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9 Jul, 2020 15:50

The queer Russian pop star in the Netflix hit ‘Eurovision’ is a rare example of an American movie getting Russians right

The queer Russian pop star in the Netflix hit ‘Eurovision’ is a rare example of an American movie getting Russians right

In the fun musical comedy ‘Eurovision’, Russian pop star Alexander Lemtov could have easily been yet another offensive caricature. Instead, he’s won the hearts of the internet... and given me hope.

In these troubling times, there’s nothing better than a light-hearted movie that reminds everyone that the world is still full of hope and dreams. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga—a new movie that’s currently streaming on Netflix—is that film. 

The musical comedy stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as an outrageously bad pop duo from a small town in Iceland whose sole dream is to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Lars (Ferrell) wants to win to prove to his macho fisherman father (Pierce Brosnan) that his life hasn’t been a total waste after all, while Sigrit (McAdams) just wants Lars to finally fall in love with her. The two of them are delightfully odd in the exact same way, and the script is laugh-out-loud funny, so it’s no surprise that the one thing the internet seems to be able to agree on at the moment is that it’s a truly uplifting film. 

But when I realized that the duo’s arch nemesis was a Russian pop star named Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens), I steeled myself. As a Russian-American, I am very accustomed to seeing my people portrayed as malevolent, ruthless, fame-and-fortune hoarders set out to destroy the innocent heroes of a movie, and a fluffy film about winning Eurovision could provide no better set up for that. 

But I was pleasantly surprised. Firstly, while Lemtov is deliciously mischievous and a great foil to the wide-eyed naiveté of Lars and Sigrit, he isn’t actually evil. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but you can tell from the beginning that he has a kind heart and that his intentions—while self-serving—are basically good. It might not sound like much, but it means a lot to me to see a Russian in a film like this do something other than cackle and twiddle his fingers while sitting in an unnecessarily large chair. Who knows? Maybe it means people won’t automatically assume I’m a spy for the Kremlin that’s hell-bent on destroying The American Dream. 

The second thing is that, as someone who grew up performing in Russian nightclubs in NYC and watching Philip Kirkorov videos, I have to say that Stevens really went method on this character.  Everything—from his feline aloofness to his charming narcissism to his flashy outfits to his diamond earring to the way he speaks with his hands—rings true to me. He could just as well be my Russian ballet teacher from childhood. And his Eurovision song, ‘Lion of Love’, with all of its unbridled lust and homoeroticism… well, let’s just say that if you’ve ever seen a Russian pop music video, you’ll know why it hits all the right notes. Do we need so many flamethrowers and blowjob simulations? Probably not! But the Russian pop motto has always been: “There’s no such thing as excess.” 

The only vaguely annoying part of the film is when Sigrit confronts him about his sexuality, and he emphatically denies being gay. Then, later on, when his bestie/fellow contestant tells him he deserves to be happy, he replies, “Mother Russia would not agree.” It is true, unfortunately, that “gay propaganda” is still banned by the government. But it’s also true (in my experience) that, even in the ‘90s, the sexuality of people like Lemtov was always an open secret that was both expected and accepted by the general public, so the buildup to this “big reveal” seems a little overwrought.

In fact, I remember when I took a married male couple to their first Russian nightclub experience, and they took one look at the sparkly sequined outfits, the Liberace-style stage decorations, and the “thugs” gyrating to Madonna and said, “Wow, we didn’t expect it to be so… gay.” It’s a peculiar paradox of that world, in which things are so hidden and yet so flamboyant at the same time. 

One way or another, Lemtov has been a big hit on social media, which also warms my heart at a time when it really needs some warming. 

Speaking of his character to Nerdist.com, Stevens said that “the response to Lemtov particularly has been overwhelming” and that it’s “lovely and I think there’s something surprising about him… It’s a very playful character, and to be given the chance to play a guy who’s described as the favorite of the competition and who really kind of knows it with every inch of his being was a real treat.”

“Frankly, Lemtov is the superhero we deserve and need in what is otherwise a summer movie season wasteland,” Allie Gemmill wrote in Collider.com

As a Russian-American, he’s the outrageous, bare-chested, multi-faceted superhero I’ve been waiting for. 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.