikov type of person, a somewhat crazy guy... Yet Ivan surprised me with his confidence. He started to audition, and I immediately sensed that vibe from him and realised – yes, that's him. He is truly a consummate actor, who does not allow himself to be distracted; he lives and breathes his job.

With this film, I wanted to make a statement: the classics are alive, modern, close to us. Classics are not only for academics: they are captivating, and they can make you cry. I have seen the power of Tchaikovsky's music – it's so psychedelic, it just makes you go crazy!

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