Last December, a few months before Russia invaded Ukraine, Kirill Serebrennikov, the film and theater director, applied for parole on the basis of good behavior. Serebrennikov was arrested in 2017 on embezzlement charges, though it was widely understood that his real offense was producing work that irritated the Kremlin. He spent 20 months on house arrest and another year standing trial, before being sentenced to three years’ probation. In late March, a Russian court suspended his remaining sentence, and the very next day, he fled to Germany. By May, he was at the Cannes Film Festival, in the south of France, for the premiere of his new film, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife.” When Serebrennikov emerged in a small room at the Palais des Festivals for a news conference, the moderator introduced him as “someone who we’ve eagerly awaited for three years.”
Serebrennikov had missed the premieres of his last two films at the festival: “Summer,” in 2018, when he was confined to his Moscow apartment under the surveillance of an ankle monitor, and last year’s “Petrov’s Flu.” Cannes is among a handful of European festivals where Hollywood executives go shopping for talent. A strong showing there can catapult an art-house director to the helm of a Hollywood movie or the sale of their next feature. Were it not for the war, Serebrennikov’s attendance this year would have marked the triumphant return of a dissident. But after Ukrainian filmmakers called for a boycott of Russian culture, Serebrennikov was mostly addressed as a representative of his hostile country. The day got off to a rough start pretty much right away when a journalist from Moldova, which borders Ukraine, stood up and said that if the war didn’t end soon, Odesa would soon be besieged by bombs.
Serebrennikov sat at the front of the room in tinted glasses and a black cap, against a backdrop that featured a still from “The Truman Show.” The director reminded everyone that his film was made before the war, but said he understood those who wanted to boycott him. “It’s so hurtful what’s happening to their country,” he said in response to another question, “so unbearable, so difficult.” But, he added, “calling for a ban based on nationality, we’ve been here before. It’s not possible and it can’t be done.”
Several international film festivals had excluded films by Russian directors. When Cannes said that it would ban Russians with government ties while signaling that it would still allow those who opposed the country’s regime, it further ignited tensions. Serebrennikov had been hearing rumors that Ukrainians would stage a protest to disrupt the premiere. A few days earlier, the director, who is 52, called his father, who still lives in Rostov-on-Don, the Southern Russian city where Serebrennikov grew up, and asked him to wish him luck. “Hopefully,” he said, “the Ukrainians don’t pelt us with tomatoes.”
Cannes made efforts to mitigate the controversy, devoting a special program to Ukrainian film and opening the festival with a live address from President Volodymyr Zelensky. But other theatrics felt tone deaf, such as the French fighter jets that thundered low overhead in honor of the “Top Gun: Maverick” premiere — which directly followed Serebrennikov’s — and sent a group of Ukrainian filmmakers ducking for cover. Serebrennikov’s assistant, Anna Shalashova, joked that at least the red, white and blue trails painted by the jets across the sky were in the right order, and not that of the Russian flag. “Can you imagine?” she said.
At the news conference, Serebrennikov acknowledged the difficulty of being a Russian artist. But the questions kept coming: about the war, about the boycott, about Serebrennikov’s connections to the state. A Ukrainian journalist asked why the director was allowed to leave Russia, a question that seemed to suggest suspicious timing. At one point, the moderator tried to steer the conversation back to the film by addressing the actors, who had yet to be asked anything. But Serebrennikov looked pained. He stroked his lower lip with his index finger and stared into the middle distance. When the very next question returned to the boycott, he dropped his head dramatically, like someone in the midst of a losing game.
If there was a final blow, it came via a reporter from Deadline Hollywood, who asked about Roman Abramovich, the sanctioned oligarch who had contributed funding to the film. Serebrennikov spoke for some time about how he hadn’t accepted state funding since 2016 and how much Abramovich has helped Russia’s independent filmmakers and him personally. (Serebrennikov says the billionaire helped pay off his $1.9 million in state fines and legal fees.) But it didn’t matter. The only part that would resound in the press for days was when he quoted Zelensky, who had asked the United States not to sanction Abramovich because of his role in the peace negotiations. “And I agree,” Serebrennikov said.
