Pavel Lounguine is a director disinclined to make the same sort of film twice. Still, it’s disappointing his latest left turn is toward the conventional, romanticized biopic terrain of “Lilacs.” With two disclaimers emphasizing that the content bears no particular relation to actual persons or events, this portrait of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff is so heavily fictionalized it has no excuse for being so dramatically flat. Handsome, uninvolving pic will stir interest among classical buffs, though they’ll most likely have to settle for access via limited tube/disc exposure.
Rachmaninoff was famously depressive, but here screenplay and thesp Evgeni Tsyganov offer a one-note sourpuss who seems to be forever mourning the loss of something — too bad we’re never sure just what it is. Pic intercuts between Rachmaninoff’s rise to fame in Russia and subsequent career as a renowned recitalist in the West. In the former sequences, he is taken in as a child piano prodigy by instructor Zverev (Alexei Petrenko), who disapproves of the brilliant young interpreter’s interest in composing. (Indeed, Rachmaninoff’s own music, very much tied to the no-longer-fashionable Romantic movement, would be fully appreciated only after his death.)
As an adult Sergei suffers the disaster of seeing his first symphony ridiculed after an inebriated conductor ruins its debut performance. He also pines over such unsuitable love objects as fickle woman-of-ill-repute Anna (Victoria Isakova) and Marxist university student Mariana (Miriam Sekhon). All the while, his cousin, childhood friend and loyal supporter Natalya (Victoria Tolstoganova) moons in the background, waiting for him to realize they’re meant for each other.
Just when things are going well, Rachmaninoff and now-wife Natalya flee their homeland, as he’s unable to adapt to or even consider life in the brave new Communist world. He ends up in the U.S, touring 1920s concert halls to great acclaim, playing and promoting manager-impresario Steinway’s (Alexei Kortnev) peerless pianos. But the immigrant is increasingly exhausted, temperamental, and worried about a composing drive that drastically slowed once he left Russia.
Pic divides his life into pre-Revolution Russia and American self-exile afterward. But Rachmaninoff in fact traveled widely (particularly in Europe) throughout his career; he spent most of his later years in Switzerland. Though Tchaikovsky was an important early mentor, “Lilacs” suggests the two never met. Other notable real-life events are simply omitted, and we’re never clear just what those omnipresent lilacs mean to the protag.
Some simplification of truth is inevitable in any biopic, but “Lilacs” makes poor decisions that dampen the drama, complexity and interest of its subject’s life story. Result lands somewhere between the flaming caricature of Ken Russell’s composer bios (like “The Music Lovers”) and the stale sentiment of “classic” Hollywood ones.
Lead perf by Tsyganov (who’s scarcely a ringer — the real man was a towering 6’6″), rarely veers from a grave self-absorption, suggesting less the burden of genius than simple, stubborn gloominess. Tolstoganova’s Natalya is all self-sacrificing devotion. Support roles are colorfully if often broadly played. As in biopics of yore, the thesps never seem to age, despite the saga’s multi-decade sprawl, and scenes in the U.S. (primarily shot in Spain) feel very much like a “Jazz Age” costume party for Russians.
Tatiana Patrahaltseva’s period costumes are among the principal pleasures in a production package that’s fairly small-scale (few crowd scenes, mostly medium and close-up shots) for this sort of enterprise, but which looks pretty in the pastel palate of Andrei Zhegalov’s lensing.
Compared with such distinctive prior Lounguine efforts as “The Island,” “Luna Park” or “Taxi Blues,” “Lilacs” feels lacking in a strong directorial identity. Perhaps Rachmaninoff will be better served by Bruce Bereford’s projected biopic “Rhapsody.”