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Old 05-03-2009, 06:45 AM   #1
pro-bassoonist pro-bassoonist is offline
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Jul 2007
Russia Andersen: Life without love (Russia)

Winner of two Nika Awards - Best Art Direction (Lyudmila Kusakova) and Best Costumes (Natalya Ivanova), 2007. Available in Russia.

In his twenty fifth film in a career that spans half a century, Èl'dar Riazanov has created a big-budget, star-studded extravaganza that features musical numbers and special effects. Andersen: Life without Love is a decided departure for a director who for the first time tackles a non-Russian tale. Shot during the international celebration of the bicentennial of Hans Christian Andersen, this film is unquestionably the most lavish (albeit belated) Russian contribution to those activities and offers viewers a portrait of a very melancholy Dane.

This is not the first time that the creator of Soviet cinematic fables has been inspired by the Danish master. As fans of Office Romance (Sluzhebnyi roman, 1977) well recall, Riazanov gracefully transplanted “The Ugly Duckling” into the rather barren soil of the Brezhnev era, preserving both the spirit and charm of the original. In the 1970s, Riazanov and long-time co-author Èmil' Braginskii had also toyed with the notion of a film that would combine Andersen's life with his fiction, but the project was soon shelved. Over twenty years later, Riazanov returned to his concept and (with a little financial help from powerful friends) brought it to fruition. The result, a highly stylized piece containing elements of slapstick, melodrama, fairy tale, musical, biography, and adult feature, Andersen has sparked ardent debate over its meaning and merits.

The range of opinion may be due, in part, to the film's unusual structure. Three actors portray Andersen at various stages of his life: as a young child in Odense; as the youth who leaves home to seek fame and fortune in Copenhagen; and as the older, established writer, well-known in the capital and beyond. Scenes from Andersen's life are not presented in chronological order rather they are stitched together with adaptations of his tales in a non-linear, associative fashion. This is further complicated by the fact that the principals play leading roles in both: veteran actor Sergei Migitsko stars as the elder Andersen, the teacher in “The Shadow,” and the king in “Galoshes of Happiness”; relative newcomer Stanislav Riadinskii plays the young artist, plus the prince in “The Swineherd,” the soldier in “The Tinder-Box,” and the shadow in the eponymous tale. In the same way, Alena Babenko creates the fabulist's long-time confidante Henrietta Wolf and the queen in “Galoshes of Happiness”; and Evgeniia Kriukova plays the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, as well as princesses in “The Shadow” and “The Swineherd.” Not surprisingly, some viewers find it difficult to negotiate this complex, disjointed phantasmagoria.

Examining how the film came to the screen may also help to explain its problematic nature. In honor of his seventy fifth birthday in 2002, Riazanov was invited to tea with Vladimir Putin. Having just finished Key to the Bedroom (Kliuch ot spal'ni, 2003), the director had publicly declared it to be his final film. All this changed when the President asked him about future plans and the director recalled the Andersen project. Putin's interest in the concept and his promise of financial support banished any thoughts of retirement.

This auspicious beginning notwithstanding, it would take the director three more years before he could start shooting. Financial backing was difficult to obtain and, as Riazanov searched for investors, he immersed himself in Anderseniana and began to develop the film's underlying structure.

At that time he found a co-author for the screenplay in Iraklii Kvirikadze, whose prior work promised to bring an absurdist, madcap element to the endeavor. The completed script was then sent to the President, along with a request for further assistance. Weeks passed, plans stalled, until a gift from Gazprom provided enough funding to cover half the film's budget. Rather than wait any longer, Riazanov decided to film what he could with what he had, hoping that the first piece would attract new backers. This risk, while bold, may have not been fortuitous: not knowing whether Andersen would appear on the big screen or the small, the director wound up shooting footage for two media with disparate aesthetics.

