The Media Forum’s General Producer Ekaterina “Katya” Mtsitouridze, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of Variety Russia, told me she chose the movie with her gut. And, after seeing it a second time, I realized that I was emotionally gutted by the dysfunctional mother-son drama that is Canada’s pick for the Oscars in a way that few contemporary films deliver.
Bold, too, were the choices to screen two more Cannes favorites, both exploring gay themes despite considerable contemporary LGBT controversy in Russia. During the recent Olympics, the New Yorker‘s David Remnick reported “there reigns a disdainful and intimidating unanimity: homosexuals are a threat to morality, to the family, and to the state.”
But, in St. Petersburg, 440 miles NW of Moscow, Remnick’s blanket description did not cover the Russian premiere of Francois Ozon’s sophisticated and wry audience favorite The New Girlfriend. The charming French film about a woman’s intimate relationship with a cross-dressing widower played to an appreciative full house at the gracious art nouveau cinema Aurora on Nevsky Prospekt.
The New Girlfriend continues Ozon’s explorations of the many strange and beautiful ways men and women connect. The dramedy charts a growing bond between a bereaved young woman and her best friend’s widower – a situation complicated by the fact that the man has taken to wearing his late wife’s wardrobe. The filmmaker loves women – and overturning preconceptions about where masculine and feminine intercept – and this is among his best movies.
Another gala Russian premiere, the French Oscar selection, Saint Laurent, one of two biopics on the hedonistic gay designer Yves Saint Laurent encountered a bit more difficulty capturing the entire audience’s attention at its Saturday night showing at the Rodino Cinema Center. Whether this was because, after a late start and a 135 minute running time, it cut into the Saturday late-night dinner hour, or the images of rough trade and drug abuse and male genitalia offended some old-school audience members was unclear.
St. Petersburg audiences themselves can be a challenge. Cell phones are ubiquitous and it’s common for them to ring mid-film. A polite talker will get up and walk across the row before continuing the conversation – others simply stage whisper while the movie continues. Similarly, chatting during the movie is not all that unusual, with the young women next to me keeping a running commentary during Saint Laurent, including giggles at the racy bits.
When asked whether it was bold for SPIMF to spotlight these openly LGBT films in light of Vladimir Putin’s 2013 law classifying “homosexual propaganda” as pornography and a tide of legislation criminalizing homosexuality, the sophisticated Mtsitouridze laid down a definitive “no.” She characterized the law as antiquated, and continued, “My answer is: come be in Russia with us. Help us to be open and to change attitudes. Because our generation, we’re called the Perestroika Children, we had never any problems to say something with freedom of speech. And, for us, it’s shocking, these kinds of rules, which don’t change anything, actually, except the reputation of the country.”
SPIMF, which also included a market and industry panels as well as showcasing television pilots like Showtime’s upcoming The Affair with Dominic West and Maura Tierney and screening the little-seen 2011 Benedict Cumberbatch film Wreckers, is rooted in Mtsitouridze’s contagious idealism – and reflects the cultural sophistication of St. Petersburg. “It’s a very intelligent city, it’s an intellectual city,” said Mtsitouridze. “They have huge traditions of culture and half of the great Russian writers and musicians are from this city. I mean, past and today also. That’s why, again, I decided to do the Media Forum here but not in Moscow…We’re not going to go back to the Cold War. The internet has changed everything.”