In Russia, Gerard Depardieu is treated as something of a prince these days. Yesterday morning, he was delivered to the airport in the provincial city of Saransk in a limousine bedecked with flashing blue lights, enabling him to ignore all traffic regulations. There, the “Russian actor of French origin” as he is now sometimes referred to in local media, stepped on to a private jet bound for Grozny.
Once he touched down in the capital of Chechnya, rebuilt from the rubble of war with Kremlin money under the rule of controversial leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Depardieu was whisked to the city’s first five-star hotel. Breezing into the lobby, he glanced disparagingly at The Independent’s journalist.
“Ah, you’re from Britain,” he exclaimed, wagging an accusatory finger. “Why are you here? You think Chechnya is so dangerous, no?” Depardieu, who was granted Russian citizenship earlier this year on the personal orders of President Vladimir Putin, is in Chechnya to film Turquoise, described as an “old-fashioned noir revenge thriller”. He also had a reunion with his “very close friend”, Kadyrov, who has been implicated in torture, human rights abuses, and extra-judicial killings of enemies in cities across the globe - allegations he denies.
Turquoise will feature Depardieu as Victor Lambert, a Frenchman who travels to Russia to track down the man who killed his son, and ends up entangled in a romance with temptress Alexandra, played by the British actress Elizabeth Hurley, who also arrived in Grozny yesterday.
Depardieu and Hurley spoke to the media from the stage of a newly built Grozny theatre yesterday, its interior adorned with giant portraits of Kadyrov, his late father Akhmad Kadyrov, and President Putin. Hurley said that she was initially told only that the film would be shot in Moscow, and “had to take a very deep breath” when she was informed that filming would also take place in Chechnya.
“But then I realised it was a very good opportunity for me to come to a part of the world that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected to visit,” she said. “Now I feel very honoured and proud that the movie I’m making is taking place in such a beautiful city.”
Hurley said she had not yet met Kadyrov and ducked a question about what she thought of him. “It would be fantastic to meet some other people from Grozny, but I don’t know if I will be able to leave my trailer,” she said. Just two hours later, however, Kadyrov posted photographs on his Instagram account of him showing Hurley and Depardieu around Grozny. When questioned by The Independent after the meeting, Hurley declined to comment. “I’m only here to talk about the movie,” she said.
The furore over Depardieu’s much publicised flight from France over his disagreement with high taxes, and his acquisition of a Russian passport is clearly a sensitive topic. The actor’s press aide asked that journalists asked only “correct questions” during the press conference.
Asked by a foreign journalist whether there were any parallels between the film’s theme of revenge and the apparent revenge killings of Kadyrov’s enemies, the film’s French director Philippe Martinez exploded in fury. “I have to tell you I’m a bit ashamed that you are asking that question. Gerard Depardieu and Elizabeth Hurley are making a movie in Chechnya! And you’re asking questions of a political nature! I don’t even want to answer.”
It’s clear that Turquoise does have a political dimension, however. The film’s producer, Arnaud Frilley, thanked Kadyrov for his support. “He read the script with great attention, and wanted to bring this project to Grozny.”
The film’s synopsis says that it will showcase Chechnya’s “extraordinary redevelopment” in recent years, a transformation that many observers say has come at a heavy price. Freedom of speech is heavily restricted and rights groups say extrajudicial kidnappings and torture are widespread.
After meeting Kadyrov, Depardieu returned to his hotel where he approached The Independent. “See, they haven’t killed you yet!” he said, presumably meant as a witty barb at supposedly unfair reporting, though something of a gruesome joke given that journalists who have uncovered abuses in Chechnya have been killed. “I hope you do your job properly,” he said, wagging his finger. With that, he disappeared into the hotel, the centrepiece of Kadyrov’s new Grozny.