Alexei Balabanov's 1998 proto-Freudian bad dream Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i lyudey) stands out as a compelling experience, sinuously original and deeply refreshing - although refreshing is perhaps not the exact word for this uniquely unsettling movie. Balabanov's brutal study of modern Russian gangsterism, Brother, and now this director's later picture marks him out as a distinctive and very remarkable talent.
Shot in a glittering, wintry monochrome, which attains a heavy sepia tint, Of Freaks and Men is set in turn-of-the-century St Petersburg. It imagines the bourgeois origins of Russia's fledgling porn industry: specifically that catering for images of flagellation and sado-masochism - catching this industry on the cusp of its movement from still photography to rudimentary moving pictures. The film's periodic silent-movie captions and its daguerreotype-hue are in homage to both media.
For this flourishing new porn culture, Balabanov invents a milieu of secrecy, exoticism and aberrant strangeness. The result is a disturbing, erotically creepy, funny and touching film whose images will live in your memory.
It concerns a doctor and his beautiful, blind wife who have adopted a pair of Siamese twins joined at the hip - Tolya and Kolya. The twins' singing ability in adolescence is exploited by their adoptive parents on the stage and they inspire an obsessive following with musical audiences, becoming the toast of polite society.
Nearby, a widowed engineer lives with his daughter Lisa in slightly less genteel circumstances, and the two households become connected by a below-stairs taste in pornography. Elaborate studies of naked women being spanked and thrashed with birch twigs are being turned out with fanatical artistic care by the glacial, deadpan Johann (Sergei Makovetsky) and his sinister, grinning sidekick Victor Ivanovich (Victor Sukhorukhov), as a sideline to their respectable portraiture business.
Johann and Victor insinuate themselves into both houses: and their influence coincides with the descent of one of the twins into alcoholism, and the other's erotic obsession with Lisa. Victor, too, conceives an interest in Ekaterina, the doctor's wife, and the scene in which he tweaks up her skirts to examine her genitalia - while she appears to stare glassily, ambiguously ahead - is an extraordinary moment.
There is something very gamey and very kinky in the way Balabanov represents the consumers of Johann's wares as being women, and this conceit has its own element of pornographic whimsy. Balabanov's juxtaposition of pornography with the trim, prim world of stage performance and bourgeois musical taste - in the form of Tolya and Kolya's sensational career on the stage - endows this secret theatre of sexuality with a vulnerability and a terrible pathos.
The weird rapture of the beatings, which are first photographed, and then filmed, are overlaid with a sadness and an absurdity as Balabanov reveals the emotional relationship that exists between Johann and the old woman - "nanny" - who is wheeled out on camera to administer the punishment.
Balabanov's St Petersburg is shown as having something in common with Arthur Schnitzler's Vienna, in which heavily furnished front parlours, upright pianos, mob-capped maids and antimacassars are the primal scenes for unacknowledged yearnings and sexual awakenings, both real and imagined. In Of Freaks and Men, Balabanov parodically invents a kind of prehistory of pornography, or a prehistory of sexual modernity: a deadpan world of suppression, displacement and exclusion in which nameless desires have an intensity for being hidden, but also a mortal and overwhelming sadness.
Of Freaks and Men is close to early David Lynch in its grotesqueness and Balabanov's images are faintly reminiscent of the photographs of Diane Arbus, with a suggestion of Joel-Peter Witkin, though they have always the solvent of tenderness. And, as in Balabanov's early movie Happy Days (released here last year), the bowler-hatted Johann and Victor have Beckettian severity and absurdity.
The extended sequence in which Johann is silently conducted by riverboat to Lisa's house, where he intends to propose marriage, icily impassive at the prow with his bunch of flowers, is riveting. It is a tremendous performance from Makovetsky, whose inscrutable mien gives him Buster Keaton's eerie self-possession. Balabanov's regular player Sukhorukhov is similarly watchable as Johann's subordinate, displaying low cunning and bad teeth. This is a film of pungent and distinctive flavour, maybe not to all tastes; but, for its originality and style, it must be seen.
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
In Russian with English hardsubs
My rip (clownmonkey)
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