Isaac Feldberg


Limonov: The Ballad – first-look review

Ben Whishaw rises to the occasion of essaying the poet, provocateur and political dissident Eduard Limonov.

In Limonov: A Ballad, his rambunctious indictment of the Russian poet, provocateur and political dissident Eduard Limonov, Russian auteur Kirill Serebrennikov unleashes a withering, fabulist whirlwind of a character study, one with as much if not more to say about the self-contradicting social conditions of a post-Soviet Russia as the deeply troubled contrarian at its centre.

Born in the Soviet Union as Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko, only to later derive his pen name Limonov from limonka, the Soviet nickname for an F1 hand grenade, Limonov lived many lives as he careened across Moscow, New York and Paris, only to eventually end up back in Russia. He was known alternately as a literary talent, a bohemian adventurer, a political firebrand, and a fascist street thug; in adapting Emmanuel Carrère’s fictional biography alongside Ben Hopkins and Pawel Powlikowski (who’d once intended to direct before deciding he didn’t like Limonov enough to base a film around him), Serebrennikov embraces each of these identities as core to the man’s perplexing, self-perpetuated myth.

Considered one of Russia’s great modern theatre directors, and previously the artistic director for the Gogol Center in Moscow, Serebrennikov seeks not only to depict Limonov’s personal and political evolution but also to follow his trajectory through a strange, tumultuous period in world history. In keeping with the flair for expressive surrealism he showcased in Petrov’s Flu and Tchaikovsky’s Wife, the filmmaker stages Limonov in an impassioned, elaborate fugue, bringing together the historical record and what’s known about Limonov’s life story with what the filmmaker imagines as his fraught emotional and psychosexual interior. In doing so, he locates a common thread in Limonov’s life in his compulsion to rebel: a bright-burning energy that formed the fury of his artistic voice and fed into the abiding chaos of Russian nationalism that slowly corrupted and consumed him.

A blistering interrogation of the many roles Limonov played in popular consciousness, the movie also formally mirrors the character’s seemingly unstoppable momentum, collapsing time and space through the filmmaker’s signature long takes, including one standout sequence in which the poet and his friends are visualised moving through the years as they travel from room to room, the culture steadily shifting around them through recognisable artefacts and signifiers.

As portrayed by Ben Whishaw, in an explosive performance that’s closely attuned to the vitality and vigour of such a character while depicting the destructive force of his jealous rage and petty insecurities, Limonov doesn’t alternate between attractive and repulsive but straddles an uneasy erogenous zone in the middle. Hilarious, terrifying, absurd, pathetic, and impetuous, Limonov is a particularly volatile lover, and Serebrennikov’s film traces through his relationships with first wife Anna (Maria Mashkova), who’s also engaged in the literary scene, then second wife Elena (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a socialite and model, his precipitous descent into emotional violence and reactionary politics.

In Passages, opposite Franz Rogowski and Adele Exarchopoulos, Whishaw recently stood out as half of a gay marriage that collapses after one partner pursues a relationship with a woman, capturing the sensitivity and growing self-awareness that can accompany romantic turbulence. But the actor has never had a role quite as complex and contradictory as that of Limonov, and he rises to the occasion with a transformative lead turn that’s most compelling in its depiction of how malignant narcissism can sour romantic desperation into something uglier and more grimly depressing. It’s a fascinating, slow-motion car crash of a performance: destined for destruction, spiralling magnificently all the way down.

Published 22 May 2024

Tags: Ben Whishaw Cannes Kirill Serebrennikov

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