Credit: Andrejs Strokins/Cannes Film Festival
by Conor Truax Featured Film

Limonov: The Ballad — Kirill Serebrennikov [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 21, 2024

Cordoned to a cultural temperament that favors realism, based-on-true-stories, and the animated mythologies of men and women who have walked among us, the biopic has achieved a level of formal dominance, saturation, and now existential recalibration. Films tracing a figure’s lifetime have largely migrated to television (e.g., The Crown), and even isolated events have been stretched and sullied into an oft-belabored episodic form (e.g., The Offer, We Crashed, and the slew of other movies about tech failures). In recent years, biographical films — as a cheap subversion of the realist form they seek to take advantage of — have begun using formal innovations to add a surrealist layer of inexplicability atop otherwise rote dramas. This has resulted in such varyingly successful examples as Maestro, Spencer, and Blonde, all of which have been bemoaned by critics and viewers for their failure to maintain an allegiance to the truth, or the reality of events as they were. 

Formally, this trend almost represents a genre of its own: pseudo-biopics that are more interested in exploring the feeling, whether on behalf of a historical figure or their spectators, of that same historical figure’s representation, rather than the reality of events in an objective sense. The critics and casual viewers alike that have bemoaned the early entries in this canon have largely done so based on an inchoate ethic that says something like “people’s representation ought to be under their own control, and to use someone’s recognition as a starting point for fiction is exploitative, if not libelous.” The poignancy of this issue was brought to the forefront with the releases of both Blonde and Spencer, seeing as the focal personalities of both films were exploited by members of both their public and private spheres until their untimely deaths. Joyce Carol Oates, author of eponymous book on which Blonde is based, defended her fictionalization of Hollywood’s Golden Girl, saying that her process of “distillation” — condensing, conflating, rearranging, and inventing events — is done so in the interest of achieving a broader poetic and spiritual truth, to protest the authorial tyranny, perhaps more exploitative than any other, that the biased writers of history claim.

At face value, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Limonov: The Ballad would seem to fit in this mode, a superficial eschewal of the trappings of biopics’ conventions that makes study of the life and times of Russia’s (anti-)great poet-punk-laureate-cum-politician, Eduard Limonov. The film, which spans 50 years of the late Limonov’s life, is based on a biofictional novel about Limonov by the French autofiction writer Emanuel Carrère (itself based on one month of interviews with Limonov), as well as the Russian’s many “fictional memoirs,” including It’s Me, Eddie, His Butler’s Story, A Young Scoundrel, and Memoir of a Russian Punk. The result is a representation of a representation of representations, divorced from reality by the layers of reconstruction that grow into a distorted something-new. Ben Whishaw, most recognizable for playing meek, soft-spoken characters, metamorphoses into the untamed porcupine and generational hater that Limonov was, famed for lines like: “Most of all I hate the rich old ladies. Each one conceals some vileness. Lucky traders of their cunts. They lucked out. I hate them either with or without their puny dogs. And I hate them in the stores too. And when they eat.” Whishaw’s performance is something of a triumph, and he pushes the constraints of his script about as far as he can. Where so many other English-speaking actors fail, he is remarkably believable both as a Russian and as Limonov. 

In fact, it’s only by way of his consistent reckless abandon that any of Limonov’s complicated personality is actualized and total failure is avoided, seeing as Whishaw operates in the confines of a script with such little nuance that it approaches parody. The Limonov that Serebrennikov presents is a shadow of the whole, a distillation of the punk-poet’s rampant cynicism, but absent any of the playful humor that it outlined. After all, when it’s acknowledged by a KGB official that his pen name is inspired by the Russian word for “lemon,” he appears more embarrassed than riotous in his rebellion. Moreover, there is no mention of the duality of his pseudonym, a play on words that takes equal inspiration from the Russian Limonka, a lemon-shaped grenade. Serebrennikov’s narrow depiction — amplified by a playful use of light, handheld-tracking, surrealist choreography, and a shattered fourth wall — would have suited a more focused film fine, putting it squarely in the lineage of offerings like Spencer, Maestro, and Blonde. However, Serebrennikov makes the unfortunate decision to not only marry this whimsical subjectivity with a biographically exhausted portrait of Limonov’s life, but to attempt to do so by concatenating the monuments of biographical realism with the nonsensical stretches that form the film’s interstices.

The result is an episodic film that manages to be both too focused and not focused enough, glossing over many moments of biographical detail that it strains to include, and lingering superficially on its connective tissue. The general structure of each episode goes something like this: Limonov finds himself in a new setting, there is some level of rising tension, it is quickly and suddenly dissolved by some hastened violence or excitement (the veracity of which is unclear), and in a montage of music and chopped-and-screwed sets, he finds himself in a new setting, for the cycle to begin again. Not only does this general structure disallow the development of any sense of plot or place; its frenetic movement evades any emotional resonance beyond aggravation by forestalling the development of any character. This, of course, is most acute in the case of Limonov, whose portrayal does not only betray the man himself, but Whishaw, too, as he does all that he can to save this film.

On a technical level, there is much going for Limonov, but its admirable production design, score, and lighting are scattered across a conformist film about a rebel wracked by visual cliches: the breathless run in the middle of an empty street; the whimsical lengthwise fingering of fence or pole; the despairing look through the tattered fence toward dusk or dawn; the splatter dance in puddles, and so on, and so on. And it’s all in service of Serebrennikov’s depiction of the recalcitrant poet as a rote depressive, self-destructive and angry at the world. Confoundingly, his humorless solemnity toward his subject is only alleviated when detailing the poet’s fascistic militarism, which continues, even in death, to materialize as real violence (members of Limonov’s party continue to fight in The Donbas). But Eddie, unlike his filmic double, had a sense of humor, and he tempered all his anger and hatred with a lighthearted self-deprecation. His spirit is lost somewhere in The Ballad, whose poetry is sullied by its (valiant, or asinine?) attempt to create a detailed lyrical biography of a different kind, one whose collapsing self-seriousness does evince an incidental source of humor — it’s a film that you can’t help but laugh at.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024: Dispatch 1.