Despite the sunshine of the Stalin years and the carefree frolic of the oligarchs, the words "Russia" and "romantic comedy" don't exactly come tripping off the tongue in perfect harmony. But if we can believe co-directors Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky, a welcome spirit of playfulness -- or the brave effort to achieve one -- now infects the Motherland. In You I Love, three young, striving Muscovites grapple with the newfound freedoms and stresses of post-Soviet life, try to define themselves, and make uncertain bargains with the future. The filmmakers clearly intend their treatment of this collective quest to be both socially relevant and lightly satirical, but whimsy is not Stolpovskaya and Troitsky's strong suit: The whole film has a dour resolve that undermines its attempts at humor. To be fair, American viewers may lose something in the subtitles here, but there's no mistaking the killing gloom of the thing, laid over a framework of sitcom.
The protagonists include Timofei (Evgeny Koryakovsky), a vaguely bewildered advertising executive whose campaigns for pizza and soft drinks ("Freedom is Cola! Love is Cola!") earn the praise of his English-speaking boss; Vera (Lubov Tolkalina), a ditzy TV anchorwoman who's obsessed with food; and Uloomji (Damir Badmaev), a Kalmyk day worker from the countryside who cleans cages at the Moscow Zoo but dreams of being a circus acrobat. A fellow who also dreams, literally, about herding sheep, he's baffled by the ATM on the street corner; he tries to get cash by sliding his snapshot into the thing. Meanwhile, Timofei and Vera slip into a big-city romance, and everything's fine until Timofei hits the none-too-lithe Uloomji with his car. In the aftermath, the bumpkin acrobat seduces the sexually ambivalent adman.
The supposedly comic ménage that occupies the rest of the movie pays very little respect to Jules and Jim (despite trying), and it works very hard at showing us Russia in transition -- a society where crude capitalism is running amok and everyone is starting to experiment with new social, sexual and economic arrangements. This could be interesting stuff -- a telling glimpse into the post-Soviet ferment -- were it not for the directors' flat-footed dedication to mission. The best comedy floats along with seeming effortlessness, and these Russians just don't manage it. Their side trip to a decadent Moscow orgy looks like Fellini reimagined by a couple of seven-year-olds, and what is supposed to be comic tension in Vera's envious jibes at her rival Uloomji have little buoyancy. When she insists to the boy that she's really a transsexual, the joke falls flat, but that doesn't keep the filmmakers from pressing the issue for another two minutes or so. We're also subjected to a steady diet of Moscow talk radio that's meant to amuse us -- neurotic callers complaining about their unhappy love lives, demanding jobs and interrupted workout regimens instead of, say, the old inability to score a loaf of bread at the government bakery. There's a kind of primitive sweetness in all of this, but way too much of it.
You I Love
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You I Love's directors, who both come from Russian TV, might have done well to study Truffaut a bit less and the comedies of manners made by screwball masters like Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks a bit more. They might even have taken a lesson or two from Hollywood's current crop. As it is, this import has attracted attention at half a dozen gay and lesbian film festivals in the U.S., but it may not have the strength to cross over to more general audiences. Too bad. Here and there, we get the hint of an insider look at the eccentricities of the rising middle class in Russia, but nothing quite falls into place. By the time Uloomji's scandalized, traditionalist relatives invade the city (in a bow to Chekhov, he's even got an angry Uncle Vanya) and kidnap their wayward boy, you may have lost interest in him -- and in the trio's attempt to construct an extended family suited to the liberties and demands of the new free-market Russia. Films using this one's ideas to better advantage are probably in the works, and we should be willing to wait -- providing that Vladimir Putin doesn't suddenly change his mind about everything and shut off the cameras and microphones.