Kirill Serebrennikov’s Un Certain Regard entry The Student boasts a brilliant central performance from Pyotr Skvortsov.
Cannes 2016 has been defined by a number of extraordinary performances. Sandra Hüller, in German comedy Tony Erdmann, from director Maren Ade, gave what was for my money one of the finest, outdone by only Isabelle Huppert in the late-screening Competition entry Elle, from Paul Verhoeven. Likewise, Kristen Stewart continues to prove her Twilight-era critics wrong, creating a fascinatingly frosty but layered portrait of a grieving spiritual medium in Olivier Assayas’s sinuous, multi-faceted Personal Shopper.
It wasn’t such an interesting year for male roles – with the exception of Adam Driver’s magical, low-key work in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, the only male lead performance that has truly carved itself into my brain as a standout is (relative) unknown Pyotr Skvortsov as Venya in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Russian Un Certain Regard entry The Student. (I’ve not yet seen Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake.)
The Student orbits around the central pull of Skvortsov’s performance like a solar system around its sun. Scenes often play out as long unbroken takes, with a restless, roving camera weaving and ducking around Skvortsov as he delivers relentless sermons and unambigous, often vicious quotations from the Bible to his classmates. In any other high-school film, this hyper-religious kid would be either be a tremulous Carrie-esque target for bullies or else part of the social elite – a wholesome A-grade student who is also head cheerleader, bandleader and Sunday school champion, a la Amanda Bynes in Easy A.
Venya, with his intense, smug conviction of his own righteousness, dark clothes and lithe movements evokes neither of these stereotypes. Instead, he recalls Alex Frost in Gus van Sant’s Elephant – a powerful yet embittered boy capable of violence. He’s terrifying, repellent and plausible all at once – here’s hoping we see him in more roles of this calibre.