By the afternoon, a version of the headline was everywhere: “ ‘Tchaikovsky’s Wife’ Director Calls for Sanctions Against Russian Oligarch Roman Abramovich to Be Lifted.”
The reaction among Serebrennikov’s supporters was swift, too. Some thought it was tasteless. Others went so far as to call Serebrennikov a traitor. Russian authorities had silenced the country’s free press, but its leading journalists were now dispersed across Europe and broadcasting on YouTube. Among them was Denis Kataev from TV Rain, Russia’s last independent news channel, which abruptly switched to showing Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” when it was forced off Russian airwaves in March. In a video posted shortly after the news conference, Kataev speculated that Serebrennikov had jeopardized his film’s distribution. “I don’t want to bad-mouth Kirill like a lot of our colleagues are doing,” Kataev said, “but when there is a war going on you have to choose words carefully.”
It has been almost six months since the war began. Weapons and resources have poured into Ukraine from all over the world, as Western governments have moved to isolate Russia economically. But as the war grinds on, some of the other efforts to punish the country now seem absurd. Dumping bottles of Stoli vodka, a product of Latvia, did not stop the war. Nor did canceling reservations at Russian restaurants, many owned by refugees who left the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Tchaikovsky died in 1893, but after Russia attacked Ukraine, performances of his music were canceled in Wales, Ireland, Greece, the Czech Republic and Japan. The cultural boycott had begun with Russian artists who supported Putin, but soon even those who had denounced the war — a pianist in Canada, a cellist in Switzerland, two filmmakers at the Glasgow Film Festival — were disinvited from their engagements. Maybe it was because of politics or because Western audiences just weren’t in the mood to engage with Russian art. But by the time a university in Milan suspended a lecture series on Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and then had to backtrack after it was pointed out that the author had been exiled to Siberia, the exact purpose of the boycott had become a bit muddled.
Eventually, the issue migrated to its next logical staging ground: Hollywood. Netflix, which had doubled down on international programming after the success of “Squid Game,” halted production on four Russian-language shows, including “Anna K,” a modern-day adaptation of “Anna Karenina,” which had already been filmed. Apple TV+ considered rewriting the characters on a show still in development, at one point known as “The Untitled Russian Billionaires Project,” to be from Belarus or Serbia, and scrapped plans for “Container,” its first Russian-language series, acquired as part of a now-dead coproduction deal with a streaming service partly owned by Alisher Usmanov, a sanctioned Russian oligarch.
Executives understandably panicked about whom they had been meeting with and where exactly their money was flowing. Some wondered if an indiscriminate ban could put pressure on companies or oligarchs, who may or may not have a direct line of communication to Putin. Perhaps that was worth trying, even if it didn’t work, which it probably wouldn’t. Sure, some artists would lose work, but the larger issue was that civilians were being killed. It made sense to pull out of deals with sanctioned entities, but how to sort through all the rest?
Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War
- On the Ground: After a summer of few conclusive battles, Ukraine and Russia are now facing a quandary over how to concentrate their forces, leaving commanders in a guessing game about each other’s next moves.
- Nuclear Shelter: The Russian military is using а nuclear power station in southern Ukraine as a fortress, stymying Ukrainian forces and unnerving locals, faced with intensifying fighting and the threat of a radiation leak.
- Refugees in Europe: The flow of people fleeing Ukraine has increased pressure across the region. Some cоuntries are paying shipping firms to offer new arrivals safe but tight quarters.
- Prison Camp Explosion: After a blast at a Russian detention camp killed at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war, Ukrainian officials said that they were building a case of a war crime committed by Russian forces.
