where to start with his films – the Calvert Journal


Rarely does a director distill the essence of his time as perfectly as Aleksey Balabanov. In the minds of many, his name is almost synonymous with ’90s Russia, with its conflicts, bandits and businessmen, as well as its quest for a new identity, new heroes and a new one. movie theater. Balabanov was an inimitable master at capturing this spirit of the times and holding a mirror to his contemporaries. He also refrained from moralizing or condescending – but no subtle irony and not-so-subtle controversy.

Although best known for his quasi-gangster dilogy Kid (Where Brother in English), Balabanov left behind a much more diverse filmography than these two blockbusters. Often referred to as the last modernist director, Balabanov was deeply inspired by 20th century literature, but he was also interested in Yakut legends and history, as well as lyrics from his favorite local rock bands like Nautilus Pompilius.

Born in Yekaterinburg (then called Sverdlovsk) in 1959, Balabanov studied translation at university before serving in the Soviet air force. He finally moved to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1990, at the very beginning of the decade that would prove to be defining for him and overwhelming for the country. Most of his feature films are set in St. Petersburg, with whom they share a certain cinematic sensibility: like the city, they are cold and harsh, intellectual and ruthless, and endlessly fascinated by decadence and decadence. Similar to another gloomy Petersburger, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Balabanov delves into the problems of evil and cruelty, without turning away from graphic scenes. Her films can be difficult to watch, but their violence is never pointless on the narrative level: it is often symbolic and always self-aware.

The director’s own life has been marked by multiple tragedies and deaths. In 2000, Tuyara Svinoboeva, the main actress of her film River, was killed in a car accident while filming. The film was never finished, but Balabanov was able to put together a shorter version of the film in post-production. His friend and collaborator, Sergei Bodrov Jr., who played the charming but fair killer Danila Bagrov in the Kid films, died two years later at the age of 30. With 41 members of the cast and crew of his film Messenger (many of whom were from Balabanov’s own team), Bodrov Jr. was killed in the Kolka-Karmadon rock ice slide.

Balabanov’s later films could still be brutal but had less bravado, and a deep sadness often crept into the stories. Many have speculated that it was the death of Svinoboeva and Bodrov that turned him away from a somewhat arrogant young man who noted that there was “nothing to do in Cannes,” in a retreated hermit figure in his signature sailor shirt. Humble as always, Balabanov argued: “I don’t consider cinema as an art. Art is when a person does something on their own […] but when you depend on 50 people, what kind of art is that?

Critics and contemporary academics would disagree. As too often, Balabanov was not widely celebrated during his lifetime, but his death in 2013 at the age of 54 seemed to seal his reputation as a central author of new Russian cinema. Two iterations of the Balabanov Conference were held in St. Petersburg, while his films travel around the world (most recently they were screened in a retrospective in Paris), and articles and entire books are written about his work.

Here is our own beginner’s guide to navigating Balabanov’s work.



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