Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov, directorial duo behind the Venice title “Captain Volkonogov Escaped” – vying for a Golden Lion – thought about Jean-Paul Belmondo when creating their main character, a USSR law enforcer who suddenly goes on the run and finds himself pursued by his former colleagues. The legendary French actor, known for “Breathless” and “Pierrot le Fou,” died on Sept. 6.
“In one of the earlier versions of the script, we even had a similar ending to ‘Breathless’. Then we changed it, but its spirit remained,” Chupov tells Variety in Venice after the film’s world premiere. “We grew up on his movies.”
The Russian-Estonian-French co-production, though set in 1938, is not a faithful take on the politically charged period, with the directors opting for a “retro-utopia” instead and, as they say, reinventing the past.
“Making a typical historical drama just wasn’t interesting to us. I know people who like making them, but we are not these people,” says Chupov. “We wanted to combine different elements, mix them and see what happens. For us, it was an experiment.”
Loosely inspired by Russian fairy tales, the film sees Volkonogov – Yuriy Borisov, recently spotted in Cannes Grand Prix winner “Compartment No. 6” – asking the families of his past victims for forgiveness, after a supernatural encounter makes him worry about the state of his own soul.
“In these stories, the hero always needs to do something three times in order to reach his goal,” says Merkulova. Although the duo has been working together for years and is currently busy co-directing Netflix’s “Anna K,” a contemporary reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s iconic novel, starring Svetlana Khodchenkova and Borisov, she is usually the one taking charge once on set, Variety found out.
“It’s generally difficult for the spectator to feel compassion for a villain – that’s why they need to see his entire journey. For us, the most interesting thing was to show this transition from a ‘normal person’ to a torturer. How does it happen?”
“We really believe that everyone is born good,” adds Chupov. “Everyone is born with a soul and some just let it ‘sleep’ for a while. But it can always wake up, like in this case. You can spot that ‘Russian fairytale’ code because our movie is really a parable, albeit based on some sad historical events that took place in our country.”
Still, instead of concentrating on the past or present situation in Russia, the directors chose a more universal approach, noting that even now, people are still being tortured and hurt all over the world.
“Russian history forms a base here; it’s our history and we know it best. But we are also addressing people in different countries because torture still exists, even though it’s really hard to believe. If someone watches our movie, and later on decides not to hurt another person, then it will serve its purpose,” says Chupov, with Merkulova admitting that originally, the story was much more brutal.
“We realized that when you are showing this kind of violence, it just turns into white noise. You don’t even notice it anymore. We decided to focus on the psychology of the protagonist instead,” she says.
They still wanted “Captain Volkonogov Escaped” to have some humor, however, with Merkulova appreciating the unobvious comedy of Yorgos Lanthimos.
“We wanted to introduce moments of black comedy, to give the spectator some temporary relief. In the world, in general, nothing is completely serious all the time,” she says, with Chupov calling humor “a great tool for tragedy.”
“When you watch sitcoms, you always hear a laugh track. They are basically telling you: ‘Laugh, laugh, this is the moment to laugh.’ When you watch dramas, they are telling you: ‘Cry, cry, this is the moment to cry.’ We like to combine both, because humor helps you avoid pathos. It’s as if someone was pinching you really hard and injecting you with painkillers at the same time.”
“Captain Volkonogov Escaped” was produced by Valeriy Fedorovich and Evgeniy Nikishov (Place of Power), and Aleksandr Plotnikov (LookFilm), and co-produced by Katrin Kissa (Homeless Bob Production), Charles-Evrard Tchekhoff (Kinovista) and Nadiia Zaionchkovska, with Memento International handling sales.