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Pierre Leon: "My Moscow classmates still call me Petka or Leon"
The other day we celebrated the 125th birthday of outstanding chansonnier Alexander Vertinsky. His songs are sung not only by our artists, but also by those who live outside Russia. One of them is the Russian Parisian Pierre Leon. Being a playwright, an actor, critic and film director who produced screen adaptations of Chekhov's play Uncle Vanya and Dostoyevsky's works Teenager and Idiot, he occasionally "gives small concerts for his friends". Pierre performs the "sad songs" of Alexander Vertinsky. We met at one of his concerts in Minsk, the museum workshop of Z.I. Azgur. Put there on the shelving are heads of thinkers, proletarian leaders, guerillas and state figures, mainly dating from the Soviet epoch. Behind Pierre Leon's back was human size Lenin's sculpture. Sitting on the right in an armchair was Stalin. Never and nowhere did I happen to see a full collection of Stalin's and Khrushchev's sculpted incarnations in such quantities.
— Pierre, why did you decide to give your concert among the sculptures of Marxism-Leninism leaders?
— It seemed interesting to the Minsk organizers that as a man born in the USSR I sing the songs of Alexander Vertinsky in such an unusual setting amidst the statues. When you are among them, it feels as though you are surrounded by history.
— You also gave interesting comments, when technical blunders occurred: "Proletarians of all nations, forgive me". You left for France from the USSR in 1975, at the very height of Brezhnev's era. What's your attitude to Soviet symbolism?
— I feel no nostalgia, but have a certain frame of mind formed in times of the USSR, given that I grew up in the country with long queues. My Dad was a French journalist and communist. We lived rather modestly and I experienced all the difficulties of that epoch. Not only now, but also during the years of living in the USSR I developed an ironic view on many things. There were a lot of kitchen jokes and I've retained the sense of Soviet humor. That was not the most terrible time, but stagnation reigned supreme.
— I recently spoke in Geneva with Andrei Tarkovsky's son whom the father brought to Italy as a 15-year-old teenager. He seemed to have a lot of time to adapt himself to the new environment, but it seems you cannot so quickly get rid of the Soviet mindset.
— The same thing happened to me. I went to Soviet school, although this was a specialized school. We were taught history in the Soviet spirit as well as Marxism-Leninism. I am still interested in everything that occurred in the USSR. Coming to Moscow, I see that many things have remained unchanged, only the outward form is different. It's hard to explain to the French what Russia is about, because people there live in another world. These are absolutely dissimilar nations. I imbibed a lot of things in my early years, so why discarding it?
— Were your kinsmen engaged in the arts?
— No, but I grew up in a very intelligent family. People around us were distinguished by high culture. I remember the times, when everybody was reading in the Moscow metro. My Mom is a translator and my Dad is a journalist. He was a correspondent of L'Humanite and came to Moscow in 1958 for a short stay. But he met my Mom and had stayed in the USSR until 1975. My brother and I were born in the Soviet Union. Now my brother also lives in France.
— Did they call you Pierre in Moscow?
— No, nobody called me by this name in Moscow, they called me Petya. But now everybody calls me Pierre, except for my classmates who still call me Petka or Leon.
— You are introduced as a director, script-writer, actor and critic. Everything can be combined and yet "critic" is something special. What is your top priority?
— Making films has always been my top priority. Earlier I wrote a lot, now I am not a prolific writer. This activity allows you to look at many things at another angle. For making films means highlighting someone's life secret without fully exposing it. The critic can do the same thing to the cinema which they criticize. Changing places allows different viewpoints, when you may see things from different angles. I've been writing for many years, but when I am shooting movies, I cannot do this. If critics made their own films they would tell fewer follies, since most of them create a myth from the cinematographic world. When I was teaching, I always explained my students that everything is real. Knowing what a film frame is and how the actor works, you may discern hackwork much quicker.
— Is intellectual life rich in France?
— It's hard for me to answer this question, since I live there. I do not like France and this is normal. I often leave so as not to stay trapped in Paris and not to boil in this cauldron.
— Where do you feel better?
— Where I am not present at the moment. Last year I spent three months in Moscow while teaching. I wanted to leave the moment I arrived, but then I got used to Moscow living and did not want to go away. I feel equally good or equally bad everywhere. It takes some time to get used to the Moscow pace of living. I have no relatives left in Russia. Furthermore I am not inclined to team up: living in France taught me to be all by myself.
— You have mixed blood streaming in your veins: Russian and French. Does this tear you apart?
— No, I've tamed my blood. I had problems, when I just came to Paris. It was hard for me till the age of 30, since I had to plunge into a new way of life. And I set Russia aside, did not want to speak Russian and went deep into the French culture. But then everything came back automatically, with films and books. And now I read Russian books.
— You must speak fluent French since your childhood, since your Dad is French, right?
— While we lived in Moscow I did not want to speak French at all. Everybody spoke Russian in our home. My Dad spoke bad Russian but was never embarrassed about it. When I came to Paris, I realized straight off that I did not understand a thing and was panic-stricken. I was 15 and I went to school. Eventually I learned the language very quickly, reading, reading and reading.
— Do you work on a new project?
— I have a propensity for Dostoyevsky again, The Double. Frankly I departed very far from the original, using it just as the basis. We are looking for project financing. This is not easy, although a lot of money is allocated for cinema in France. But every time I pass all kind of commissions they turn me down. I always call for anonymous consideration of projects to avoid prejudice. But nobody wants to do this in France. I must find a clever producer who would be well versed in this process and know the right people. Hope I've found one already.