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The Irony of Fate (or Enjoy Your Bath!) – The Quintessential Soviet New Year Film

serian.carlyle.1431 December 2020

On this strange New Year’s Eve, the Slovo team invite you to read this review of the quintessential Soviet New Year’s Eve film, a film that remains a staple for many Russian households on the 31st. In her review, Lara Olszowska explores the role of architecture as an ideological signifier in the film. If you’ve seen the film, we’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #SlovoSuggestions. Until then, Happy New Year!

Film, 184 min

Directed by Eldar Ryazanov

Written by Emil Braginsky, Eldar Ryazanov

Produced by Evgeny Golynsky

Soviet Union, 1976

Language: Russian

“Совершенно нетипичная история, которая могла произойти только и исключительно в новогоднюю ночь”

“A completely atypical story that could happen only and exclusively on New Year’s Eve”

–Eldar Ryazanov, Irony of Fate

On New Year’s Day 1976, Eldar Ryazanov’s Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath! was first broadcast to television audiences across the Soviet Union. The epigraph attributes the ludicrous events that unfold to the date on which they occur, whilst the second title highlights the initiator of the action as the bathhouse. It later becomes apparent that the true driving force behind the plot is something far less magical than New Year’s Eve and even more ordinary than a festive drinking session at a bathhouse with friends. It is the typical setting in which this “atypical story” is told: a standardized Soviet apartment in an archetypal mikroraion, or suburb. This review posits the role of architecture as an ideological signifier in the film.

Zhenya Lukashin lives in apartment 12, 25 Third Builder’s Street, Moscow. So does Nadia Sheveluova, but in Leningrad. Once Zhenya enjoys his bath and too much vodka, he mistakenly flies to Leningrad, gives his address to a taxi driver, lets himself into Nadia’s flat using his key, and falls asleep in her bed. After she stirs him from his stupor, the pair spend a farcical evening together and eventually fall in love. The irony of their fate is that their chance romance is a result of Soviet residential planning; a dreary housing block can become the locus of a New Year’s Eve miracle. One of the final lines in the film is Zhenya’s: “Fate brought me to Leningrad and in Leningrad there is a certain street, with exactly the same housing block and apartment, without which I would never be happy”. In other words, he thanks the city for Nadia, not New Year’s Eve for his newfound happiness. Ironically, his destiny as a Soviet man to live in an unremarkable mikroraion with any wife (he manages to substitute his fiancée for Nadia almost seamlessly) remains unchanged no matter how much of an “adventure seeker” Ippolit (Nadia’s fiancé) considers him to be. The conventional fairytale ending neatly upholds traditional Soviet values of domesticity and glosses over the deeper levels of conflict within soviet housing.

The cartoon that preludes Irony of Fate makes a visual mockery of Soviet architecture and marks the film’s raison d’être: two matching flats in identical housing blocks, both with identical addresses, both in identical mikroraiony and each inhabited by the two lead protagonists. The animated architect seeks approval for his imperial-style buildings from bureaucrats, who reject the designs until every decorative feature has disappeared from the façade leaving the prototypical Soviet housing block behind. The newly approved rectangular block shown in the cartoon has nothing “new” about it. As viewers were aware, the only choice for architects was to build according to the model that aligned with the regime. By the 1970s Khrushchev’s prefabricated housing had been reproduced so many times with so little innovation, it demonstrated the absurdity of Soviet planning and the inescapable influence of socialist ideology. The character’s inability to escape the army of apartment blocks that chase him in this opening sequence shows his personal resistance to the regime, personified by a marching mikroraion. The need to present the mikroraion as such a caricature reveals how the ubiquitous ideological signs of the Soviet period were and how desensitised citizens had become to them.

In his light-hearted deprecation of soviet planning, Ryazanov alludes to a heavier criticism of socialist byt, or living. The undisputed aim of socialism was to build a new society from scratch. Housing to induce socialist byt was therefore ideology materialised. The new Soviet person would live in and be conditioned by the new socialist city and form a collective of like-minded individuals, their individuality suppressed by the state. As the voiceover sarcastically narrates: “a person can come to an unknown city and feel at home there” because they are all familiar and all the same. In the film, the uniformity of the suburbs do not generate social harmony as intended, but instead cause chaos for the protagonists. The verisimilitudinous Soviet architecture in the film held a mirror to the Soviet viewer on that New Year’s Day in 1976, likely watching from the comfort of their prefabricated home, reminding them of the ideological project their houses were constructed to complete and how that project remained unfulfilled. There lies the true irony beneath the surface of the lovers’ luck: the irony of socialism.

