French motifs have become very popular in Russia. “To see Paris and die” – the title of a A.Proshkin film – become the theme of a lot of Russian films and Y.Mamin’s comedic fantasy The Window into Paris, characters can be instantaneously transported between Petersburg communal houses and the center of modern Paris. Mamin plays up the essential difference between Slav and Western mentalities rather successfully. One unlucky Frenchwoman, who finds herself almost naked in a dirty Petersburg yard, is absolutely unable to get used to situations that surround all Russians from childhood, while Russian citizens – having discovered a magical route to France – in several days begin to trade in the French stock market and steal whatever isn’t fastened down. Against such a background, the figure of a failed musician, an aged romantic who just wants to get pleasure from the sudden gift of fate, seems funny and odd.
Maybe the best joke of the film, in which Mamin sounds the highest note of pitiless sarcasm, is the sequence about a restaurant musician who moved to France about ten years ago. Lazily offering cognac to a former friend, he abuses Frenchmen and their customs, sentimentally recalls Russia and almost cries while saying that he would give everything for an opportunity to return to Petersburg just for one minute. As a gag, his friend fulfils this wish (via the magical “open window”). But instead of the expected ecstasy, the emigrant – seeing an armored car in front of the Petersburg railway station – falls into despair.
The fact is that modern Russia is good only in sentimental dreams and in conversations before the cozy foreign fireplaces of restaurants with a view of the Sein, the Thames or the Hudson.
I can’t say that Mamin’s film is as funny as the early comedies of Leonid Gaidai. There are brilliant comedy scenes and pointedly devised details (in the principals office of a private college for young businessmen, hanging portraits of political leaders have been replaced by gigantic dollar symbols), but they are side by side with useless dialogue and events.
The finale of the film – driven by the slogan “We don’t need French shores” – isn’t, frankly speaking, new. There are, however, more successes in The Window into Paris than stereotypes.
Almost a Fairy Tale
Kira Muratova’s film The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) was strict uncompromising, even ruthless in its aesthetics and vocabulary. Her The Sensitive Militiaman’s style is completely opposite: imitative conventions harmonize with a fairy-tale plot.
Anatoly, a nice young soldier, finds a baby in a cabbage patch one night and wants to adopt him. This idea might have been taken from the half-forgotten Russian cinema of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, when there were very popular lyric films about sweet lovers and handsome babies. And, in fact, at first sight The Sensitive Militiaman seems to be a naïve, bright movie about love and compassion awakening in its hero.
But K.Muratova remains faithful to herself. Her film is a subtly stylized, unusual toying with mythology, ironic quotations and eccentric characters… all making it impossible not to notice a connection with her previous works – The Long Seeing Out (1971), Learning the World (1978), The Change of Faith (1988) and others.
The slightness and transparency of this picture may be a surprise for those who expected a new Asthenic Syndrome. Muratova’s talent, however, was always unpredictable, original, mobile. For some, her cinema is affected; for others, this writer included, it is attractive and masterly.
Fantasies and Parables…
A Fearsome Story
The authors of Gongofer speak frankly and ironically about the old and new clichés of fearful cinema tales. I wouldn’t, however, call this film, directed by B.Kilibaev, a clear parody. It is a fantasy on the theme, with hints of the stories of Nikolai Gogol, its style in the spirit of the genre’s aesthetics.
Kolka, a young Cossack, comes to the capital with his uncle to buy a bull for breeding. Initially the film recalls Pig-Woman and Shepherd (1941) with its pompous fountains and frank, intellect-unburdened faces of the heroes that look as if they were created especially for the cinema, glorifying the best collective farmers in the world. But soon after, the unpretentious comedy about provincials in Moscow for the first time breaks off as the ill-fated Kolka meets the blond beauty Hanna – who turns out to be a witch and exchanges eyes with the guy during their love ecstasy.
Kilibaev deliberately makes this perfidious substitution shocking and natural. The camera keeps our attention on the spreading eye slime in the palm of treacherous Hanna, surrounded with a hellish glow. And then a chain of funny and rather frightening episodes begins, in which Kolka and his uncle try to get his stolen eyes back.
Gongofer can be reproached for its eclectic lack of style. But despite that Kilibaev managed to make it a dynamic show, whimsically combining myths of the epoch of Socialist Realism with special effects like Joe Dante’s.
E.Nikolaeva’s film Sextale is derived form Vladimir Nabokov’s airy, refined story The Tale, as is clear to any admirer of the works of famous Russian-American writer. But I’ll avoid comparing screen and prose because during all the action of Sextale the original plot’s development is absent. The filmmakers, probably, isn’t want to write more dialogue than Nabokov did and decided to fill in the pauses (the story is short and film is long) with displays of whimsical decorations, costumes, smoke and fog. The set decorators and artists really worked hard on this. It needed something else, however… such as actors with skill. On one hand L.Gurchenko is supple and musical in the role of The Devil, tempting a pretty young man with displays of erotic desire. (It is the tempter’s whim that the fellow can choose – until midnight – any number of the most beautiful women, providing this number is odd.) On the other hand, there are inexpressive performances, in unemotional erotic scenes, by all the other actors. Add to this an unjustified reserve of action, slack cutting, and badly recorded sound. In short, it is very boring – despite the participation of the bright Gurchenko with her playful expression, biting irony, and natural sense of style.
Rather than seeing the movie, it’s better to read Nabokov.