Racy film about the last tsar sends Russians into a rage

Why does a bodice ripper about Nicholas II have Russians setting fire to the director’s office?

There’s nothing that gets folks quite so hot under their starched collars as a good old historical costume drama. The mere sight of a bosom that’s too heaving or a tricorn hat worn a tad too jauntily for the times gets the dry professionals up in arms.

Those who believe history should be shrouded in seriousness have a tough time with artistic licence. Witness the mauling of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, a whimsical ode to youth that was dismissed and derided for being fuzzy with its source material, or even in a more modern setting, David Peace's The Damned United, which veered into the goal-mouth of the engagingly fictitious.

Films that dabble in the past are often scrutinised as if they are beautified documentaries, ignoring the fact that most set in foreign climes have actors speaking English with heavy, even comedic accents. The responsibility that weighs down these works can sometimes smother them at birth or lead to dangerous consequences. It’s one thing to be historically playful but throw in a dash of sexy shenanigans and a religious connection and you’ve got a steaming pile of controversy.

Matilda, director Alexei Uchitel's latest film, is a Russian historical bodice ripper that is potentially Russia's foreign-language film hope for next year's Oscars. It's a chocolate box fancy about an affair between tsar Nicholas II and the prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska. It's Dangerous Liaisons meets Anna Karenina, the story of a breathless entanglement that begins with a dramatic on-stage nip-slip (Russia's pre-revolutionary answer to Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl). It features lots of sensual sweating in diaphanous nightgowns, determined moustache twirling and a costume drama hallmark: impassioned shouting during a hushed theatre performance.


Molotov cocktail

This kind of film would usually be treated with a shrug of indifference from global audiences and be resigned to the coveted midweek 1am spot on Film4, if it wasn't for the Molotov cocktail of controversy that has exploded throughout Russia over its depiction of the tsar. The dispute has become so extreme it may manage to eclipse the film itself entirely, and has morphed into a debate about the freedom of the arts in Russia.

The film has been dragged into the Russian mainstream media by Natalia Poklonskaya, an intense young Crimean prosecutor who was elected to the state Duma after the Russian takeover of the Ukrainian territory. She is fiercely dedicated to Putin's nationalist views and to the idea of the Russification of the Crimea. She has previously made headlines for stating that a statue of the tsar in the region was leaking myrrh, and in Japan she has, bizarrely, been the subject of an awful lot of fan art. Her curious media profile almost makes her a more interesting subject than the characters in the film.

Poklonskaya has accused Uchitel of blasphemy (punishable under Russian law), as tsar Nicholas II was made a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1980s. She has tried to get the Russian culture minister to deny the film a screening licence. And she has also stirred up volatile feelings among many Russians, who feel the state should not have partially funded a film with such a torrid subject matter.

Satan worshipper?

Poklonskaya has reserved her most venomous criticism for the depiction of the tsar by German theatre actor Lars Eidinger. Poklonskaya has appeared on Russian news holding aloft an image of the actor covered in soil (it was part of his performance in Thomas Ostermeier's production of Hamlet, which audiences here may have seen in the 2014 Dublin Theatre Festival).

She has also denounced him as a "German porn actor". This is possibly in reference to his early appearance in an unfortunate staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream in which he put a sausage up his fundament (something that has managed to haunt the actor ever since), and his naked turn in Peter Greenaway's bawdy Goltzius and the Pelican Company. She also pulled images from his Instagram account that, on her official Facebook page, she says identify him as a Satan worshipper. This gave the Russian newspapers their most outrageous headlines about the film yet.

Up until recently, Eidinger remained largely unfazed by the attention, and he may have even enjoyed the notoriety. He cheekily changed his Instagram bio to a Charles Manson quote and posted pictures of a stern Poklonskaya, as well as some of the more hysterical news articles.

Events, though, have taken a sharp turn. There have been countless protests and, in the past two weeks, there was an attempt to burn down Uchitel's studio and two cars were set on fire outside his lawyer's office, with signs reading "Burn for Matilda" found at the site.

Last week, Russia's culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, eventually had to call for calm after the country's biggest cinema chain, Formula Kino, said it would not be screening the film due to threats of attack. He tweeted that Matilda was "just an ordinary feature film". Whether Russians will believe him remains to be seen.