Dovlatov first look: a talented artist’s frustrations in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union

Milan Maric brings a commanding wit to his portrayal of writer Sergei Dovlatov in the new dense and formally rigorous film from Alexei German, Jr.

Reviewed at the 2018 Berlinale Film Festival.

Michael Pattison
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Dovlatov (2018)

Dovlatov is a character study in the proper sense. Unfolding across a typical week (“of little joys and big sorrows”) in Leningrad in November 1971, Alexei German Jr’s subtly layered fifth feature carves out a portrait of its eponymous protagonist – the Armenia-born novelist Sergei Dovlatov (1941-90) – as son, father, divorcé, worker, Jew. And, of course, as a man of letters: dramatised in his days prior to emigrating to New York, where belated recognition as one of the most significant Soviet writers of the twentieth century would follow, Dovlatov (played with a commanding wit by Serbian actor Milan Marić) is only one of many serious artists struggling to retain their integrity in a climate actively hostile to their independence.

Free of cheap psychology, German’s film positions its characters – Dovlatov’s pals include fellow scribes Joseph Brodsky (Arthur Beschastny) and Anatoly Kuznetsov (Anton Shagin) – in relation to a vividly evoked geo-cultural landscape in which the everyday fight for artistic freedom is a matter of life and death. Set seven years into Leonid Brezhnev’s reign as the leader of the USSR, the film sketches an institutional fabric built on the death agony of a pathologically paranoid state bureaucracy: any optimism initially prompted by the process of de-Stalinisation has all but gone.

Patriotism, the delusional self-regard that led to the doomed escapades of socialism in one country, is an endemic poison. Dovlatov, working as a journalist for a factory newspaper between rejections from literary magazines, is sent on a “nonsense assignment, an absurdity of unprecedented thrust”: he visits a film set, where he encounters actors dressed as literary figures cued to deliver platitudinous praise to him about Mother Russia. Barely able to conceal his disdain for such a charade, he meets an actress dressed as Natasha Rostova, who reckons she’s not as real as Tolstoy’s character. “You’re very real,” Sergei replies. “And better.” Marić reads the line with a warm, knowing cynicism; it’s less a compliment than a protest.

Milan Marić (right) as Sergei Dovlatov

Milan Marić (right) as Sergei Dovlatov

There’s much to like here. German accumulates a dense index (images, reference points) as a means of properly fleshing out a cinematic space: his scenes drift with an understated, oneiric agitation. It’s not enough to orchestrate multiple planes of action across single takes lasting several (unshowy) minutes. There are deliberate obstructions, background details, extras blocking our view of a scene’s ostensible point of interest: a kind of slow-burn, narratively redundant maximalism in aid (I think) of a lived-in verisimilitude – even if the washed-out colour palette, all earthy browns and custard yellows, somehow comes out looking too clean, too easy, too digital (the costumes are in bad need of some dirt, some filth).

Likewise, as if to approximate a society in which any passing comment might at any moment be overheard, weaponised, used as incriminating evidence, background speech is often elevated to the same volume as that of central characters. In one darkly comic scene that points to a culture of top-down terror, Dovlatov tricks a black-market bookseller into thinking he is a soldier querying customers’ reading habits – evidence of allegiances in opposition to the state.

Dovlatov (2018)

Progressing in such a way that neither its premise nor endpoint is clear, the film is simultaneously persistent on a scene-to-scene basis and yet elusive in its totality. This might have something to do with the abovementioned combination of a seemingly disinterested camera style and a de-centred, searching sound design, but such ambiguities are also compounded by other structural choices. Specifying dates with onscreen text, for instance, imbues the film’s casual, quotidian framework with a narrative tension, suggesting that this is all leading to somewhere in particular. This is also a film in which one character’s suicide comes and goes as a visually shocking but barely consequential aside: the ultimate denial of narrative causality is rendered utterly banal, the logical culmination of a world whose default mode is melancholy.

Dovlatov is first and finally, however, a film about writers: the kind who, being writers, naturally live for late-night bacchanals and soiree debate. As the vanguard of forward-thinking driven daily underground, they fire lines at each other like, “In ten years, no one will remember Mandelstam,” or, “Reality is inseparable from fiction in Russia,” or “Talent rarely aligns with success.” Where’s the lie?

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