Sucking in the Seventies
Rock music offers a small escape from '70s Moscow in this inconsistent drama
The Vanished Empire's very title gives the movie a weight it can't live up to. Set in 1973 Moscow, its strongest points are its evocation of the period. When its characters go to the movies, they see a newsreel about Pinochet's coup in Chile. Since American and English rock music is banned from official release in the USSR, they have to meet in parks to buy contraband copies of Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd albums. As with drugs, they run the danger of getting ripped off by their dealers: a copy of the Rolling Stones' Goats Head Soup turns out to be Tchaikovsky. The Vanished Empire, however, seems almost nostalgic for the bygone days of the Soviet Union. It includes a coda set in 2003, in which two of the characters meet at an airport. They may have gained the freedom to travel and live overseas, but they've undoubtedly lost something as well.
Sergei (Aleksandr Lyapin) is a jerk, a fact with which the movie doesn't appear to be able to come to terms. He sells off his grandfather's books to buy clothes and records. When his mother finds out, she's furious, but grandpa himself doesn't mind. In fact, he gives Sergei some of the money back. Sergei pursues an on-again, off-again relationship with Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina), while hanging out with his friends Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) and Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky). A diplomat's son, Kostya plays in a local rock band, while Stepan is studious. Sergei travels to the Black Sea and eventually heads off to the visually stunning City of Winds, whose mountain vistas he hallucinates when he smokes pot for the first time.
The same territory has been covered in many Western movies. The riotous teen parties of Olivier Assayas' Cold Water could be taking place at the exact time as the dances and concerts of Vanished. Assayas' movie offered echoes of France's near-revolution in May 1968, although his teens' rebellion was less political. In the Vanished's Russia, everything has been politicized. For Sergei, ignoring the Marxist-Leninist lecture in his history class is a way of striking out against a stifling society.
That attitude is implicit in his behavior, but the movie doesn't bring it to the fore. He gets in trouble for talking about girls and chewing gum during class, rather than questioning his history lessons. He likes all Western pop music; the movie suggests that the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" sounded as subversive as the MC5 or Velvet Underground in early '70s Russia. Vanished offers tantalizing glimpses into a teen counterculture, and it seems grounded in lived experience, if not autobiography. The production design captures the look of that period quite well.
Shakhnazarov shows great skill as a director. The movie's camerawork is fluid, and its use of long shots effective. The script, written by Sergei Rokotov and Yevgeni Nikishov, is far more flawed. It doesn't know what attitude to adopt toward Sergei. At first, the movie feels overly indulgent of him. Later on, it seems to make a 180-degree swerve, turning moralistic and then offering him a chance at redemption through archeology. For better or worse, it feels like a script that Sergei himself could have written. The attempt at a more mature perspective--as embodied by the coda--falls flat.
The movie even suffers from a misogynist streak. Sergei's mother is portrayed as a fuddy-duddy trying to prevent him from having a good time. If his grandfather thinks it's OK for Sergei to steal his books, why should she object? Sergei treats Lyuda contemptuously, but she remains attracted to him on some level.
Shakhnazarov falls victim to a dilemma: His adolescent rebellion took place at a time that wasn't particularly notable. '70s Russia was not the Paris or Berkeley of May '68, as much as his characters might wish it to be. Sergei's behavior never carries much gravity. When consequences do pile up, they seem tacked-on and excessive. A better filmmaker could make something meaningful out of bland material, but Shakhnazarov is stuck with nostalgia for mediocrity.