Rediscovering Rublev


This week I finally found time to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 epic Andrei Rublev, recorded on TV a few weeks ago. I hadn’t seen it for many years and now wonder if I ever saw it at all. The only mental snapshot I retained of it turned out not to be in the film at all, though it did involve a church. I also retain a snapshot of Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia, which, again, I haven’t seen for years: a long shot of rainwater on a puddle in a ruined building. I’ll doubtless discover that too was a false recall.

There’s a lot of water in Andrei Rublev: the slow studies of wet stuff that make people think of Tarkovsky as a kind of pantheistic mystic. The most beautiful one – and the most mystical – is of the young apprentice, shot with a Tartar arrow, who (in slow motion) falls into a stream, followed shortly after in the water by a small, swirling cloud of white paint: the paint, one is forced to assume, that leaked into another stream in one of the film’s earlier scenes.

I’d forgotten the many horrors in Rublev, which wasn’t shown in Soviet Russia until 1971, and then only in censored form. It remains a brutally real depiction of life in medieval Russia: gouged eyes, burned limbs, panic and devastation wherever you look. Yet at the centre of its long narrative sweep is the still, Christlike visage of the icon painter Rublev himself, striving to square his humanity with the reality of power, violence and religious conditioning. (He refuses to paint a Last Judgement in the cathedral because he believes Christianity shouldn’t rule through superstitious terror.)

For all the film’s atrocities, there are as many moments of preternatural stillness and austere tenderness. Divided into chapters that jump forward in time, Rublev‘s only real thread is the haunted consciousness of its eponymous protagonist, who in one section takes a vow of silence that renders Anatoly Solonitsyn’s melancholy good looks even more despairing. (With a touch of perversity, Tarkovsky described the actor’s single-minded intensity as “demoniacal”.)

I remember thinking Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice, was a pretentious travesty, so it’s nice to rediscover that Rublev, his second, is as beautiful, as meditative, and as visually thrilling as it is shocking and starkly unsentimental.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” Those magnificent lines from 1 Corinthians 13 – we hear them spoken in the film – turn out to be true after all.


Things to Come – A Francophile writes


MY WIFE OFTEN mocks my penchant for austere Euro art movies. So when we went to see Mia Hansen-Love’s L’Avenir (Things to Come) at one of London’s inevitable Curzons, it felt like slipping into an old pair of espadrilles. I remembered liking Hansen-Love’s Le Père de mes enfants (2009) and figured – on the basis of the inevitable reviews by Peter Bradshaw et al. – that I’d like L’Avenir.

And guess what, I did. Apart from anything else, Isabelle Huppert was superb: bustling, unsentimental, alone and ultimately atomised. Yet I wasn’t entirely moved by her late-middle-aged losses, however many of them I’ve shared. That’s partly because her character (Nathalie Chazeaux) so effectively seals herself off from compassion, retreating for comfort into the pensées of Pascal, Rousseau and the many other philosophers whose work she teaches to her Parisian students.

But it’s also partly because L’Avenir felt familiar to the point of generic staleness: with a few changes of wardrobe and automobile, the film could have been made 30 years ago by, say, the great Bertrand Tavernier. The arthouse tropes were reassuringly non-Anglo-American: the endless bookshelves, the coffees and the baguettes, the jagged Alpine mountains and the Brittany coastline, the sardonic political banter à table.

En route home, my wife inevitably asked if I’d enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure. I’d admired it; it wasn’t pretentious; its absence of catharsis was, in many ways, admirable. But had it really just been another fix for my Francophile snobbery? Some residual belief that French intellectuels think more deeply about the human condition than Brits or Yanks do – even when all the pages of Pascal and Rousseau (or, for that matter, Adorno and Schopenhauer, who also get regular namechecks in L’Avenir) offer so little comfort to Hansen’s heroine?

In that connection, here’s a poem I wrote a couple of years ago about, well, my penchant for austere Euro art movies:

Art House

Plusher seats and fancier snacks,

Guardianista dreaming in the dark:

No popcorn here, no CGI,

just quiet scenes of bourgeois desperation,

suites in Paris or Milan,

the quaint and crumbly farmhouse,

tension and baguettes,

father, daughter, in a Citroen,

not even speaking.

Four-hour films without a single gun,

occasionally a breadknife raised in anger.

Haneke, Almodovar, Zvyaguintsev's The Return.

Films of slow release for middle-aged and middle-class,

waiting for catharsis as we crunch Wasabi nuts.