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"Le Divan de Staline": French Masks, No Soul

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I wasn't terribly impressed with the book Le Divan de Staline, which also prominently advertises that it has been made into a film as well. This was one which I was able to find to watch online, and I figured that watching the movie might help with being able to help me better understand the book. The movie is very closely based upon its written counterpart, and the plot is almost exactly the same. For better or worse, this has done nothing to change the original flaws present in the book, and the film has done nothing to rescue the original problems present in Baltassat's work; the transition to film has only intensified them. It lacks even the charming quaintness and personality which many of the more artistic French movies can claim: instead it is cold, oppressive, and curiously empty. It also feels eerily out of place and time; the movie feels disconnected from Russia and the Soviet Union.

Perhaps it is due to the confusion over it. The movie takes place in Georgia, in Borjomi—not in Russia, not in the center of the USSR which we are most familiar with. Perhaps it feels so strangely uprooted because it is a Franco-Portuguese film about a Georgian dictator and Russian staff and Russian artist and Russian mistress in Georgia, this strange mixture of peoples and perspectives which prevents a real feeling of rootedness from developing. Perhaps it's because the film, based on the two simultaneous plots of Stalin recounting his dreams to his mistress Lidia and the artist Danilov waiting for his time for an interview with Stalin, feel so disconnected, empty, and devoid of meaning.


There is a lot which can be said about the plot and the ideas which are played around with in the movie, but the biggest thing that it has as a problem is its atmosphere, its actors, and its setting. It simply does not feel like a movie about Stalin and the last days of the Stalinist Soviet Union. It feels like a movie about French actors playing, rather ineffectually, at being Russian. Depardieu is the best example of this—he does not look at all like Stalin, he looks like a fat Frenchman with a mustache playing at being Stalin. There is a lack of the gravitas of Stalin, just a feeling of an old man, rather brutish, perhaps a bit clumsy. It is an old French man playing at being Stalin, without any of Stalin's aging tyranny and power—something which one can see even in Stalin's last speeches.

This is intensified by the milieu where the movie takes place—among actors who look like they are more French than Russian, with their mannerisms more Gaullic than Slave. There is little to connect the film to feeling like it takes place in Russia. This isn't necessary in other films—Chernobyl being an excellent example of a series which doesn't include any faux Russian accents, nor the cliched usage of the Balaika and Russian instrumental music. However, Chernobyl gives its scene-setting by the iron will of its characters who match the stereotypes of the party's apparatchiks, the grim struggle, the showcase of average Soviet life, and the disaster in which it takes place which brings us back to our human sentiments and basic will to survive, so that it doesn't need to delve into the deeper cultural elements present in Soviet society. Le Divan de Staline takes place in a different context, and appears foppish, French, and distinctly un-Soviet—with only the fear, terror, and oppression which pervades giving a feeling of one being in the Soviet Union.

Any book converted into a film has the problem that a book is capable of showing the thoughts and opinions of characters to a far greater extent than a movie, which by its structure is destined to remain outside the mind of a character. Some of the redeeming value in the Divan de Staline come's from Stalin's own thoughts at the end, which show that he still has the power and authority which marked him as a dictator—and yet these are impossible to show in the film. Stalin emerges as a weak man who has to compensate for his inability to express his thoughts with brutal physical violence, making him simply into a weak brute instead of being a brutish tyrant with an incredible literary knowledge and calculating mind.

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The one powerful scene, emotionally, which rests with us, and which was not so far as I remember present in the book, is Lidia, Stalin's mistress, informing him that the only woman that he feared is one who was capable of making her own decisions, capable even of ending her own life—a woman that he could not control, his wife Nadia. Stalin's own memories of human relationships and his discovery of life and women, much of his memories of Lenin—these are expunged from the movie, making him simply into a brute who commands neither hatred nor love, who simply exists as an object of revulsion.

Lidia comes out somewhat better in some respects in the movie than in the book, but  Stalin comes out even worse and with less of an attraction or repulsion.

Lidia comes out somewhat better in some respects in the movie than in the book, but Stalin comes out even worse and with less of an attraction or repulsion.

Unfortunately Lidia is far from shining in the rest of the scenes, and she appears as grey, passive, simple the vessel of Stalin's anger and jealousy—a jealousy which contains none of the sexual tensions present in the book, which makes it purely sterile attention. And yet she is still faithful to Stalin—who wouldn't be after all, who doesn't live in terror of the great dictator! It deprives the film of energy, of desire, of flare. Everything is listless and grey, everyone is in the shadow of Stalin. Perhaps this is a representation of life in the Soviet Union. But this lacks even the official energy and the secret rebellions of the USSR, creating nothing more than a dismal, cloying, oppressive atmosphere, with these listless characters set at the center.

And just like the book, this means that we simply do not care about them: it is hard to feel great hatred or much dislike of anything towards Stalin, and it is hard to sympathize with Danilov, with the tragic fate of his parents, sent to die on Nazino island by error. There is a lack of any emotional connection to the characters, who simply appear, and then fade out in the hazy and indecisive ending, where nothing really ends.

Perhaps this is a representation of the Soviet Union as a whole, that there was no feeling of end, no resolution, simply the death of Stalin, and that he never got his payback for all of the crimes and pain that he had inflicted on the Soviet people. It ends without resolution, to leave us to await the years to come for Stalin to perish, and it plays without analysis or real hope, just a long period of waiting, always with the knowledge that the old dictator cannot last forever. It makes for a film which is terribly boring, and which is a disappointment to what it promises—a look into the psychology of Stalin, Stalinism, and the deeper meaning of his dreams.


Lee A Barton from New Mexico on July 29, 2020:

"...he looks like a fat Frenchman with a mustache playing at being Stalin." Gotta agree with you there!

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