“Tell me, what would happen now in a bad American movie?” ponders Aleksey Temnikov (Sergey Bezrukov), nostrils flaring with disdain, at roughly the halfway point of Russian director Anna Matison’s “After You’re Gone.” More or less the Platonic embodiment of the arrogant and temperamental Russian ballet genius, Aleksey, whose meteoric career ended in a blaze of glory and controversy years before, has been a truculent celebrity ever since. Recently, though, he’s been diagnosed with a degenerative disease that will leave him paralyzed within weeks, which he takes as a death sentence.
Determined to use the time he has left to mount his magnum opus, an original ballet set to Prokofiev, he has trouble finding dancers who measure up to his exacting standards. All of which beats are so familiar from the various sub-genres the film references — the terminal-disease movie; the selfish-man-transformed-by-fatherhood movie; the suffering-for-your-art movie; the arrogant-maestro-who-learns-there’s-more-to-life movie — that we think we can answer Aleksey’s rhetorical question as easily as he does. In a bad American movie, the next moment would be: “A young genius comes in late, I teach him everything and die in the light of his glory.” The sly pleasure of Matison’s smart, acidic film is all the ways it finds to tease plot turns like that … and then have them not happen.
Not at all the lachrymose Nicholas Sparks-style palaver that its generic and non-representative title implies, “After You’re Gone” is a ballet drama played for spiky black comedy, with stage and screen director Matison delighting in Timur Ezugbay’s scabrous screenplay and all the ways it undermines the cliched notion of tortured artistry, while also being secretly a little in love with it. Here the artist is the torturer: Aleksey is perfectly embodied by Bezrukov as a floppy-haired, pridefully stuttering aesthete who looks like a cross between Nureyev and Baryshnikov and whose backstory weirdly echoes that of ballet’s most recent bad-boy, Sergei Polunin. He’s basically a tyrant and a bully, who believes his own inarguable talent gives him license, or perhaps even makes it his duty, to treat everyone else like dirt. Zooming around in a pointless sports car through the small Russian town to which he retired following an onstage injury, he roundly abuses everyone he meets, including his pregnant girlfriend (Karina Andolenko), whom he nicknames The Shrew, despite her being unendingly sweet; and Chiara (Anastasia Bezrukova), the precocious 12-year-old he suddenly discovers he fathered.
Bezrukov (who also produces, and is a well-known face in Russia) was recently married to director Matison, and the actress who plays Chiara is his daughter in real life. But this is anything but a cozy family affair, with Bezrukov never flinching from his character’s monstrous self-regard, and Matison never softening or ameliorating the portrait. Aleksey quashes Chiara’s dreams of dancing stardom in one withering moment; he summarily renames her because he doesn’t like “Chiara”; he insults the students at his dance school and makes the teachers cry; he accuses the doctor who diagnoses him of incompetence; he derides his pregnant girlfriend for getting fat on bananas.
But the chickens of a lifetime spent deriding those less talented than he (i.e. everyone) come home to roost when he tries to mount his grand finale and no one will help him, and for a while it looks like an “ordinary” life beckons instead. It’s a testament to the film’s conflicted relationship to artistic genius — at once in thrall to it and sick of its b.s. — that although we don’t for a moment like Aleksey, we do experience a pang of regret when that looks to be the likely outcome.
Any ballet film lives or dies on how convincing its dance scenes are, but “After You’re Gone” benefits from a narrative that means we don’t have to see Bezrukov do much actual dancing. Cleverly using archival footage and judicious editing to create the illusion of a one-time ballet legend, the idea that his greatest glories are past is also kind of the point: The film is as much about the transience of artistic endeavor as it as about the mythos that can be built up around it.
But Matison pushes the envelope on a filmmaking level, too, with some of DP Sergey Otrepiev’s swooping long-take steadicam shots themselves achieving a balletic grace. Often a scene takes place in multiple locations and vehicles, without a visible cut. There is even one show-offy, bravura take that makes a nighttime tram ride through Moscow seem like an epic real-time journey, with the camera hopping aboard with Aleksey and Chiara, taking in the other occupants (all women knitting or crocheting), then passing impossibly out through the side of the tram — only to pick up father and daughter again when they alight outside the Bolshoi Theater.
All the craft in the world, however can’t quite compensate for a slight sense of insubstantiality. The film’s ironic take on the ballet world doesn’t make that milieu any less rarefied, though the coup de grace, by which the whole final section plays as a (very funny) punchline to a joke the rest of the film has been setting up, almost justifies the run time by itself. An inessential but very enjoyable addition to the canon of films about the price of artistic perfection and the obsessives who are willing to pay it, “After You’re Gone” is graceful as an arabesque, ephemeral as a pirouette, and arch as a ballerina’s instep.