Andersen: Life without Love premiered on the big screen on 1 December 2006, launching the seventy second season of Moscow's Central House of Cinema. Advance publicity helped to create so much public interest that two screenings were scheduled. The evening began in festive anticipation of a jubilee film, long in the making, that would bring together the talents of composer Aleksei Rybnikov and choreographer Vladimir Vasil'ev, as well as a host of stars of stage and screen. At the end of the screenings passions still ran high, albeit in another direction. Some viewers were scandalized, some confused, others just plain angry at the treatment of “Our Andersen.”

At the very least, the film provoked very intense reactions. Praised as a daring take on the biopic that captures the spirit of the artist (think Milos Forman's Amadeus [1984] or Ken Russell's Lisztomania [1975] and The Music Lovers [1970] ), it was also dismissed as a tasteless dinosaur with the aesthetics and ideology of a perestroika film.

Curiously, the film may be both. From the start Riazanov obliterates the traditional conceit of separating fact and fiction: in the first scene the child Hans visits his grandfather in a mental institution and receives a blessing from a “good man with a halo.” Perhaps this is another inmate, perhaps a truly heavenly figure, but when the face under the halo belongs to Viacheslav Tikhonov, viewers cannot help but ponder the implications of Shtirlits as God.

This questioning continues as the director pulls out other big guns, figuratively (Oleg Tabakov in the role of Andersen's teacher and state censor) and literally (the Copenhagen home of Admiral Wolf is constructed like a ship, complete with a crew and working cannon). Given the film's high level of quotation (the sailors and the canon hyperconsciously reference Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin [1925]), the viewer is bombarded with potentially portentous moments within the fictive biography and the consciously defamiliarized tales.

In his most provocative revision, “The Swineherd,” Riazanov explodes the latent adult content in a manner that verges on soft porn, while at the same time invoking images from Soviet children's films made in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. The style of the fanciful settings and colorful (albeit skimpy) costumes owe much to Nadezhda Kosheverova's musical fantasy A Very Old Story (Staraia, staraia, skazka, 1968).

Her film featured the young actor Oleg Dal' (1941-1981), who portrayed Andersen (the Puppeteer) and one of his characters (the Soldier of “The Tinder-Box”) as embodiments of Thaw ideals?competent, strong, handsome, independent, able to challenge authority, withstanding misfortune but persevering. Exploiting Riadinskii's physical resemblance to Dal', Riazanov distorts and contorts his young artist, displacing the once beautiful swan with a very ugly duckling. Allusions to this and other celluloid Andersens of that period surely resonate (for better or worse) with those adults who cherished these films in their youth.

Now stripped of their humor, optimism, and charm, as travesties of past illusions they add another layer of artifice to a gloomy tale of artistic compromise and moral corruption. Seen in this light, “The Swineherd” reveals more than scantily clad women; its vulgarity embodies the film's theme of degradation. The young innocent child of the first scene, who grows into a naïve boy with the voice of an angel, will eventually find fame and renown, but only at great personal cost.

Time and again the camera returns to an image that reminds the viewer of Andersen's complicity in his fall from grace: the bright blue door his father had painted before sacrificing himself for his family. His father's spiritual legacy depicts a lion seated between an elephant and a rhinoceros in a composition that suggests a miniature of Peaceable Kingdom. When we first view the door, the youth Riadinskii crouches by its side. His on-screen placement suggests the image of the child in Edward Hick's early canvases and by analogy his potential to bring personal and societal liberation to himself and others. Though the son will keep this peaceful image of fatherly love and devotion throughout his life, he will move ever farther from its message. On screen the older Andersen will contemplate the picture seated in a comfortable chair, often with his back to it. Once his talisman, it has become a constant reproach to a son who has betrayed his mother and sister. The loveless life proclaimed in the title springs from Andersen's inability to love others.

Riazanov created a second version of the film for the small screen, removing some of the most carnal images and adding additional material. Since its television debut in 2007, more viewers have made positive comments. Some have noted the work of art director Liudmila Kusakova, who virtually brought Denmark to Russia, recreating numerous Odense and Copenhagen settings in various locales around Moscow and Petersburg.

