‘Limonov: The Ballad’ Review: Ben Whishaw Is The Slippery Star Of Kirill Serebrennikov’s Exhilarating Punk-Poet Biopic – Cannes Film Festival

In the Moscow Times’ obituary for Eduard Limonov, who died four years ago aged 77, writer Mark Galeotti summed up the poet-turned-politician in two simple sentences: “Was Limonov a visionary or a poser, an artist or a politician, a leftist or a rightist? The answer to all of them is, of course, yes.” This is key to understanding Kirill Serebrennikov’s latest movie, a boundary-blasting biopic that simply drips with punk-rock energy, revealing everything and nothing about a slippery character whose modus operandi was reinvention from the get-go and for whom consistency really was the hobgoblin of small minds.

Limonov, the poet, fits into a long line of miscreant artists, such as writer Vladimir Mayakovsky, who co-wrote the manifesto of the Russian Futurist group (“A Slap in the Face of Public Taste”) in 1912, and Dziga Vertov, the avant-garde director whose Man with a Movie Camera (1929) changed the face of documentary altogether. Serebrennikov’s film draws on both these visionaries, and the result is a film that just won’t behave itself, taking the political rock operatics of his 2018 film Summer to exciting new extremes.

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Key to its success is star Ben Whishaw, who did some of the preparation needed for a film like this when he appeared in Todd Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, playing the folk singer as an incarnation of symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. That film was surely a touchstone for Serebrennikov, who details Limonov’s life from his years as a young man in Kharkov in the late ’60s to his death, the difference being that, unlike Haynes, Serebrennikov isn’t too fussed about chronology. Which is why we first encounter Limonov in exile in France in the ’70s, where he tells an interviewer that “writers must be thrown out of their native country” but bristles at the thought of identifying as a dissident.

How did he get there? Serebrennikov shows us the early years in black-and-white footage that reeks of tobacco, vodka and sweat as Limonov tries to make his name as a poet in Kharkov’s clandestine literary gatherings. He is desperate to leave the town of his youth, a place where you either “get stabbed in a street fight or drink yourself to death out of boredom.” When Limonov gets to Moscow, the film bursts into color, but even as his career starts to take off, there’s a very real sense that he will never fit in there, and that he probably won’t ever try to.

After a sinister chat from the authorities, Limonov leaves for New York in the mid-’70s with Elena, his beautiful model girlfriend whose retro-chic style — Biba meets Andy Warhol’s Factory set — is perfect for the time. The city’s 42nd Street is reproduced in a hectic, giddily stylized scene that references Taxi Driver and the Village People, promising a new beginning for the stifled artist. But it doesn’t come; as Elena grows apart from him, he simply signs on for welfare (“They pay, and I do f*ck all”). Yet again, he refuses to be called a dissident, pouring particular contempt on author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, saying, “He deserves to be drowned in a bucket of sh*t for his boring depictions of life without fun.”

At this point, we are less than halfway through a life that isn’t so much colorful as kaleidoscopic, eventually taking Limonov back to his homeland where, in an extraordinarily metatextual public debate, he is questioned about the veracity of scenes from his various memoirs that have literally just been portrayed in the film we’re watching. Whishaw keeps it all running smoothly, wrapping this enigma in a riddle with such finesse that when Limonov establishes his own political party in 2010, the crypto-fascist National Bolshevik Party, it’s hard to know what his motivations really are. Is it a serious satirical art statement? Or is it a playful expression of nihilism, something Serebrennikov alludes to in a majestic set-piece featuring the music of short-lived British seditionaries the Sex Pistols.

Thankfully, Serebrennikov doesn’t try to psychoanalyze him, using Russia’s view of the liberal West — “Everything is permitted and nothing matters” — as a way into his gloriously anarchic story. Like Limonov, who fashioned his penname from the Russian word for a hand grenade, it explodes across the screen with wit, irreverence and invention; a slap in the face of public taste indeed.

Title: Limonov: The Ballad
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenwriter: Powel Pawlikowski
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Viktoria Miroshnichenko
Sales agent: Vision/Pathé
Running time: 2hr 18 min

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