Russia, Latvia, 2018
Color, 103 minutes
In Russian and Hebrew with English subtitles
Director: Sergei Livnev
Screenplay: Sergei Livnev
Camera: Iurii Klimenko
Composer: Leonid Desiatnikov, Aleksei Sergunin
Art Direction: Eduard Galkin, Aleksandr Osipov
Cast: Aleksei Serebriakov, Daniel’ Ol’brykhski, Elena Koreneva, Polina Agureeva, Natal’ia Negoda
Producers: Sergei Bobza, Igor’ Pronin, Iuliia Zaitseva
Production: Leopolis Film Company, Forma Pro Films
Mark Ginzburg’s life is terrible. A 52-year-old artist, neither his career nor his personal life are going anywhere. He suffers from depression and debilitating migraines, which he attributes to a needle in his skull—put there when his mother tried to murder him as an infant. His application to be euthanized has just been rejected. He blames his father, Viktor, for all of this.
But when his father, a famous composer, asks him to come home he obliges. And when they learn that the father is suffering from an aggressive and debilitating form of dementia, he stays on to care for him. Little by little, he learns that his childhood was, in many ways, much worse than he had imagined.
Van Goghs is the eagerly anticipated directorial return of Sergei Livnev, whose last film, the cult classic Hammer and Sickle (also starring Serebriakov) was made a quarter of a century ago. Livnev is the son of two prominent filmmakers and it would be easy to read Van Goghs as a film about the difficulties of being raised by artists whose main focus is their own work and never escaping their shadow. He insists, however, that the film is not autobiographical or a working through of his own childhood traumas. Instead, he hopes it deals with a more universal human issue: the search for something worth living for. And as Mark learns more and more about his past, gaining glimpses of how his life might have been different had his childhood or his adulthood been different, he does eventually find a way forward.
In many ways Van Goghs is structured as a buddy film. The main arc of the narrative is the development of Mark’s relationship with Viktor as Viktor’s condition degenerates. Rather than presenting us with an odd couple, as is typical for the genre, here the father and son are strikingly similar. Both are maddeningly egocentric, womanizing, charming, puckish, traumatized by the past, and devoted to their work. This similarity is humorously reinforced by the title: both artists are stereotypically tortured and driven. It is difficult, in fact, to read Mark’s work—installations made from knotted rope that he periodically unties and reties creating ever new incarnations of each piece—as anything other than a working through of his childhood trauma, especially as we learn from flashbacks that his favorite toy as a child was a doll that his father had fashioned from some string. But the title is also a reference to the unexpected resolution of the film, which offers a vision of art as redemptive—even for an unsuccessful artist.
Livnev has jokingly called the film his second directorial debut (one interviewer noted that when he made his last film they still shot movies on celluloid!) but it is a meticulously composed work. While not flashy, the filmmaking is superb, using close-ups to create a sense of intimacy with the characters, well-paced editing to give the film a quirky feel, and lighting to create a visceral contrast between Tel Aviv (Mark’s current home) and Riga (where he grew up). While the narrative has many secrets and surprises, it is so well structured that everything is clear at the end. Similarly, the performances by the actors are outstanding: Serebriakov and Ol’brykhski bring enough charisma to their roles to keep their characters from becoming unsympathetic (despite the damage they do to each other and everyone around them) and they are supported by a strong ensemble.
Although we are including it in this year’s program of the Russian Film Symposium, the film can only with some effort be considered Russian. It was filmed in Latvia and Israel, by a director who has lived abroad for the last two decades, featuring a Polish actor in one of the two lead roles, and without funding from the Russian Government. Perhaps, though, this could be seen as a manifestation of the Shadow Empire of this year’s symposium’s title. Is its “Russianness” a manifestation of the sometimes ephemeral connections that have tied people and space together in the absence of a traditional nation state?
Sergei Livnev enrolled in two departments of the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK)―cinematography and scriptwriting, receiving his degree in cinematography in 1985 (the studio of V. Iusov) and scriptwriting in 1987 (the studio of A. Biziaka). Livnev has written screenplays for both films and television, has worked as a producer on a number of projects, including collaborations with Valerii Todorovskii and Igor’ Tolstunov, and joint Russia/USA collaborations. From 1995 to 1998, he was the director of the Gor’kii Film Studio.
2018 Van Goghs
1994 Hammer and Sickle