In Nikita Mikhalkov’s masterpiece, summer has never seemed more beautiful or more poignant. Set in 1936, it’s the story of Colonel Kotov (played brilliantly by Mikhalkov himself), a popular hero of the Russian Revolution and the summer he spends in a village with his young and beautiful wife, Marusia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite) six-year old daughter (Nadezhda Mikhalkova – the director’s real-life daughter) and other family and friends. The peaceful atmosphere is disturbed by the sudden arrival of Mitya (Oleg Menchikov), Marusia’s long lost love. It seems he is trying to win Marusia back but Kotov suspects darker motives at work.
The tension in this film builds slowly – you sense the jealousy when Mitya arrives and then it gradually becomes a battle for survival between the two men. As a backdrop to this, you have a last glimpse of the old Russia disappearing. We learn that Marusia comes from an aristocratic family and that her relatives have only escaped because of her marriage to a Red Army hero. Comparisons with Chekhov are inevitable but there is something of the atmosphere of his plays in the drawing room scenes and eccentric behaviour of some of the characters. This is the Russia of forests, fields of corn and shimmering water and there is something unbearably heartbreaking knowing that this world will be lost forever with the Stalinist purges which are beginning and the Second World War. How can such cruelty exist when everything is so beautiful?
For me, this is one of the most magnificent and haunting films I’ve ever seen. It captures the poetry and tragedy of the Russian soul. The balloon scene with Stalin’s face towards the end is pure genius.