Following his more accessible historical tour-de-force “Russian Ark,” helmer Alexander Sokurov returns to a totally personal, at times downright hermetic style of filmic lyricism with “Father and Son.” This companion piece to his 1996 reverie “Mother and Son” looked out of place in Cannes competition, and drew some walk-outs from auds unprepared for such self-absorption. Irritatingly devoid of irony, the film has an unintentional but unmistakable homoerotic subtext which transfixed many viewers and which could become, paradoxically, its major commercial selling point. Fest auds should appreciate its very Russian depth of feeling and romantic cinematography. Film won the Fipresci award at Cannes.
Two handsome, naked young men hold each other in bed. One comforts the other, who has awakened from a nightmare. Next scene, the diffuse lighting becomes a tad clearer and the two are defined as a youthful-looking father (Andrei Shetinin) and his soldier son Alexei (Alexei Neimyshev.) They have lived together since the death of Alexei’s mother.
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The son has a soft-spoken blonde girlfriend, and grows jealous of a faceless rival, who may be his father. But he backs off from confrontation, repeating the masochistic mantra, “A father’s love crucifies; a loving son lets himself be crucified.”
Although Alexei attends a military school, he acts silly and irresponsible around boys his own age and seems unable to grow up. His boyish pere, a former soldier himself who fought in a traumatic, unnamed war, is reluctant to let go of his son.
Sokurov invites the viewer to read the characters mythically and not psychologically, as the purest possible embodiment of a deep and wonderful paternal-filial bond. But it’s a tough assignment for most auds, for whom the relationship will seem pretty unhealthy.
The characters’ extraordinary physicality, constructed through lighting, framing and blocking, closely parallels the touching and holding in “Mother and Son” between a man and his aged, ailing parent. But here the effect is quite different.
Exhibiting plenty of skin and muscles in bare-chested bodybuilding sessions before a voyeuristic camera, serious young Neimyshev and the romantically handsome Shetinin open the film up to sexual interpretations Sokurov certainly never intended, but probably should have explored if he wanted to avoid raised eyebrows. One has the feeling the director has let himself go off the deep end regarding the romantic and idealizing tendencies that, for better or worse, characterize much of his work. This couldn’t be clearer in cinematographer Alexander Burov’s creamy peach palette and composer Andrei Sigle’s Tchaikovsky-inspired score.
The film as a whole, however, has a stagy, theatrical feel, not just in the indoor scenes set in a spacious plant-strewn apartment rubbed with gauzy light, but outdoors as well. Hilly Lisbon doubles as a military city by the sea, and its sloping rooftops and fairytale views impart an unreal quality.