There are many ways for a director to make a movie. Sometimes it’s quite a feat, like director Richard Linklater took 12 years to shoot Boyhood (Teenage, 2014) in real time. And sometimes it’s very… bizarre, like Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, to create a world of its own in Oil (Life of a scientist, 2019).
Last February 17, the biopic Oil, about the life of the famous Soviet scientist Lev Landau officially debuted in France. Landau has made many great contributions to quantum physics, winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1962. However, it is his private life that is fertile ground for cinema. Landau interacts with many women, exploring free sex, while maintaining his marriage to his poor wife Nora. He was hospitalized six times and died from injuries from a catastrophic car accident.
Listen to the content, Oil like a typical biopic. But if you accidentally get lost in the two largest French theaters, Théâtre de la Ville and Théâtre du Châtelet, at the time of the premiere, you will know that this is no “ordinary” movie. Inside, you will meet hundreds of people who are actors, film crew members, talking and laughing. Some rooms are decorated in Soviet communist style of the last century. Some other rooms resemble Berlin nightclubs. If you enter at dawn, you can meet the audience returning from the all-night screening. Because the event takes place 24/24, and the duration of the movie is… 5 hours 30 minutes.
Enjoying this movie would probably feel like a form of torture. According to commentators, Oil like a jumbled collection of stories, out of order or purpose. The Atlantic’s Rachel Donadio described the film as “crazy, boring and erotic”. But he, like many others, expressed admiration for Khrzhanovsky’s unique production process. A revolution in creativity, or simply mental ideas. Like Truman Show (Truman’s show, 1998) or Synecdoche, New York (Conversion, New York, 2008), the Russian director created an isolated world of the Soviet Union a century ago, brought hundreds of people into real “life” for three years, and filmed them.
In 2006, hundreds of professional and amateur actors, street artists, scientists, people, criminals and gangs… gave up their daily lives to crawl into a giant film studio located in Vietnam. Kharkiv, Ukraine. Called the “Academy” by Khrzhanovsky and the Western press as the “Stalin-era Truman Show”, 12,000 square meters in size, it was built as a concentration zone in Moscow from 1938-1968. Internally, foreign countries did not enter, the actors dressed and lived 24/24 like the people of the Soviet Union at that time. There is no script, dialogue or direction, except for the character Lev Landau and the people involved. That is the way Oil record.
Oil perhaps the most expensive, laborious and time-consuming project of modern Russian cinema. Funds are not disclosed, but clearly cannot be modest, all from calling for capital. Success from the movie 4 (No. 4, 2004), gave Khrzhanovsky enough prestige to reach the required number. The idea of a “real space” arose when he was bored because he knew the DAU as usual would be “silly”. “It was a moment of Dostoevskian brilliance,” he said, referring to Russian writer Dostoevsky.
After building the “academy”, Khrzhanovsky began to recruit actors. Over 3,500 applications from all over the world, but just over 400 were accepted. They all had to sign a commitment with specific terms, including sex. There is no boundary between real and virtual in the world Oil, free actors get married and do everything they like. As a result, 14 children were born here. “This place is not a historical set, but a parallel universe,” the 43-year-old director explains. “Where one is reborn a ego new.”
Modern cameras are located everywhere, recording almost all the scenes that take place. The actor did not know where and when he was being filmed. Not without incident in this miniature world of nostalgia. Some actors violated the terms, like using cell phones, and got fired. A few others ran away because they felt uncomfortable and almost went crazy. A mother fears for her newborn baby, thinking that Khrzhanovsky will “violent him to increase the drama”, which the director objected… After 3 years, filming ended when a group of actors rebelled. destroy the studio.
Oil took the next 6 years for post-production. After missing an appointment at Cannes, Khrzhanovsky managed to release the film in three cities of Berlin, London and Paris in October 2018. The Berlin government disagreed because the premiere events were intended to be located at the Berlin Wall. London also hesitated. In the end, only Paris accepted the film, but pushed it to the end of January for events. According to Khrzhanovsky, the film has not stopped at the cinema, but will continue to release the digital version and the “extras” with the interaction of the audience. “A never ending story,” commented Caravan.
After launch, Oil received mixed responses. Negative reviews criticized the film’s length, meaningless scenes that serve no artistic intent, as well as the thin line with pornography. As in one scene, the screen is divided into 16 small tiles, showing the characters’ lives. Some are awkward sex scenes. Landau’s love life is of course the focal point, but is rarely developed with the character’s psychology. In response, director Khrzhanovsky said: “Sex is real, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is what happens between people.”
It all seems to be disproportionate to the massiveness and bravado of the production process. A project with grandiose ambitions, but in extreme contradiction to the final product. “Perhaps that was a great metaphor for the fate of the Soviet Union,” commented writer Rachel Donadio. “Oil It is also a case study of the oral culture of Parisian artists,” concluded Donadio. “A culture that embraces any project that claims to be avant-garde, no matter how odd or insignificant.”
On the contrary, there are also praises for Khrzhanovsky’s boldness. At the very least, it’s a lively film that gives a genuine old-school atmosphere of old Moscow. Any revolution needs a pioneering step. Before Khrzhanovsky, no one dared to think that such a style of filmmaking could exist. As for the artistic value, OIL somewhere between personal experimentation, author films and “trash,” as Donadio puts it. A fantasy of Khrzhanovsky, like the character Caden in Synecdoche, New York, and the nightmare of the rest. Whether that nightmare is memorable or forgettable is up to the viewer.