Remembering Otar

The Favourites of the Moon (Otar Iosseliani)

The Favourites of the Moon (Les favoris de la lune, Otar Iosseliani, 1984)

Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, a great poet of cinema, died on 17 December 2023 at the age of 89. Due to Soviet censorship, he emigrated to France in 1982, where he made his most famous film in 1984: "Les favoris de la lune" (The Favourites of the Moon). Film critic Andrey Plakhov, who now lives in Germany, pays tribute to his work.

One of the last survivors of the golden era of Georgian and Soviet cinema, Otar Iosseliani left his inimitable mark on French cinema, joining the pantheon of major European filmmakers.

Iosseliani came to cinema in the good time of the thaw, which did not spare him from conflicts with Soviet censorship. The director's feature debut "Falling Leaves" (Giorgobistve, 1966) shows how the sacred Georgian drink - wine - is profaned at the factory. The local authorities perceived the picture as a challenge to the reputation of Georgia - "all-union winemaker". But after the Paris premiere of this movie, which was awarded the Georges Sadoul Prize, the French press mentioned that "something very interesting must be happening on the shores of the Black Sea". This signaled the blossoming of the new Georgian cinema, and Iosseliani became its recognized leader.

The style of his early quasi-documentary parables became the benchmark for the entire Soviet New Wave, and “Lived Once a Song-Thrush” (1970) was an example of a cult film, raised on the shield and adored by the Russian intelligentsia. The hero in it is charming, the flow of life does not dry up, "foams like borjomi in a glass" (to quote an enthusiastic critic), it has a taste of bitterness, and the wisdom of a genius, and impeccably "French taste". (Borjomi is famous Georgian sparkling mineral water).

"Pastorale" (1976) also faced censorship obstacles: after the wine factory, the next object of the ironic, skeptical and yet lyrical view of the director became the life of the village. Iosseliani continued to be a bad patriot, always distancing himself from the "Georgian myth" raised on the poetic cothurns. But the more he distanced himself, the more he became its embodiment. In "Pastorale" he perfected his melody, but it was problematic to move further in the censored conditions, albeit softened by the patronage of the Georgian authorities. And then Iosseliani was the first to make his way behind the iron curtain, immediately and unmistakably finding "his" country - France, where this artistic Georgian was appreciated for his elegance, melancholic humor (through which genuine passion shines through) and good French.

Whether in Paris, Central Africa, Tuscany or Provence - it doesn't matter where - Iosseliani shoots the same film, the theme of which originated on the margins of his Georgian films and only came into close-up in “The Favourites of the Moon” (Les Favoris de la lune, 1984) and “The Butterfly Hunt” (La chasse aux papillons, 1992). This is the disintegration of aristocratic and, after them, bourgeois traditions and the invasion of the nouveau riche; this combination is echoed in the director's films by a specific mixture of sadness and bile. Traditions are being destroyed, whether Georgian or African, and the nouveau riche can be French, Russian or Japanese.

Iosseliani belongs to a small number of filmmakers who have made neither political nor artistic compromises. The expansion of barbarism and plebeianism, the transformation of elitist culture into mass culture - these processes the director has been observing for decades, first with sadness, then with magnificent contempt. At first on the material of Sovietized Georgia, then of the "free world".

A moderate conservative in his views, Iosseliani appreciated the passing of nature and culture - whether it was the African life, which had been beaten down by civilization, or the patriarchal mores of the countryside, where aristocracy is palpable in the faces of both local nobility and simple peasants. Iosseliani himself is from a relict breed of artists genetically alien to the mass-media industry and belonging to the increasingly narrowing sphere of art cinema. But this did not seem to bother him at all - even when he had to scrape together money for another project for years.

No matter how much Iosseliani seemed to fit into the French film tradition - from Vigo to Rivette - he never stopped being Georgian. His documentary "Georgia Alone" (1994) is a return of debt to his country at a difficult moment in its history. The movie does not resemble a "document" at all, although it is made up of interviews, chronicles and fragments of old movies. It captures the soul of the people - deeply individual, attached to their land, houses, churches, valleys, eternally fighting against the dragons that St. George, who gave his name to this country, never tires of defeating. Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Persians, Turks, Russians and separately - Bolsheviks act in the role of dragons. Everything that was in Georgia before them is concentrated in the first part of the film - "Prelude", the second ("Temptation") tells about the Soviet period, in the third ("Testing"), Iosseliani sheds light on the drama of post-Soviet days. He does not hide the sins of his own nation, but blames the nobility, both Russian and Georgian, to which he considers himself. He was true to himself - in his predilections, tastes, sympathies and in what disgusted him. Always independent, slightly arrogant, gentle, proud Otar.