Kirill Serebrennikov’s latest film Leto is a study of the early 1980s rock scene in Leningrad. It’s shown at the Cannes Film Festival while the director is under house arrest.

Kirill Serebrennikov’s The Student was one of the most acclaimed films at Cannes two years ago, so it’s exciting that he’s come back to the festival with a rock’n’roll biopic, Leto (or Summer). Except that he hasn’t come back. The film is playing in main competition, but Serebrennikov himself is under house arrest in Moscow, having been charged with corruption, so when Leto had its gala screening, it was left to the actors on the red carpet to hold up a sign with his name on it.

The story is set in Leningrad’s early-1980s rock scene, so you might expect, in the circumstances, an urgent tale of rebellious artists railing against an oppressive state. But in fact, Serebrennikov’s wistful, rambling and sometimes dream-like film is nowhere near as straightforward. In one scene, some would-be punks are berated on a train by an older man who accuses of them of “playing the music of our ideological enemies”. A scuffle breaks out, and there is suddenly a raucous, partly-animated fantasy sequence in which the train’s passengers sing Psycho Killer by Talking Heads (or Maniac Killer by The Heads That Talk, as the subtitles would have it). But that’s as far as the overt political conflict goes. And whenever Leto has one of these surreal interludes, they are always concluded by someone holding up a sign saying: “This Did Not Happen.”

There is so much drinking and smoking in Leto that you may well risk your health just by watching it

So what did happen? The first characters we meet are Mike (Roman Bilyk), the closest thing Leningrad has to a rock god, and his wife Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum). Mike performs with his band at the state-approved ‘Rock Club’, where all lyrics have to be pre-approved by a censor, and where security guards instruct the audience to sit still at all times. But these Brezhnev-era restrictions don’t bother him. He has no desire to smash the system, and when he isn’t on stage he is content to sit in his small, shabby flat, listening to T-Rex tapes and translating David Bowie lyrics, as long as he has a cigarette and a glass of Moldovan wine to hand. There is so much drinking and smoking in Leto that you may well risk your health just by watching it.

The film’s other main character, Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), seems to be slightly more ambitious. He can’t afford an electric guitar or an amplifier, but the songs he has written are so promising that Mike agrees to mentor him, polishing his lyrics and enlisting a producer to record his debut album. Mike doesn’t even mind when Natasha admits to having a crush on his handsome young protegé, an indifference that is typical of the film’s languid mood. 

Shot in black and white, Leto drifts along, floating between rehearsals, gigs, recording sessions and parties in no particular order. Viktor’s career progresses – he is sensible enough to reject Mike’s suggested band name, Garid and the Hyperboloids, in favour of the snappier Kino – but the film’s fug of melancholy and weariness never quite dissipates, as if the characters know that they will never match their British and US heroes.

This lugubrious air may seem more poignant to viewers who are already familiar with the people depicted. In reality, Viktor Tsoi went on to become one of Russia’s biggest rock stars, before dying in a car crash at the age of 28, but none of that is mentioned in the film. To those of us who aren’t au fait with the history of Soviet popular music, Leto is sometimes fascinating, but sometimes frustratingly obscure. With its wandering structure and postmodern episodes, it harks back to Michael Winterbottom’s homage to the Madchester scene, Twenty-Four Party People, as well as Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, with which it shares a love of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. But it is slower, gloomier and more self-indulgent than either: less of a punk single than a prog-rock double album.

★★★☆☆

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