Auteur, auteur!

Burnt by the Sun and The Glass Shield illustrates the pitfalls of total artistic control

As of about 25 years ago, it wasn't enough anymore for a director to be a resourceful hired gun--the kind of person who could be plugged into almost any project and somehow do solid work.

According to the new common wisdom, true artists were turks like Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, and earlier icons like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut--people who not only directed movies, but also wrote, co-produced, and took credit for nearly everything else as well--while old-style craftsmen were considered hacks.

That hurt. And so, by around 1970, everybody who won the right to sit in a director's chair was demanding that the words "A Film By..." appear before their movie's title. Anything less would dash the key illusion of filmmaking's newer, more sensitive era: that the director is the author of a movie, and that every single detail within its millions of frames sprang from a single creative mind.

Occasionally, when a movie is created by a genuinely gifted individual, the phrase seems less a youthful indiscretion than a simple statement of fact. Jane Campion, John Woo, and Steven Spielberg control their medium so completely that even when they don't write their own scripts, and even when a film is clearly too large to have been guided by a single hand, it still feels oddly personal. A great director's vision is so distinctive that it suffuses every costume, soundtrack selection, and laugh line.

Two new independent movies, Burnt by the Sun and The Glass Shield, test the limits of the proprietary credit. Both are the products of benevolent control freaks: intelligent, individualistic, fiercely original writer-directors who shape light and sound and motion and words the way a sculptor molds wet clay. It's tough to imagine either picture could have been told as confidently and personally by another filmmaker. And whether you love or loathe the finished product, there's no doubt about who deserves praise or blame.

Russian actor-writer-director Nikita Mikhalkov, the man behind Burnt by the Sun--a drama about a group of leisure-class Soviet citizens gathered in a rural estate for one life-changing day during the early 1930s--deserves mostly praise. His film works on several different levels at once. It's a textbook example of Aristotelian unity: the story unfolds in a single location during a 24-hour period, and in a very Old Greek touch, the narrative's main agent of change--a charming yet mysterious visitor whose sly visage hides all sorts of awful secrets--wanders into the other character's lives from outside.

Yet Burnt by the Sun isn't rigid or suffocatingly overdetermined. Mikhalkov, who also penned the script, coproduced, and plays the lead role of a legendary Soviet army officer, gives his cast members plenty of room to improvise. They rise to his challenge and create characters so complex and intriguing that when the film is over, you may find yourself missing them.

The main character, Serguei Petrovitch Kotov--a legendary Soviet army colonel who supported the Bolsheviks during the 1917 revolution--is a burly yet sensitive man's man whose innate decency has not been affected by a life spent in the military. He dotes on his darling six-year-old daughter, Nadia (played by Nadia Mikhalkov, the director's real-life daughter), and is a proficient lover and dear friend to his much younger wife, Marouissa (Ineborga Dapkounaite).

We know that, on some level, Kotov is a wish-fulfillment fantasy on the filmmaker's part, and that the conception of his fate includes more than a hint of masochism. One look at this tender-hearted bear of a man and you just know the picture is going to serve him up in tearjerking sacrifice. Yet partly because the film is so carefully controlled, treating Kotov as both a political symbol and as a person, and partly because Mikhalkov is such a subtle and appealing performer, the character becomes indelible.

His counterpart both politically and morally is a mysterious younger man named Dimitri (Oleg Menchikov) who supported the Czar's losing army during the revolution and fled the country shortly afterward. Kotov hasn't seen him in a while. His appearance is both welcome and disturbing--welcome because Kotov always liked Dimitri, and disturbing because the younger man's bizarre disappearance always made Kotov wonder whether a fellow who lived his life so impulsively and secretively was worth trusting.

To complicate things, Dimitri was once Marouissa's lover. So when he shows up at the family estate, tensions run high. Kotov and Marouissa at first treat him hesitantly, uncertain whether he means them well or ill.

What follows is a slow dance of burgeoning trust. Dimitri plays with Nadia, makes awkward conversation with Marouissa, and exchanges politenesses with the couple's relatives, who are also staying at the house. They drink, go swimming, swap funny stories, and even pay a visit to a tank unit practicing gas-warfare maneuvers (which gives the director an opportunity to milk the sight of men in rubber masks for plenty of visual gags).

Of course, it's a given that these characters are meant to embody both more and less than the sum of their passions and quirks. When Dimitri flirts with Marouissa and Kotov counters by reacting with sweet possessiveness, it seems that the woman is being symbolically associated with the nation itself.

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