The roughhouse political slapstick in Yuri Mamin's Window to Paris makes for perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of its plea for cross-cultural exchange. The Russian peasant in Mamin is willing to wreck a government phone booth or overturn a snob's piano to get a laugh, but beyond the mayhem, the savvy political satirist in him tells us a good deal about the uncertainties of life in post-communist Russia.
Leningrad (Mamin's hometown) has become St. Petersburg once more, but even that may be in question. The film's hero, a gentle dreamer named Tchijov (Serguej Dontsov), is the kind of schoolteacher who reads ghost stories to the kids in candlelight, but suddenly he's out of luck. The newly renamed "Business High School" has mounted huge portraits of the dollar and the deutschemark on the walls, and Tchijov's gifts are suddenly obsolete.
Fired, he rents a room in a run-down apartment building, and when he gets drunk one night with his rough-hewn neighbor, Gorokhov (Viktor Michailov) and Gorokhov's shrewish wife, Vera (Nina Oussatova), they discover a secret window in a closet that magically delivers them to the milk-and-honey fantasies of the West--Paris itself.
This is where Mamin's perestroika fairy tale grows wonderfully complex. Below the window, which has a closing date, Paris is glamorous. But the Gorokhovs' sudden orgy of acquisition (they even park a Citroën in their living room) unsettles Tchijov. St. Petersburg may be cold and barren and bureaucratic, but the table talk over a bottle of vodka and a pickle always concerned "the fine arts, the fate of Russia, God."
Matters are complicated in this tale of two cities when our hero (who suggests equal parts of Chaplin's Tramp and Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot) falls for a haughty French taxidermist, Nicole (Agnes Soral), who's all at once living below him. In some of the film's funniest scenes, this sophisticate suddenly finds herself amid the coarse peasants of St. Petersburg, while Tchijov's cut adrift in the City of Light.
Shall the twain meet? Maybe. But Mamin's most powerful message is delivered to Tchijov's exuberant pupils, who take a magical "class trip" to Paris, then don't want to return. "You were born into a miserable, crooked, bankrupt country," he finally tells them, "but it is still your home."
And with that, this bawdy, spirited, thoughtful farce delineates not only the gulf between East and West but the kind of energy it will take to bridge it.