When the war began, Anastasia Palchikova, a Russian filmmaker, was finalizing a deal for a series at a major American network. Palchikova signed open letters against the war and attended protests in Moscow, where her husband was arrested. Soon she began receiving threatening phone calls, calling her a traitor. In April, she left for Istanbul. By then she had heard that her deal was now in limbo. (She asked me not to name the network in case the show was later revived.) Palchikova’s U.S. agent, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity because of company policy, told me that the network’s executives are aware of Palchikova’s activism. “But then they take it up the chain,” the agent said, “and these are all giant corporations that can’t be seen, like, funneling money to Russians.”
Serebrennikov, at a court hearing in Moscow in 2017.Credit…Vasily Maximov/Agence France-Press, via Getty Images
Other projects were investigated and cleared. Alex Reznik, an Odesa-born actor and producer in Los Angeles, had a show briefly paused at one of the streaming platforms. “They just said we need to do some due diligence,” he told me. Reznik previously produced the Emmy-winning Netflix series “Seven Seconds,” which was inspired by a Russian film; his new show is also based on Russian material. He wasn’t sure why it was ultimately allowed to proceed. “I don’t think people in the industry know what the rules are right now,” Reznik said. “Some companies in Russia are sanctioned, you can’t do business. But to what extent?”
Russia’s film industry can be hard to sort through. Unlike Hollywood, which is self-sufficient and funded by a hundred-year-old studio system, Russian culture, like that of France or Germany, largely relies on state funding. If one were to define a filmmaker who has accepted those funds as having ties to the state — as the Glasgow Film Festival did — that’s going to cast a wide net. Russian filmmakers seeking private financing often end up dealing with companies with unsavory backers or patrons like Abramovich. In other words, you can reject these channels or you can make a movie; it is difficult to do both. Navigating this system requires some dexterity. Ilya Stewart, who produced the last four of Serebrennikov’s films, told me that he implicitly understood which projects were too overtly political to ask the government to finance. “Because I’d rather not put them in an uncomfortable position,” he said. “And that’s how a lot of people operated who understood how the system worked.” (Full disclosure: My brother has worked as a producer and talent manager in Russia’s film industry.)
Russia’s Ministry of Culture has backed plenty of films that glorify Russia, such as “Going Vertical,” a sports drama about the time the Soviet Union defeated the United States Olympic basketball team, and “Stalingrad,” a celebration of Russia’s stamina against the infamous Nazi siege. But it has also financed films that appear to challenge the regime. The Venice Film Festival last year spotlighted “Captain Volkonogov Escaped,” a thriller about Stalin’s purges that was seen as a veiled critique of Putin’s Russia. That film received state financing. As did “Leviathan,” Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2014 Oscar-nominated film, which portrayed contemporary Russian life in such an unflattering light that it has never been shown on TV in Russia. The search for heroes and villains in Russia’s film industry can be a bit unsatisfying.
Later, I found out that Palchikova’s show was based on a film she made about her childhood. But the rights were still controlled by a Russian production company backed by Gazprom, the state-owned gas monopoly. Palchikova offered to write a different version of the story, so that no Russian company could profit from an adaptation. But the network hasn’t budged. Palchikova stressed that the tragedy was the war, not the suspended projects. But she wondered if suppressing Russia’s oppositional voices was counterproductive. “When the Western world bans Russian people,” Palchikova said, “they are kind of doing the work for the Russian government.”
In March, Russia passed a new law punishing the spread of misinformation, which includes calling the war a war, with up to 15 years in prison. By June, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Dmitry Glukhovsky, a popular sci-fi author who protested the war on social media. The director Michael Lockshin heard that the government also had screenshots from his Instagram, where he reposted Western coverage of the war. Furthermore, the fate of “Woland,” Lockshin’s forthcoming $15 million film based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita,” which is itself about censorship, was now uncertain. The state was withholding the film’s postproduction budget, which involves pricey special effects (there’s a talking cat); its distributor, Universal, had pulled out of Russia, and it has yet to be picked up by anyone else. “So now we’re censored in a way in Russia,” Lockshin said, “and also can’t take it abroad because it’s a Russian movie. It’s kind of a crazy situation.”
