Solipsistic and louche, Sergey (Alexander Lyapin), the collegiate antihero of The Vanished Empire, flashes bedroom eyes at any willing girl on the campus of the Moscow institute he distractedly attends in the early ’70s, on a good day even managing to hump his pickup on the aisle stairs of a lecture hall. When limited to giggles and leering, he finds himself ejected from class: “The history of the Communist Party is no laughing matter,” scolds his prof. Sergey is on the path to becoming the black sheep of a family of historians and archaeologists, and the title of Karen Shakhnazarov’s mournful dramedy of a lost generation—the last to come of age in the prime of the Soviet Empire—gains its dual meaning from the student playboy’s obliviousness to his nation’s imminent decline and his long-gestating, climactic inquiry into the dead civilizations his forebears have dug up and probed.
Sergey may boast that he’s “a democrat and a dissident” to get under a girl’s skirt, but his heart’s not in it; his most principled habits are selling off his grandfather’s most valuable books at second-hand stores for whatever booze, Wrangler jeans, and British rock albums can grease the wheels of his seductions. Between folklore-related study trips where he swills vodka with rural villagers and clumsy adventures in rock n’ roll and brawling with a dour teetotaler (Yegor Baranovsky) and a fiery bass player (Ivan Kupreyenko), Sergey falls hard for a co-ed in high boots (Lidiya Milyuzina), but can’t handle her devotional instincts. His wandering eye and binge-drinking ways persist, and academic failure, the grave illness of his mother, and a friend’s betrayal finally rupture his easy ways.
In the muted colors of Shakhnazarov’s vision, garishly garbed cover-band musicians in grainy, underlit dance-club scenes look sadly silly, and nearly everything else is subdued by brown tones. He’s most adept at nonlinear transitions: Sergey’s pot-induced flash-forward to desert ruins in Uzbekistan, and an elision where the lothario’s happy plotting of a Black Sea getaway with a new conquest cuts immediately to his stalking out of their hotel room, leaving the girl abed in unexplained tears. The historical nuances of Vanished Empire may be harder to gauge for foreign audiences, particularly the significance of its fixed-camera “30 years later” epilogue, but despite its bells and whistles of pop-political nostalgia, the lost-world aura of the film’s clumsy youths provides an inexorable dig into Brezhnev-era diffidence.