Review by Lara Olszowska, Masters Student at UCL SSEES

Embrace the Abyss: Favourites of the Moon (1984)

Slovo27 January 2014

This review of Otar Iosseliani’s Favourites of the Moon by our Executive Editor Eugenia Ellanskaya recently appeared in the Soviet cinema journal Obskura:

It is 1984 and it’s almost the dusk of the USSR. In other words: high time to submerge into the full cacophony of life’s true diversity and casual perverseness. Favourites of the Moon  (Les favoris de la lune) is possibly one of the greatest delicatessens in the alternative Soviet cinema scene. The film’s pretension to an aristocratic and elegant flow is as intricate and disguising as the superficial lifestyles of its characters. Its illusion of beauty and aesthetics seems to hide nothing other than a careless abyss. And guess what? There seems absolutely nothing wrong with that! Embrace the abyss! The movie’s walking-pace speed literally pulls you into a stroll across what seems as random and parallel lives of people, unburdened by thoughts of their long-term ‘destination’ – a suggested happiness recipe in a close-to-apocalypse Soviet society?

Iosseliani is a master architect who builds and tosses around social stratums, giving us surprising combinations of their interaction, which even they aren’t always aware of. An all-penetrating image of a painting and a set of luxury china dinner plates recur throughout the film, taking us from the black and white world of stability to a colourful film of relationship chaos. The black and white images of courting and stern ascetics keep on appearing from time to time alongside the modern timeline, where everything is rushed, stressful and, in the end, truly purposeless. Each social strata has its own philosophy and convincing morals, which are never dwelt on too deeply, but are shown as if at a glimpse of a walker-by.

The picturesque black and white world of The Favourites of the Moon

The picturesque black and white world of The Favourites of the Moon

Iosseliani gives each character a chance to take over the objects (the painting and the china dishes) and reveal themselves through it. The ‘upper class’ is gripped in a superficial status-seeking consumption of aesthetics. The illusion the audience too appears involved in… The rich enter an involuntary nostalgia over the aristocratic and genuine 18th century, when the objects were made. They borrow these status props as shamelessly as they rehearse dinner quotes in order to impress their host, and remove socially inconvenient elements, like a disabled family member, from a dinner party. The stressful pace of the diverse colourful world shows people, who are too busy to catch up with the full moral package of the black and white world. But the world has long since been reversed and interrupted by the brief wallpaper still, which is actually full of information:

otar-2

This wallpaper’s soundtrack of shooting and explosions might not necessarily imply a war per se, but a symbolic collapse of the old social order. It is followed by a random appearance of a white horse indoors, which somewhat awkwardly and clumsily stamps on the already familiar broken china plates:

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From now on the objects are passed on, modified, broken or stolen…What the rich had broken or lost, forsaking faith in the objects’ repairability, regains its meaning back in the hand of the ‘mob’, the local prostitutes and bin men who try to mend it. This seems symbolic of the hypocrisy and social role play which is never what it seems. In the end, it is the thieves and the prostitutes who are truly loyal to their friends, all sharing a kin relation: the prostitute and thief argue over the “up-bringing” of their “child”, a young thief accomplice.

Although things said remain the same between past and the modern worlds, they surely mean very different things. As the film suggests, the silence the actors are so afraid of breaking in both worlds is at the expense of truth in one case and stupidity in the other. Be it a change of ideology or social paradigms that gives different meaning to silence, we will never know what was unsaid, as both worlds are muted and polluted by worldly chats, as if the director is avoiding direct confrontation… just yet. It is interesting that Iosseliani, a Soviet Georgian, moved to France at the time of the film’s making precisely to avoid Soviet censorship, but is he ready to speak the unspoken? Either way, for now we are expected to continue to admire the aesthetic illusion, which the film is so rich in.

Favourites of the Moon is a provocation. A convincing provocation which asks us to rethink our class conceptions and biases. It upturns our comfortable ideology. It forces us to accept the unexpected niche of nobility amongst the mob and sympathise with the unsympathisable. Like the quote from Shakespeare at the beginning of the film, Iosseliani wants to elevate the prostitutes, tramps and thieves into the new and possibly only domain of hope and nobility, which the rich are only superficially rehearsing. Long live the knights of the night, the favourites of the moon, the whores and the tramps!

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As much as everything about this movie promotes excess, class and nonchalance, glorifying form over content, it seems that Iosseliani is also aware of the futility of everything he has glorified in the lifestyles of the characters. It is therefore a caricature, with comic casual explosions, but also seriously perverse social implications of cheating, stealing and so on. And yet Favourites of the Moon is not revolutionary. Neither is it a strong statement. Surprisingly, it is unlike some aggressive Soviet taboo breaking movies. Instead it comes across as a calm and even helpless meditation over the not so great Western reality of the superficial nouveau riche and the romanticised life of the mob. Confronted by the Western reality Iosseliani must have too learnt (or chose?) not to judge, but meditate over this liberal social reality and accept – an attempt to let go of the strong ideological claims and arguments at least for the time being.

Originally published on http://www.obskura.co.uk/favourites-of-the-moon/