Lockshin was glad to see that Cannes had accepted Serebrennikov’s film. He thought it sent a clear message that art shouldn’t be purely associated with its country of origin. “The whole industry is watching how it’s perceived there,” Lockshin said, “because it’s going to tell us what comes next.”
A few days before his Cannes premiere, I met Serebrennikov in Amsterdam, where he was directing the opera “Der Freischütz.” Serebrennikov’s stage work, like his films, is often provocative and rebellious. At the Dutch National Opera, Serebrennikov had rewritten the 200-year-old German opus to be an opera about the opera, and added music by Tom Waits. When I arrived, a classically trained tenor was arguing over a line that the director wrote for him about the tenor’s wife’s request that he talk dirty like a baritone. “It doesn’t make any sense!” the tenor shouted.
After rehearsals, Serebrennikov threw a green bomber jacket over a Thrasher T-shirt and black track pants. On his wrist was a faceless Margiela watch, which he said was “for people who don’t care about the time.” Outside, it had started to rain, which Serebrennikov, who is a Buddhist, observed more as a curiosity than a hindrance. “No one was predicting rain, but the rain still came,” he remarked. I’d heard that unlike other directors, Serebrennikov rarely raises his voice at actors, and I asked if that was true. “I don’t see the point,” he said. “Aggression and violence always happen from weakness.”
There was a time when Serebrennikov benefited from the system that ultimately turned on him. He moved to Moscow from Rostov-on-Don in 2001, when the state — and this is hard to remember now — was eager to support the arts. For a decade, Serebrennikov staged performances at Moscow’s largest theaters and eventually caught the attention of Vladislav Surkov, a top Putin adviser who coined “sovereign democracy,” an unusual term for a system free of Western meddling and only democratic to the extent its leaders allowed. Surkov saw artists as a necessary tool in that arrangement: as both evidence of Russia’s modernity and its tentative patience toward free expression. In 2011, Serebrennikov was put in charge of Platform, a new federally funded arts festival, and, a year later, the Gogol Center, a sleepy theater that he turned into a hub for avant-garde performance. Simultaneously, he attended anti-Putin protests and staged an opera that parodied Kremlin politics. He even adapted a novel that Surkov wrote under a pseudonym, but made it into a commentary on corruption.
As Putin muscled his way back into power in 2012, mass protests broke out across Russia. Putin demoted Surkov and gave the job of Minister of Culture to Vladimir Medinsky, a nationalist who warned against art that was at odds with “traditional values.” The same year, members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot were arrested and tried. Around this time, Serebrennikov made his first attempt at a Tchaikovsky biopic and was denied state funds because of the script’s homosexual themes. (Serebrennikov has spoken out in support of Russia’s beleaguered L.G.B.T. community, and his film deals with the composer’s closeted sexuality.) Instead, he got financing from Abramovich and in 2016 released “The Student,” which mocked the country’s increasing conservatism and religious hypocrisy. The next year, Serebrennikov was accused of fraud involving a state subsidy of $1.9 million for Platform.
“I didn’t change; the country changed,” Serebrennikov told me. The director started to notice the propaganda machine churning against him when, in 2014, while at dinner with friends, he looked up and saw himself on the state news channel, among other top stories. “We turned up the volume, and it was literally: America is bad, the Olympics in Russia are good, and do we really need a director like this?” His friends looked at him as if he were a dead man. “You begin to understand that some dark clouds are starting to gather, but you have no idea why,” he said.
Serebrennikov was arrested in St. Petersburg, where he was filming “Summer,” a nostalgic look at the Soviet Union’s underground music scene. He entered his hotel room late at night and heard a knock on the door, assuming it was one of the crew. Instead it was six officers from the F.S.B., Russia’s state security agency, who took Serebrennikov into a van and drove him the eight hours back to Moscow. No one knew he was gone until morning, when Stewart, his producer, asked the hotel’s manager to open Serebrennikov’s room and found that his bed hadn’t been slept in.
