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:
"These are inexperienced people. They were all in a sense mad and they didn't know what they were getting into," he said. "They were basically schmucks. Very generous schmucks.... And I'm ready to pray for them every day. I said [to them], 'You made a great movie and I don't know if you're going to get your money back.' And some of them say, 'OK, so maybe we made something for the grandchildren.'"
They don't all say that, do they?
"No. Some of them are very worried. They look at me with a big question mark."
Despite the dark aspects, Konchalovsky believes his movie offers something for everyone. "A lot of things maybe aren't going to ring a bell. But what's important is on a subliminal level. A simple person who's maybe not very educated will pick up and say 'Huh, it's beautiful.' 'Huh, it's strange.' Archetypes work on everyone."
The film's executive producer, Moritz Borman, said that whether you agree with Konchalovsky's vision or not, "you can't deny it comes from an artistic place. And I think it will grow on people once they realize that."
To talk at any length to Konchalovsky is to hear disquisitions on the history of cinema — and hear war stories populated by a who's-who of 20th century filmmakers. A passing reference to "Runaway Train" leads to a story about how he got into a fight with Akira Kurosawa at the Japanese auteur's house while Kurosawa was cutting sushi. (The two argued about the morality of Lenin.) Konchalovsky is the kind of film-world eccentric whom you might imagine consorted with other eccentrics of his generation, like Shirley MacLaine — whom, oh yes, he once happened to live with. (The director is currently married to his fifth wife, a Russian actress named Yuliya Vysotskaya, who has a part in "Nutcracker.") And he keeps some other rarefied company — he remains good friends with Francis Ford Coppola, who helped get him on "Runaway Train" and with whom he collaborated on the 1997 TV miniseries "The Odyssey."
Konchalovsky says that he saw "Nutcracker" as a commercial movie that also incorporated ambitious elements. "I had a desire to make a classical film, for something that's a metaphor for all ages, to make a children's movie that will last. Very few do," he said. "And I wanted to give it lyrics that are not Tim Rice lyrics," he added. "I wanted it to be an homage to Tchaikovsky. If you want, I would say Tchaikovsky pop. Yes, Tchaikovsky pop."