Alexey Balabanov, 1959-2013

Balabanov's chief strength as a director might have been to pass off serious art as throwaway fluff, to make his own artistry appear spontaneous and/or accidental when in fact you got the sense when watching his work that a film set might have been the only place where he could properly function...

I was in London for a long weekend, removed from my usual daily news sources, when I received a text from fellow critic Neil Young, in Cannes, telling me that Alexey Balabanov had died aged 54. My reply: "Fuck me. Genuinely gutted."

It was through Neil that I discovered Balabanov; the Russian maestro's last completed film, Me Too, was Neil's favourite film of last year, and though it impressed me as a casual comedy upon seeing it via Festival Scope, it didn't quite match the preceding anticipation. When I saw it again on the big screen at Bradford International Film Festival last month, however, it floored me; as I wrote in my Eye For Film review, the film boasts "unfussy hilarity and unlikely shades of topicality ... Its title, frequently repeated by various characters in response to others’ simple requests for happiness in this unforgiving world, invites viewers to share and thus alleviate their misery." In my view also, it was the best film of 2012.

Balabanov's chief strength as a director - one that, conversely, might account for his comparative critical neglect and consignment to the commercial margins outside of Russia - might have been to pass off serious art as throwaway fluff, to make his own artistry appear spontaneous and/or accidental when in fact you got the sense when watching his work that a film set might have been the only place where he could properly function, where everything just fell into place. Filmmaking "came naturally to him", if you like, which is why part of the controversy of some of his films stems perhaps from the nagging (and wrongful) presumption that they are the outcome of hazard, of chance... is that incessant soundtrack down to a technical glitch, for instance, or some kind of genius?

There's an almost upsettingly childish sensibility at work in Balabanov's films - much like Sergei Bodrov, Jr.'s character in Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000), in fact, there's a fine line between juvenile and cool. Between shocking bursts of violence, characters walk purposelessly through frame, slipping on ice, bumping props and spilling things; there is full frontal nudity, casual racism, an apparent misogyny. By the end, though, you always get a strong sense that the man knew which side he was on, and didn't mind dishing comeuppance to those who deserved it. At the end of Me Too, the only characters who are granted transportation to another planet by the comically-named Bell Tower of Happiness (a monument atop a frozen lake located “somewhere between St. Petersburg and Uglich”) are victims of casual and social cruelty, or those who refuse to contribute to said cruelty by keeping schtum between reckless swigs of vodka. Cinematic and/or social outsiders are people too.

Balabanov died a day after the UK theatrical release of his 2010 film Stoker. Its curious selection for a belated release was the work of Edinburgh-based distribution label Filmhouse, whose first venture into the distribution circuit this is; with its strange energies and effortless tonal shifts, the film was already one of the year's few must-see works, but its director's death deserves at the very least to catalyse wider exposure. (Advice: seek out or organise a 35mm screening of Cargo 200 (2007) immediately; it'll do things that you'd forgotten films could.)

In my review of Stoker, I wrote that the singular writer-director "does things his own way". I'm sad that the present-tense has been prematurely negated.


PS. Brother, Brother 2 and War (2002) are viewable in full, with English subtitles, on YouTube.