In Moscow, Serebrennikov was sentenced to house arrest in his 474-square-foot apartment while awaiting trial. But there was still the last third of the film to finish. After Serebrennikov’s lawyers petitioned the court to allow him daily walks to get fresh air, Stewart had the idea to rebuild the film’s sets in Serebrennikov’s neighborhood, so that every night the director could use those walks to drop by. Flash drives were then slipped beneath his door, and Serebrennikov would watch the takes and give notes. “If you think about it from a production perspective, this is a crazy way to make a film,” Stewart told me.
Creatively, Serebrennikov’s house arrest was productive. He directed two plays via Zoom, four operas and wrote five screenplays, including his next film, “Petrov’s Flu.” When he shot it in the fall of 2019, he was already standing trial. The charges revolved around the use of petty cash, which is a legal way to pay vendors but in this case allowed the state to argue that the director had misappropriated the funds. At one point, prosecutors claimed that a staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” had never happened, despite the play’s winning awards and traveling abroad. The hearings were in the mornings, so Serebrennikov shot the film at night. “He didn’t sleep for the entire shoot, basically,” Stewart told me. Serebrennikov was convicted of fraud in June 2020. The next year he was fired from the Gogol Center.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Serebrennikov was in Moscow shooting “Limonov: The Ballad of Eddie,” his first English-language film, about the controversial Russian poet. As everyone silently scrolled through the news on their phones, Serebrennikov pushed his crew to get back to work. “I thought that if we stopped, we’d lose our minds,” Serebrennikov told me. Eventually, they had to stop when the British Embassy urged its nationals to leave Russia, which included the film’s lead, Ben Whishaw. Once his travel ban was lifted and there were no more direct flights operating to Europe, Serebrennikov left too, via Turkey.
The rain finally let up, and we went for a walk through the damp streets of central Amsterdam. We ducked into a clothing store, where Serebrennikov picked up a pair of shoes and set them back down again. “I should get something for Cannes,” he said unenthusiastically. “Shoes, or something.” Though he had mixed feelings about attending the festival as the war raged on, he was grateful to the organizers for including him despite the pressure not to. “I guess they must have decided that no one can accuse me of supporting the regime,” he said.
At a cafe, Serebrennikov called his father. The director’s mother died when he was on trial. He speaks to his father, who is 88, almost every day. But he hasn’t told him that he may not return to Russia for a long time. “He keeps asking when I’m coming back, but I can’t tell him,” Serebrennikov said. “How can I tell him?” He told his father that he was flying to Cannes the next day. Then he repeated what he’d said earlier: “No one was predicting the rain today, but the rain still came.”
At Cannes, Serebrennikov’s premiere was given an afternoon slot. Everyone was relieved because it meant forgoing a glitzier, and potentially more insensitive, red carpet. The cast and producers gathered at a Marriott on the Riviera, where Stewart walked everyone through what to expect, including the part at the end when the Cannes audience applauds or boos. “And if at that point no one throws red paint at us,” he said, “we walk out.” Serebrennikov nodded.
Earlier, I asked him what he thought about the boycott of Russian culture, including Tchaikovsky, the subject of his film. “Stupid people exist, and they have a right to do whatever they want,” he said. “As someone who keeps colliding with censorship, of course I don’t agree with it. You can cancel a concert. But if you want to cancel Russian culture, I guess then you should just kill all of us.” He added that Tchaikovsky would have been horrified by the war. “Tchaikovsky is definitely not bombing Ukrainian cities,” he said. “And neither am I.”
“Tchaikovsky’s Wife” is a tragedy about the composer’s doomed marriage and the ways in which long-term repression and deception lead to madness. Despite all the worry and precaution, the film received a standing ovation. Afterward, as the festival’s director handed him a microphone, Serebrennikov repeated a phrase that he’d been saying a lot lately: “No to war.”