The production designer of Karen Shakhnazarov's Rider named Death (Vsadnik po imeni smert', 2004) and assistant art director for Nikolai Lebedev's Wolfhound (Volkodav, 2007), Kusakova brought her considerable talent, creativity, and attention to detail to the project and it earned her the 2007 NIKA for best art direction. Natal'ia Ivanova also received the 2007 NIKA for costume design, an award that recognized her impressive designs and execution, as well as the sheer number and wide range of costumes involved.

It should come as no surprise that little remains of Riazanov's and Braginskii's initial impulse: the artist was to overcome physical deprivation and social rejection to triumph through the creative act. What has been preserved is the scene they could not have shot in the 1970s. This episode, “The Galoshes of Happiness,” presents the more contemporary Danish legend of King Christian X. The scene opens with the Nazi entrance into Copenhagen. Shot in black-and-white, the only color we see is the red regalia of the advancing forces. King Christian slowly enters on horseback. As he turns to begin his ride around the city, a yellow Star of David, alarming in its brightness comes into view. The citizens are quick to follow their sovereign's lead and soon all in Copenhagen are wearing blazing yellow stars to convey their support and respect for all Danes. Cinematically derivative of Eisenstein, Aleksandr Askol'dov, as well as Steven Spielberg, this final tale provides the emotional climax to the earlier scenes of anti-Semitism presented in Andersen's biography. Even those who have found Riazanov's humanitarian plea overly sentimental must admit the sad truth that the need for racial tolerance is no less relevant today.
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Old 07-22-2012, 03:50 AM   #2
toddly6666 toddly6666 is offline
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Just got this Region-free English subtitled Russian Blu-ray. Great movie, and amazing video quality. I'll post a review up as soon as a moderator approves my submission to the database for this blu-ray.
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Old 11-10-2012, 05:55 PM   #3
Leterface Leterface is offline
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Dec 2008

Originally Posted by toddly6666 View Post
Just got this Region-free English subtitled Russian Blu-ray. Great movie, and amazing video quality. I'll post a review up as soon as a moderator approves my submission to the database for this blu-ray.
Are you still going to make it, I'd be interested for it.
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Old 12-30-2012, 08:40 PM   #4
Bullseye Bullseye is offline
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Sep 2006

If you don't mind me asking where did you pick up the region free with English subtitles from?
Panasonic TX-65DX902B + Panasonic TX-60AS650B
Panasonic DMP-UB900 Pioneer BDP-450 (region free) & PS4 Pioneer SC-LX85 Classe CA-150 (L/R)
B&W 804D2 L/R & B&W HTM3s Centre
B&W SM602 S3 (x4) Surround & SVS PB1000 Sub (x2)
Cable: Nordost Red Dawn (av) & Cinemaflex 14/4
Music: B&W 805N Primare A30.1 Primare R32 Primare DVD30 and Clear Audio Emotion
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Old 01-01-2013, 11:40 PM   #5
toddly6666 toddly6666 is offline
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Nov 2009
Hong Kong

Originally Posted by Leterface View Post
Are you still going to make it, I'd be interested for it.
Crap, sorry i just noticed your question. I'll review it eventually but here's the quick run down:

Movie: 3.5/5
Video quality: 4.5/5
Audio quality: 4/5

The only issue is with a 2-3 second audio fault towards the end of the movie.
The fault is that the audio all of a sudden switches to the sound of turning to a channel with snow static (tv snow, not real snow). It's much louder than whatever volume you have set so it's pretty scary and jarring. It will make you scream out "holy sheet!" So besides that, the audio is excellent.

The movie is very Terry gilliam-ish and one of the best recent Russian movies I've seen in ages.

I picked up my blu-ray in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. The Russian stores there rarely sell Blurays there bit this film was one of the few.
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