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CANNES 2024 Competition

Review: Limonov: The Ballad


- CANNES 2024: Kirill Serebrennikov detonates a cyanide-laced grenade by way of a fragmented 360° portrait of a rebellious artist who claimed to be a hero of chaos and who loathed conformism

Review: Limonov: The Ballad
Ben Whishaw in Limonov: The Ballad

"I’ll hold you close in my mind", "I love madness, and nothing else". You always know what you’re getting with Kirill Serebrennikov (outrageousness, hyper-tension, depth) but you’re never quite sure what path the brilliant Russian director is going to take. This time, it’s a kind of doubly distorted artistic approach - a provocateur yearning for the destruction of the conventional world while displaying onerous, brazen and unflinching levels of self-destruction - which has inspired his new opus, Limonov: The Ballad, which was presented or rather detonated in competition at the 77th Cannes Film Festival.

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Country, revolution, glory, time, war, destiny: a puzzle revolving around the trajectory of writer Edward Limonov (played by English actor Ben Whishaw), whose real name was Savenko (who was born in 1943 and who died in 2020), endlessly falls apart and is put back together before our eyes in this film, which starts out in Kharkiv at the beginning of the ‘70s, then moves on to Moscow and New-York, and then Paris in 1980, before heading East following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Limonov is a person in perennial search of ecstasy, of intense sensations (primarily of a sexual nature), of the total rejection of society’s rules (versus boredom, working beasts of burden, pseudo-rebels), of challenging the established order (until the KGB forces him to turn informant, or later when he gets a taste of prison), walking on a knife edge between his corrosive anger and his belligerent desperation to one day find the place he feels he deserves in the world.

This dandy forever dressed in white hits rock bottom in New York, where he loses his passionate love for model Lena (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and meanders through the city’s misery-filled streets, observing humanity like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (to which the film makes two references, one subtle and the other very direct), before he’s reborn, toned down in appearance only, as the butler of a millionaire. All this, in the total and obsessively megalomaniacal certitude that he is needed, and that the unhappy and the unlucky will come to him, which does indeed happen after 17 books published in Paris, explosive and controversial fame, and the creation of a national-Bolshevik (if not crypto-fascist) party in Moscow. This tumultuous path, throughout which Limonov never deviates from his nihilistic train of thought, was the inspiration behind Emmanuel Carrère’s novel of the same name, which Pawel Pawlikowski, Ben Hopkins and the director have adapted here (with many ellipses, including one long-term and historically significant example). But it’s the latter’s stupefying visual work which lends this film riddled with inventions, diving into a world of make-believe (Limonov himself said that what separated him from failure was the fact that he could describe the desire he felt to take a gun and shoot into a crowd), and bursting with music (featuring a double helping of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, among other treats), its own personal stamp. The movie is punctuated by several especially remarkable sequences (no spoilers), but besides the brilliance of the screenplay and the fascinating side of this portrait of an artist-phenomenon who was always looking to self-represent, and despite the efforts of the brilliant Ben Whishaw to soften the character’s harshness, Limonov remains a rather unlikeable individual ("I know I’m a pretty bad person"), which limits the film to a purely performative work. And anyone looking to read coded messages on modern-day geopolitics into this movie, should listen to the statement therein: "I am the past. The past cannot give advice to the present".

Limonov: The Ballad is produced by Wildside (Italy), Hype Studios (France) and Chapter 2 (France), in co-production with Pathé Films (France), Freemantle España and France 3 Cinéma. Pathé and Vision Distribution are steering international sales.

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(Translated from French)

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