In Russia, those words had been criminalized. But in the West, the phrase had become insufficient. This was the crux of the criticism against Serebrennikov and other Russian artists: that they didn’t say enough; that they didn’t condemn Putin or Russia by name. But when we ask this of citizens under authoritarian regimes, we don’t always know what we’re asking for. Many Russian public figures have denounced the war, but not everyone can afford to speak out or leave. Some may have relatives back home that could be put at risk. Others don’t have international connections. Serebrennikov told me that asking artists to pass a loyalty test before allowing them to work was just the inverse of what was happening in Russia, where those who protested the war had been fired. “And Russians are doing that to each other,” he added. “So you don’t have to cancel Russians, because Russians are already very good at canceling themselves.”
After the premiere, everyone headed to dinner at a private villa, where I sat between a Polish filmmaker who was housing a family of Ukrainian refugees back home and a producer from Anonymous Content who told me that some people in Hollywood simply don’t talk to Russians anymore. Alyona Mikhailova, the 26-year-old star of Serebrennikov’s film, was walking around barefoot while her Russian agent followed her around, telling her to put her shoes on like a watchful mother. Mikhailova told me she had to fly to Cannes via Dubai. When I asked if this was a complicated time to travel outside Russia, her agent became very worried about what Mikhailova might say. “It’s complicated only because of the logistics,” the agent said. “Because we can’t fly direct. But in general, no.”
I rephrased, and asked if it was a complicated time to be a Russian artist.
Mikhailova began to say that she was anxious about attending the festival. “I just didn’t know how to handle myself here,” she said.
As I tried to clarify again, the agent interjected. “Is it possible not to touch on this?”
“Wait, no, I’ll try to say it somehow,” Mikhailova insisted.
“She already answered your question, that it’s complicated,” the agent said. “Let’s not expand on this topic.”
“I would say this,” Mikhailova said. “This whole past month, I’ve thought about how to find the right words. I’ve looked for words from Princess Diana, from Jesus. …”
The agent was about to lose it. “We’re getting into the weeds here with Jesus and Diana,” the agent said. “Next question, please.”
Mikhailova continued trying to speak as her agent continued trying to get her not to.
“I’m the kind of person that — ”
“Please, let’s move on.”
“They say expect the best, prepare for the worst. I prepared for the worst. So when we were received so warmly today, I just started crying because — ”
“Let’s not please. The film was well received, and that’s it.”
“I’m the one doing the interview!” Mikhailova protested. “Please. Let me talk.”
The agent laughed nervously and let Mikhailova speak for a while, before loudly clearing her throat.
“Enough already!” Mikhailova finally snapped. “I can’t talk with you in my ear like this. What is so bad about what I’m saying?”
It is an understatement to say that protest is currently illegal in Russia. Since the war began, Russian citizens have been detained for the most minor offenses, including an antiwar screen saver, holding up a blank piece of paper and a manicure in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. For filmmakers who remain in Russia, their work may be their only means of making a statement, as it already has been for directors like Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose films leave a trail of bread crumbs for anyone curious about modern Russia. Hollywood’s response to the war has been fast and emphatic. But it could also backfire if it eliminates the space where dissent can be possible.
Zvyagintsev’s films are produced by Alexander Rodnyansky, who was perhaps Russia’s most prominent producer until he fled after the invasion. Rodnyansky is from Kyiv. In 2002, he put Zelensky’s comedy show on Ukraine’s largest TV network. Then he moved to Russia, where he produced films that received government grants, including “Stalingrad.” As the war broke out, Rodnyansky’s social media posts against the war landed him on several watch lists of traitors and enemies. He also has a first-look deal at Apple TV+ and several shows on the way. “I share the anger and pain of Ukrainian intellectuals who want to eradicate Russia from cultural life today,” he told me. “But decisions should be made based on facts.” The reality, he said, is that true Russian culture has always been against the war and it is sometimes the only way to know that there’s no political consensus in a country where even polling data can’t be trusted. “When you ask a Russian citizen, ‘Do you oppose the war?’” Rodnyansky said, “to him it sounds like, ‘Are you ready to go to jail?’”
