At a wake for the murder of Russian journalist and activist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in 2006 in the elevator of her apartment block in Moscow, French writer Emmanuel Carrère spotted a familiar silhouette. Though born Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko, by the mid-2000s “Limonov” had lived a dozen lives. A poet, editor, and politician who’d recently finished a two-year stint in prison on terrorism chargers (aside from threatening to overthrow the constitution, the movement he’d founded, the National Bolshevik Party, allegedly planned to create an army and invade Kazakhstan), Limonov was a man who embodied all the contradictions of the 20th century, a greater-than-life iconoclast and extremist whose existence had unraveled as a tumultuous cavalcade of U-turns, aliases, literary aspirations. and political intrigue. He’d been a factory worker in the USSR; an exile, hobo, butler, and budding novelist in New York; a successful author in Paris; and finally, by the time Carrère came across him, a Bolshevik nostalgist who’d been a vocal supporter of Serbian expansionism during the 1990s Balkan Wars (here’s footage of him firing a machine gun at besieged Sarajevo in 1992). 

That Kirill Serebrennikov’s Limonov. The Ballad doesn’t capture the entirety of his subject’s life––or the 2011 biography Carrère wrote of him, on which it is based––is hardly surprising. That it deliberately glosses over the man’s grotesque political views and associations with some of the world’s most appalling figures and war criminals is harder to stomach. Especially in 2024, over two years since Ukraine (where Limonov was born in 1943) was invaded by Russian forces, a fact Limonov only acknowledges in its final title card. Serebrennikov’s English-language debut is as muddled as its subject, but––for all these glaring and convenient omissions––it is also one of the director’s strongest in quite some time, a film whose form feels wholly in service of the story and man at its center. 

Anyone mildly familiar with Serebrennikov’s oeuvre will know just how irreverent and disorienting that approach can be. Both Leto (a study of a band of punk rockers in 1980s Russia) and Petrov’s Flu (a feverish chronicle of a day in the life of a comic-book artist in present-day Yekaterinburg) moved in-sync with their tormented heroes and their hallucinations, blurring the lines between the actual and the imagined. So it is with Limonov. Played by Ben Whishaw in Russian-accented English, the titular character saunters into Serebrennikov’s biopic in a journey unmoored to time, space, and reality. We kick off in 1989, as the writer returned to Russia after years spent abroad, and then rewind to his early days as a worker in Kharkiv, Ukraine, before dogging him along a string of adventures in Moscow, New York, and Paris. 

As befits its full title, Limonov doesn’t cut between these periods so much as dance through them. Roman Vasyanov takes over from Serebrennikov’s regular cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants; his camerawork traffics in long, uninterrupted shots that move from one chapter to the other with the ease it takes Whishaw to walk in and out of rooms. Which is to say that a black-and-white scene kicking off in 1969 Ukraine will shift to color and 1972 Moscow over the same, continuous take, heightening a sort of liquid quality that makes watching Limonov less like reading a book than witnessing a life as it spills over and beyond the frame. Halfway through, one such segment ends with Whishaw storming out of the film’s stage. It’s a jarring moment that does not feel like a rupture but a beautiful summation of Serebrennikov’s grand design: to follow a man who, by his own admission, liked to “tread many paths,” a grandiloquent scoundrel who refused and fled from all definitions. 

That’s why Serebrennikov’s approach and Yuriy Karikh’s sinuous editing feel so apt. By glossing over much of Limonov’s career as “underground” politician, a chapter to which this film devotes very little of its near two-and-a-half hours, the director fashions his latest as a sort of künstlerroman, a portrait of an artist as a frustrated young man. All we hear or see about his literary efforts is a series of bilious tirades at his more famous Soviet rivals––Brodsky and the like. Never shown toiling, Limonov is largely captured as he struggles to get published and recognized. In other artist biopics, this failure to dramatize the act of creation would convey a shortcoming. In Limonov it feels on-brand with its antihero––a self-invented man of action who finds in this virtuoso, boisterous film a tribute to match his delusions of grandeur.  

Limonov. The Ballad premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B

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