Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Screenplay: Aleksei Balabanov
Cast: Sergey Makovetskiy as Yohan; Dinara Drukarova as Liza; Anzhelika Nevolina as Ekaterina Kirillovna; Viktor Sukhorukov as Victor Ivanovich; Alyosha Dyo as Kolia; Chingiz Tsydendambayev as Tolia; Vadim Prokhorov as Putilov; Aleksandr Mezentsev as Doctor Stasov
Synopsis: Turn of the 20th century Russia. Two partners in crime who produce and distribute flagellation erotic divise two seperate schemes which will be beneficial for each other. Yohan (Sergey Makovetskiy), an immigrant to the country, desires the daughter of a wealthy middle class man, Liza (Dinara Drukarova), who is herself revealled to be far from an angelic figure of innocence. His grinning compatriot Victor (Viktor Sukhorukov), meanwhile, is obsessed with a pair of Siamese twins Kolia and Tolia (Alyosha Dyo and Chingiz Tsydendambayev), step sons of Doctor Stasov (Aleksandr Mezentsev) whose blind, hostile wife Ekaterina (Anzhelika Nevolina) Victor is able to weave himself into her life by pure luck.
After a runaway cult hit like Brother (1997), Balabanov threw a curveball from modern day crime drama to a period grotesquery involving erotica and murky moral lines. Admittedly Balabanov, until his sudden death at fifty four in 2013, wasn't exactly known for being conventional or safe. His career is sadly blighted for me with Brother 2 (2001) - a bad sequel already but with a legitimately racist monologue halfway through about African Americans - but the original Brother was a mean, fascinating film which shows how it wouldn't stop is exceptionally low budget from restricting its intrigue and great moments. Of Freaks and Men, made after, is alien to any accusations against the late Balabanov being objectionable as its confrontational and subversive. Brother and Of Freaks and Men are not that opposite of each other either beyond their surfaces, one merely the underworld as depicted in the then-modern day, post Soviet Union Russia of hoodlums struggling to survive whilst Of Freaks and Men takes the glamour of classic Russian period drama, the realm of authors of Chekhov, and shows the grimy, porn obsessed underbelly of hoodlums struggling to survive.
Despite the steam powered boats and post Victorian fashion, this is a place where individuals of any class, from the middle class to the housemaids, is complicit to the events taking place rather than innocents. Be it the daughter ingesting erotica secretly before being in front of a camera for them, when cinematographic experiments are started by Yohan and Victor, or fathers of these children who are easy to manipulate. It's an incredibly nihilistic view. Where even the villains are far more complicated and absurd in spite of their deplorable acts. Yohan coming off as comedic with his Buster Keaton stone face, and obsessions both with his senile "aunt" who participates in the films. His obsession with dipping carrots in sour cream continually in many scenes or his crippling bouts of epilepsy. Victor with his Cheshire cat, giant teeth a buffoon who, whilst able to weave people around his fingers, eventually gets caught metaphorically with his pants down when someone else has a gun. It's parallel to the Russian literature I've been able to read where characters are permanently flawed and neither the morally bad or good, merely existing. It actually evokes the first, completed half of Gogol's Dead Souls (1842), where every character is gullible or those who are compelling to follow in spite of their cruel, monstrous behaviour, only taken to a further extreme here. The follies and complexities of people shown here in a twisted chamber piece where even the sole innocents, the twins, are actual children and suffer still from one of them developing alcoholism.
The drastic change of tone from Brother (gritty, low budget, modern Russian streets) to Of Freaks and Men is drastic even if they act like bedfellows on the same subjects. A large part of this is the explicit references to silent cinema, shot in sepia and with intertitles emphasising important dramatic points in the narrative which can't be shown onscreen without coming off as exposition. It's a pastiche of the beginning of cinema that however doesn't lead the film to the fantasy of Guy Maddin's work. Instead it's both a beautiful but utterly grungy aesthetic that keeps you off guard. Explicitly it's the important connective tissue of the subplot following the beginning of cinema, from photography to moving pictures and showing the technical innovation not as a triumph but immediately used for pornography, for men in top hats and suits to sit glumly and politely in rooms as the less than a minute long loops play out, What The Butler Saw before any longer forms of porn came to be. The attention to detail - the elaborate wall paper to costuming - doesn't gloss over the inherently griminess the film has tonally, an elaborate aesthetic but one where for every beautiful shot by cinematographer Sergei Astakhov the viewer eventually imagines there's a grotty under passage or backstreet just out of shot of every exterior scene.
The music, lush orchestral compositions or accordion ballads, are also carefully chosen as much for Balabanov to also drag such high art into the gutter as an exploitable quantity. The film briefly demonstrates the beginning of recordable vinyl as Kolia and Tolia are pushed into a musical novelty act, one capable of actual talent but through a transgressive photo on their vinyl recording also figures of exploitation even when they are free of Victor and his teethy grin.
Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Of Freaks and Men is actually difficult to quantify in terms of being "abstract". Its defiantly an unconventional film, strange and utterly different even from other films which took direct influence, good or bad, from silent cinema. A lot of it is a very straightforward narrative, which undermines it being an unorthodox film in presentation. Instead the film, as is visible from the beginning, is an appropriate follow up to Brother is showing how crime and hoodlums haven't really changed from before in the director-writer's eyes, piercing the aura of nostalgia the past can have by showing how the elegant gowns will be stripped off and lovely decorated rooms are stages for ladies to be laid over tables bare to be whipped by senile old women role-playing punishments. Quaintness in this erotic mixes with the complicit manipulation which pushes the viewer into a difficult scenario of whether these depictions in the film are problematic or psychologically complex, for someone like Ekaterina to visibly be a victim dragged in front of a camera there also to be the housemaids openly enjoying their employees being manipulated and also Liza, our heroine, to be someone possibly complicit in her situation as she is a victim too. It's a bleak film even if there's a sick humour to a lot of it, where the closest thing to a stereotypical male hero is a fop behind the camera who eventually becomes one of the first cinema heroes, chased by groupies, but having forged his reputation first by complicity filming Yohan and Victor's work.
Now if we were just ranking this as a weird film, it definitely is weird. A strange micro drama where porn shots comes off as a farce as well as sordid tragedies. Where there are numerous scenes where sexuality are purposely lead into uncomfortable transgressions. A lot of the film can be seen as a very dark comedy, with no side to safely hide behind. As a result Of Freaks and Men is a lot more difficult for the better to digest as its meaning is more complicated than its surface. It's not a "strange" film necessarily, carefully told especially with its intertitle narration, but startling to witness. One for years I've wanted to revisit and now having a significantly changed taste in cinema which can appreciate its virtues and dank undertows.