Cannes 2018: Serebrennikov's 'Leto' is an Awesome 80s Rock Tribute
by Alex Billington
May 10, 2018
There's always a few good Russian films at the Cannes Film Festival every year, but this is one of the best Russian films I've ever seen in the nine years I've been coming here. Leto, which translates to Summer, is the latest feature from Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov (who is currently under house arrest and unable to attend the festival). The B&W film is a tribute to 80s punk rock and musicians who break the rules and sing songs and make music despite the government saying they can't. I could describe Serebrennikov's Leto as a Soviet, 80s rock version of Inside Llewyn Davis meets Trainspotting, directed by a Russian Edgar Wright. It's awesome. And easily my favorite film at Cannes so far (it's only Day 3). The songs throughout, composed by a Russian band called Zveri, are excellent and I need a copy of this film's soundtrack already.
Leto is a tribute to, and somewhat fictionalized version of the story of, Russian rock musician Viktor Tsoi, who only lived to be 28 years old before dying in a car crash in 1990. Teo Yoo plays Viktor, who begins his career by following and spending time with another slightly older musician named Mike, played by Roman Bilyk. Much like Inside Llewyn Davis, it's a tragic story about the life of musicians, and there's not much to the story itself since it just drifts aimlessly around Leningrad (now known as Saint Petersburg) as they play shows and live a bohemian, carefree life. The film actually feels much more like Trainspotting or 24 Hour Party People, and it can easily by criticized for having a fleeting story, but it can also be appreciated as an example of how there is no need for a specific story in life, just living it and living it well is all that matters.
One of the best parts about Leto are numerous music sequences that feature extra hand-drawn animation worked into the live-action scenes, enhancing the beats and moments, similar in a way to Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs the World. But with its own unique, vibrant touches (some color is worked into the B&W cinematography and the sketches play into the action as they move and dance). This works so well and it makes these scenes so much more exciting and engaging to watch. These scenes, which work as fictionalized "this didn't really happen" music video-esque vignettes, are sprinkled in throughout as way to liven up their world by showing how music lights up our imagination and makes our lives more interesting. I loved each and every one of them, and could watch them on their own as videos, though they are a key part of the film.
It's not an easy thing to admit this, but I think critics will happily tear down this film and it doesn't really deserve it. Leto is a bit too long, and a bit too aimless, and wanders a bit too much, and lacks any real major tension in the plot. But that doesn't mean it still isn't a great film. And it's still an awesome film to enjoy as an inspirational, entertaining look at the life of rock musicians, especially the life of rock musicians living in the 80s in Soviet Russia. There's scenes where they're playing concerts in big recital halls, yet the audience is not allowed to dance, they all have to sit motionless (except for toe tapping or head bobbing) watching these rock bands rock out on stage. Yes, we know punk rock is about living a carefree life without rules, and we've seen this message countless times before, but it's still cool to see this particular Russian perspective.
If you enjoyed Inside Llewyn Davis, and/or are a big fan of all the indie/alt/punk rock music from the 80s (and before), then Leto is a film for you. It's going to be hard to convince most people to watch a two hour Russian B&W film set in Leningrad following two musicians, but hopefully this praise will convince a few of you that it's worth your time. And maybe a few of you will be moved or changed by what this film shows, or at least inspired to keep living a creative life free of constraints, pushing the boundaries, rejecting the rules of society, and having the time of your life with good friends. Screw the criticism, this film is punk rock, it doesn't care about perfection, it just is and it rules. Drift along with it, and find yourself dancing when you least expect it, or laughing, or falling in love. Let life take you way and live it to the fullest while you still can.
Alex's Cannes 2018 Rating: 9 out of 10
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