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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Peter Bradshaw

Limonov: The Ballad review – Ben Whishaw brilliant as Russia’s outlaw bohemian

Poetic revolutionary … Ben Whishaw in Limonov: The Ballad, directed By Kirill Serebrennikov.
Poetic revolutionary … Ben Whishaw in Limonov: The Ballad, directed By Kirill Serebrennikov. Photograph: Andrejs Strokins

Fascism, punk, euphoria and despair … it’s all here, or mostly, in this hilarious biopic of Eduard Limonov, the rock’n’roll émigré Russian writer and patriot-dissident who wound up poverty-stricken in New York at about the same time as Sid Vicious. Limonov (a pen name taken from the Russian word “limonka”, meaning lime but also slang for grenade) became an angry bohemian, a sexual outlaw and a celebrated adulte terrible in French literary circles in the 80s, railing against the prissy liberals and mincing hypocrites. Then he returned to Russia and became the leader of a violent group called the National Bolshevik Party. Tactfully, nobody here points out the similarity to “national socialist party”. It was if someone had given Michel Houellebecq a machine gun.

Ben Whishaw gives a glorious performance as Limonov – funny, dour, crazy, sexy, boiling with unhappiness and apparently bipolar (although this diagnosis is something else that doesn’t seriously occur to anyone). And maybe always, at the back of his mind, worried that his writing is not good enough to make him immortal, and that posing, PR, situationist outrage and political violence are his real vocation. Inevitably his autobiographical fictions are compared by a New York publisher to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (Limonov says he hasn’t seen it), but he winds up being a grizzled conflation of Ed Norton and Brad Pitt in Fight Club.

Kirill Serebrennikov directs with terrific gusto, from a script adapted from the novel by Emmanuel Carrère. The writer has a cameo as a simpering French intellectual who approaches Limonov hoping to flatter him with praise for Russian moral authoritarianism, and is rewarded only with contempt. On the other hand, Limonov later smashes a bottle over the head of another French intellectual, played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, for being disrespectful about Russia and the Soviet Union.

The screenplay, co-written by Serebrennikov with Ben Hopkins and Paweł Pawlikowski, is a deeply enjoyable picture of a punk anarchist who, despite having to take humiliating jobs such as butlering to a Manhattan plutocrat, didn’t want to sell out and become comfortably smug with success in the west like the insufferable careerist Yevtushenko, or the unbearably pious Solzhenitsyn. But as you get older, the alternative to selling out, to keeping the rebellious spirit alive, is paramilitary extremism – and this is the story of a poetic revolutionary becoming a political reactionary.

However, the director puts the emphasis on Limonov’s underdog rage and down-and-out unhappiness; the lost soul left by his wife (whom he tried to strangle in a jealous rage) and mooching miserably around New York in a Ramones T-shirt. It maybe flinches from describing his late-life career in actual, unfunny, unironic fascist militarism. That his guys finally fight in the Donbas for the Russian separatists is only mentioned in the postscript titles over the closing credits, and the film passes over Limonov’s enthusiasm for the Serbian side in the Bosnian war (as covered by Pawlikowski’s TV documentary Serbian Epics).

But the film is very funny on the subject of writers’ obsessive and envious awareness of other writers’ successes. Most of them keep it to themselves, but not Limonov. In his young adulthood in the USSR, pondering the exile that might be forced on him, he wonders aloud why he can’t have the western success of Joseph Brodsky, as he himself is “no less of a parasite and freeloader”. Later he rails against the anti-pleasure writings of Solzhenitsyn, the Orthodox patriarch of solemnity (“He pretends to be anti-Soviet, but he is Soviet to the core”), and he likes to have sex with his wife, Yelena (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) in front of the TV while Solzhenitsyn is on, as if forcing him to watch. Putin’s name is not mentioned here, and surely Limonov himself would not be so reticent. But it’s an exhilarating, alarming look at that much discussed subject: the Russian soul.

• Limonov: The Ballad screened at the Cannes film festival

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