The strange thing about the answer that landed Serebrennikov in trouble at Cannes was that no one had actually asked him about the sanctions against Abramovich. The Deadline reporter’s relatively banal, if slightly baiting, question was about whether the billionaire or the director would be donating profits from the film to the war victims in Ukraine. But after the news conference that hardly touched on his film, Serebrennikov’s typical stoicism had given way to sullen agitation. He had drained his water glass and checked the watch that could not tell time. His response to the question was defiant. He said it was important to support all victims of the war, including the families of the dead Russian soldiers, whom he saw as victims of propaganda. He said he already gives money to everyone affected by the war. “But I’m not going to show you the receipts, of course.” Then he added the part about Abramovich.
Maybe it was the fact that Serebrennikov had just expressed sympathy for Russian soldiers who were killing Ukrainians or that he followed it up by defending the oligarch, but at that point the moderator abruptly ended the news conference. And when a Georgian woman then pushed her way to Serebrennikov to scold him for Russia’s abuses against Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea, Serebrennikov, after days or years of accepting things as they are, seemed to lose patience. As the woman moved on to Abramovich’s close ties with Putin, the director snapped back. “Did you measure the closeness?” he asked, petulantly. Then he flashed a peace sign and exited the room.
For a short while, neither Stewart nor Serebrennikov’s assistant could find the director. When he reappeared he had regained his composure. As Stewart wondered why further security precautions hadn’t been taken, Serebrennikov defended the Georgian woman’s right to protest against him. “This is a free country,” he said. “If we surround ourselves with concrete and machine guns, we’d be just like Putin.”
Serebrennikov spent his last day in Cannes endlessly denouncing the war. But the previous night, he had allowed himself a moment of celebration. Standing near the villa’s swimming pool, he toasted his cast and crew and lamented the past few premieres when he could not be with them. “I’ve missed so many wonderful drunk people swimming in this pool,” he said. Later, his colleagues jumped in the pool in his honor, but Serebrennikov observed the scene from the sidelines. “I don’t feel very excitable at the moment,” he began to say when I asked how he was feeling. Everyone was chanting Mikhailova’s name, urging the actress to get into the pool. “Mikhailova, don’t be scared!” Serebrennikov called out, then continued his thought. “I don’t have any outsize feelings about being here,” he said. “Today you’re in house arrest, tomorrow you’re in Europe, then you’re on the moon, then you’re in the desert. We’ll see how it ends.”
From Cannes, Serebrennikov would fly to Amsterdam to finish opera rehearsals, before heading to Latvia to scout new locations for “Limonov,” which he planned to start filming again soon. “Tchaikovsky’s Wife” had been presold in Europe. Stewart had hoped to make a U.S. sale at the festival, but it never materialized. As of now, it will be the first of Serebrennikov’s last five films to not have a limited stateside release. Maybe it was because of the risk-averse market or the commercial viability of the film — it’s hard to know.
Serebrennikov was certain that the film’s release would be blocked in Russia because of its subject matter, though Stewart told me that there were technically no legal grounds for the Ministry of Culture to do so. “But there are new laws every day, so who knows,” Stewart said. In response to Serebrennikov’s comments at Cannes, the Ukrainian Institute in Kyiv promptly issued another statement that the director’s “dissident” status was long overdue for a thorough analysis. “Serebrennikov is living proof that Russian culture is, more often than not, pro-war,” it read. A month later, Russian authorities shut down the Gogol Center, his former theater, which had refused to remove the director’s work from its repertoire. The theater’s last performance was a play titled, “I Do Not Participate in War.”
Irina Aleksander is a contributing writer for the magazine. Her last feature article was about the collapse of the fashion industry.