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Andrei Konchalovsky builds a strange maze with 'The Nutcracker in 3D'

His $90-million film is not what you're expecting.

November 26, 2010|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Andrei Konchalovsky, at left, is the director of "The Nutcracker in 3D," and Julia Vysotskaya is seen here as the Snow Fairy in the film.
Andrei Konchalovsky, at left, is the director of "The Nutcracker… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

There's something a little misleading about the title and marketing of "The Nutcracker in 3D." The new holiday film doesn't have much to do with ballet or Tchaikovsky. There are only scattered musical numbers over its nearly two hours. And though it begins as a gentle Christmas story about a girl with an overactive imagination ( Elle Fanning), its swerve into anti-totalitarian parable and layered film references takes it far away from the land of Santa Claus.

It is, at least, in 3-D.

The man responsible for this dark cinematic mash-up — the Soviet-bred Andrei Konchalovsky — has a simple, almost childlike attitude about his new movie. "It's fun to make a maze of cultural associations," he said.

He's not kidding about the maze. "The Nutcracker in 3D" would make the Cretan labyrinth look like a short hallway. One runs out of fingers counting the filmic and cultural allusions in the hugely expensive art project — "Planet of the Apes, "1984," "The Plague," "Metropolis," possibly every Holocaust movie ever made.

"And don't forget Damien Hirst," Konchalovsky said. "You know, the shark."

One cannot, indeed, forget Hirst. The movie contains a scene of a giant pet shark being electrocuted, in an homage — for all those eager for nods to contemporary, formaldehyde-based art in their holiday movies — to Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living."

Oh yes, the film's plot. It involves a girl (Fanning) in 1930s Austria who has a close relationship with an uncle ( Nathan Lane) who is actually Albert Einstein, and who gives the girl a wooden toy soldier that's also a nutcracker, which turns out is really a prince who has been put under a spell by an evil ruler named the Rat King ( John Turturro), which soon takes us to a fantasy land where rats subjugate decent human beings, and where the Rat King's minions shovel stuffed animals into some kind of plush-toy crematorium.

You get the point.

Or maybe you don't get the point. Which, in Konchalovsky's mind, kind of is the point.

"Sometimes," the director said of making the movie, which opened this week in Los Angeles, "I stopped myself and said 'Who will appreciate this?' Then I said, 'Big deal.'"

Konchalovsky is at the stage of his life when he can — and does — frequently say "big deal." A director whose eccentric career is outshone only by his colorful personality, Konchalovsky is not much interested in executing someone else's vision. As he sits down for an early evening snack of pickles and vodka at a Russian restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard — an exception for him; the 73-year-old says he doesn't usually like to eat after 3 p.m. — he exhibits a devil-may-care attitude that's been forged over a lifetime spent in several film worlds.

A longtime collaborator with the Russian experimentalist Andrei Tarkovsky, Konchalovsky won acclaim for numerous Soviet films — he received a Cannes jury prize, for instance, for "Siberiade," his 1979 epic about small-town Russia. He came to Hollywood in the 1980s to make mainstream movies. His first stateside effort, the Jon Voight action film "Runaway Train," was well-received by critics. His second attempt, the Sylvester Stallone cop movie "Tango & Cash," didn't go as well. He and producer Jon Peters clashed, and Konchalovsky was fired midway through production.

Things got messier still when Konchalovsky made a period movie about Joseph Stalin's projectionist, "The Inner Circle," in 1991. He had been promised, he says, that Sony would release the movie widely, but an executive purge swept into power — who else? — Peters, and the movie got only a token release.

"I remember the day the movie was going to come out. I opened the Los Angeles Times. 'Hook' — two page [ad]. 'The Prince of Tides' — two pages. Something else — one page. On the last page, small, in the corner, was our movie," he recalls. "I felt like a violin player standing on the corner while the tanks came."

Konchalovsky retreated to Europe, working on opera and theater across the continent, plus some U.S. television and Russian films. He hasn't made another English-language theatrical feature until now.

With a whopping $90-million budget and a dark aesthetic, "Nutcracker" is a strange one to come back with. Konchalovsky had the idea for the movie in the mid-1990s but couldn't find anyone in Hollywood to bankroll it. Several years ago, a murky group of European financiers — mainly from Russia — agreed to the steep sum and came in with the money. A request to talk to them was declined. But Konchalovsky offered this description:

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