The scandal surrounding Alexey Uchitel’s historical romance Matilda — which had its UK premiere at the closing night of Russian Film Week on Sunday — is one of the most ridiculous that Russia’s conservative cultural warriors have yet managed to concoct. As is so often the case, most of the censorious bluster about the film — a fictionalised version of the love affair between future tsar Nicholas II and the Polish ballerina Matilda Kschessinska — arrived without any of the offended parties having actually seen it. But now that it has been released, in Russia and elsewhere, the disparity between the inanity of the film and the vitriol it provoked is there for all to see.
Matilda is a colossally silly film that could have got someone killed: in that sense it’s a neat reflection of the bizarre but dangerous situation created by Russia’s ongoing lurches into cultural reaction. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, Matilda-gate shows what happens when ‘mild’ censorship goes unchallenged for long enough — all of a sudden some tacky period flimshaw has people reaching for the Molotov cocktails.
The failings of the film itself will, of course, be lost in the controversy. When I spoke to Uchitel at the Russian Film Week screening, I wanted to know whether he had seen this storm coming. “I couldn’t have predicted this reaction in my darkest dreams,” he told me. “Because the story of the film was open, public. We spoke about it all the time; during the film tens of journalists were present. And during that period no one protested.”
Uchitel’s reading of the backlash is admirably sober. “There is no “mass” feeling about this,” he noted. “There are individuals, like [ultra-conservative State Duma deputy Natalia] Poklonskaya, who are personally in love with the figure of Nicholas II. And since she’s a former prosecutor and now a state deputy, she can use her position to do all sorts of harm.” The primary charge levelled against Matilda is that to depict Nicholas’s erotic life is an insult to the Orthodox Church (a crime in Russia), since the former tsar was made a saint in 2000. Again, Uchitel is having none of it.
“Given that Nicholas was canonised for his martyr’s death, his life up to that point is completely open to interpretation”
“There’s this wave of small protest groups who claim to be representatives of Orthodoxy — the ones who threatened to burn cinemas, who set cars on fire,” he says. “Thankfully everyone was arrested and nothing else happened. Some figures in the administration of the Russian Orthodox Church think that it’s wrong to describe these aspects of Nicholas’s life, since he is now a saint” — Bishop Tikhon (Shevkunov), often referred to as the personal confessor of Russian President Vladimir Putin, dubbed the movie “slander” — “but that’s historically inaccurate. Given that he was canonised for his martyr’s death, his life up to that point is completely open to interpretation.”
Uchitel’s response echoes that of his colleagues — Grigory Dobrygin, who plays Grand Duke Andrei, Nicholas II’s cousin, called the more violent protests “the sick fantasies of a small number of people” — as well, seemingly, as those of the political and artistic establishment, many of whom turned out for the Russian premiere. This is part of the absurdity of the situation: far from being another Kirill Serebrennikov, the arrested Moscow theatre director largely considered the latest victim in the Russian government's crackdown against the arts, Uchitel is a pro-government journeyman, a supporter of Putin’s position in Ukraine and Crimea. One who, we can safely say now the film is publicly available, really has very little to say.
It seemed only fair to ask the director about his artistic intentions for the film, given the way the scandal has dominated proceedings. “I think it’s a very original story. I wanted to talk first of all about the historical facts, about which few people are aware. In terms of genre it’s a melodrama with some supernatural elements.” Calling the story “original” is a push. This is the most basic of love triangles, with a strapping man (Nicholas, stiffly played by German actor Lars Eidinger) torn between duty (represented by his eventual wife, Alexandra [Luise Wolfram]) and passion (embodied in the flighty Matilda, gamely captured by Polish star Michalina Olszańska). But its narrative inflexibility is the least of the film’s worries.
Matilda really is weak stuff: the dialogue is alternately stilted and overblown; the attempt to introduce an antagonist in the form of the deranged Count Vorontsov (Danila Kozlovsky) falls flat; Uchitel stuffs his frames with garish “period” detail without giving any real sense of the time. There are hints of an interesting film in there. Uchitel could have gone fully explicit and really upped the stakes with his detractors. Or he could have played up the odd sub-plot that sees a despairing Alexandra turn to a German occultist in her attempts to win Nicholas back from Matilda. Wolfram’s turn as “Alix”, meant to be the dull and dependable fiancée to whom Nicholas returns after his doomed affair, is actually the most involving in the film.
The whole sorry affair surrounding Matilda has been an unedifying mess — much like the film itself
The real problem, though, is Uchitel pushing a line on Nicholas and Matilda that is thoroughly unconvincing. “The most important thing in all this was that the four years of their love affair had a powerful effect on the fate of Russia,” he told me. “So it was important to show [Nicholas] not as a saint, an icon or statue, but as a living person. And I sympathise with him, too. I understand him. He was someone who knew how to doubt himself, which is a very important trait.”
This fascination with Nicholas — ironic given Uchitel’s criticism of Poklonskaya for the same thing — colours everything and allows the melodrama to obscure the “history” onscreen. Which is probably just as well, since the real Nicholas was one of the most disastrously feckless monarchs in modern history, whose haphazard authoritarianism led the Romanov dynasty headfirst into 1917. China Miéville got it right in his recent history of the Revolution when he called the last tsar “a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu,” given to “bovine placidity”. A less promising candidate for a rugged romantic lead could hardly be found.
And, as always, the focus on the man does the women a disservice. Kschessinska may lend the film her name, but really, Uchitel couldn’t care less about her. I ask him how he relates to the figure of Matilda, and the answer is telling. “I couldn’t have made this film if I didn’t sympathise with the heroine too; didn’t love her, even. She had a great effect, in that she allowed Nicholas to live more openly and freely. Plus she was a fantastic ballerina, very charismatic.” So there you have it: a character to be loved for her positive influence on a useless man, and her physical charm.
The whole sorry affair surrounding Matilda has been an unedifying mess — much like the film itself. The best thing now would be to pay heed to the ways in which creeping cultural conservatism can become a real threat to the safety of innocent people, and to forget about the film itself as quickly as possible. Next up for Uchitel is a film about Viktor Tsoi, the legendary rock poet of perestroika. And whatever he ends up making of this next tragic male icon, the director can at least be forgiven for turning his attention to a more secular saint.