Of Freaks and Men Review
When I first saw Alexei Balabanov's Of Freaks and Men at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1998, I thought it was touch and go whether a film quite so original, provocative, perverse and calculatedly offensive - not to mention weird in the extreme - would get British distribution at all, not least because the number of Russian films to be granted that honour over the last decade could literally be counted on the fingers of one hand. I certainly didn't expect to be reviewing a UK-label DVD of it quite this soon!
Balabanov flings down the gauntlet right from the opening credits, which are superimposed over a series of vaguely sadomasochistic pictures of young Russian women, breasts and buttocks exposed, being chastised by stern babushkas with bundles of birch twigs for unspecified infractions - it looks as though the scene is being set for a return to the kind of arty soft porn pioneered by maverick talents like Walerian Borowczyk (Immoral Tales, The Streetwalker) in the 1970s, and if you watched scenes from Of Freaks and Men taken out of context you'd probably find that impression reinforced.
But the film is rather more complicated than that, not to say ambitious - and raincoated types should be warned that the pornographic elements are largely incidental to the main narrative, which is a late 19th century costume drama (shot for the most part in sepia-tinted monochrome), set in St Petersburg, about bourgeois families being laid low by unscrupulous sleaze merchants who take over the cellars of respectable households and turn them into makeshift studios for photographs and later films of more than mildly disreputable content.
These are created by naïve would-be artist Putilov and overseen by the sinister Johann (to whom Putilov is heavily in debt), and the even more sinister Viktor Ivanovich (played by grinning bald maniac and Balabanov regular Viktor Sokhorukov), who then sells them door to door to the maidservants of respectable families, sowing the seeds of corruption and discord that inevitably leads to scandal, death and ruin.
But Viktor loses interest in the porn side of Johann's business when he spots and becomes obsessed with a pair of Siamese twins, Kolya and Tolya. After seducing their blind guardian, he becomes their manager, turning them into a singing freak show and taking them on tour. But all is not well with the twins: one is an alcoholic while the other has become unhealthily interested in sexual matters as a result of regular exposure not only to Putilov's porn but to the family maid's power games, and Viktor plans for international stardom start to unravel…
If there's a single thread running through the film, it's that of exploitation: wives by husbands, servants by the upper classes, respectable citizens by sleazy pornographers, actual freaks by moral freaks. It's no wonder that Liza, the young woman on whom Johann has developed a fixation - probably the most sympathetic character in the film - spends much of the time staring out of the window at passing steam trains, though when she finally gets away, it's clear that the rest of the world is just as depraved as what she's left behind (or is it that she can't help seeking the depravity out?). And though Putilov eventually achieves fame and even what looks like a substantial schoolgirl groupie following, it's clear that this is on the back of his S&M porn movies rather than anything profound or heartfelt.
This was the first of Balabanov's films that I saw, but now I've caught up with his earlier Happy Days and Brother it's clear that he's getting better and better - there's a berserk confidence in this outré material that means you can't take your eyes off the screen even when the film's at its most inconsequential: some of the most visually compelling moments involve little actual dramatic content, such as a series of stunning, wordless sequences consisting of little more than lengthy journeys around St Petersburg's architecturally glorious tramways and canals, scored to recordings of Mussorgsky and Prokofiev standards.
The film has been deliberately shot and designed to look as though it could have been made at literally any point in the last century, though the fact that it dates from the late 1990s makes it hard not to draw comparisons between its portrait of an exciting new technology (the cinematograph) being misused by smut peddlers and what happened with the introduction of the Internet and, come to that, the DVD format (at the time the film was made, just about the only discs that made genuinely creative use of the multi-angle button were the kind you would probably think twice before showing your wives or servants, something of which Balabanov was doubtless all too aware).
So who on earth has Of Freaks and Men been made for? Well, fans of Borowczyk, Peter Greenaway, Guy Maddin, early David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer's Conspirators of Pleasure will have a field day, as will broadminded devotees of the more fantastical Russian novelists: there's a strong streak of Gogol and Bulgakov running through it as well (not to mention Beckett, Ionesco and Kafka). But Balabanov is very much his own man - few relatively new directors (he made his debut in 1992) have established such a strong personal style quite so quickly, and one that's remarkably consistent whether we're talking about a period drama like this or a contemporary thriller like the equally controversial Brother.
I should in all fairness point out that despite my own high regard for the film (four viewings and counting), it's not going to be welcomed with open arms by everyone. Radical feminists will need some persuading that a film featuring numerous still and moving shots of naked young women being flogged is going to advance their cause in any way, and the Russian film establishment has already condemned it (it caused outrage at its St Petersburg premiere and had extreme difficulty finding a distributor in its native country) - and of my companions in the two cinema trips I made to see it, one utterly loathed it and spent much of the journey home openly questioning my sanity in championing it, though this was happily counterbalanced by my then girlfriend, who absolutely loved it and indeed regularly rang me up for days afterwards to ask me to play a particular Mussorgsky piece over the phone. Like Putilov's creations, it's a film that arouses passions, and that alone is a positive thing in my book.
Although I'm obviously delighted that a film as off-the-wall as this has made it onto DVD (a year ago, you could count the number of non-English-language films available on a British label on the fingers of one hand), Tartan's effort is adequate rather than outstanding, and a definite notch below Amalgama's Brother in every department except the extras and subtitles. The latter are burned into the print, but they're a vast improvement on the gibberish that accompanied the earlier film - I can't vouch for the accuracy of the translation, but they certainly read well enough.
The print is generally in very good condition, and the transfer is largely artefact-free, but there are problems with the picture as a whole. Like Brother, the original 1.66:1 picture has been given a non-anamorphic transfer, and when blown up to 14:9 zoom mode it turns out to be slightly soft, though not distractingly so. Rather more of a problem is the high contrast level, with blacks so overpowering that they tend to absorb much that comes into their orbit: it's particularly poor when it comes to shadowy interiors (when the boat passes under the bridge, its occupants momentarily vanish) and not helped by sepia tinting that's a little too strong and in parts rather too close to orange for my taste.
That said, though, with a film this unconventional, these drawbacks are less problematic than they might otherwise be - parts of it reminded me of some of the better prints in Kino's various silent film collections where they were working from the best copy they could get their hands on, and this suits the film's deliberately dated, archaic feel surprisingly well.
The sound format is coyly given as "Dolby Digital", but a quick glance at the level meters reveals that it's basic stereo with no surround information that I could hear. This, though, is perfectly adequate for a soundtrack that consists almost entirely of dialogue and somewhat elderly music recordings - those familiar with the sound of Guy Maddin's films will know what to expect, and I'm sure the worn, scratchy ambience was entirely intentional. There are just twelve chapter stops.
The theatrical trailer, oddly enough, has far milder sepia tinting than the main feature - and it's a great introduction to the film, consisting of a wordless canter through some of the more bizarre moments, not exactly downplaying the full-frontal nudity and S&M porn side of things (it's safe to say that you wouldn't have seen this trailer in the average multiplex - and its origins are neatly revealed by the French subtitle that translates the main title when it appears!).
The other extras are similarly standard - a stills gallery consists of ten thoroughly and disappointingly respectable portrait shots of the characters (why do I get the feeling that an opportunity has been somewhat missed here?), a set of filmographies for the four lead actors (mostly consisting of Russian films unshown in the West) and a brief biography of Alexei Balabanov.
Finally, there's a review of the film by Peter Bradshaw, which looks very much like the one he published in The Guardian when the film first opened in Britain. Annoyingly, it scrolls up the screen at a fixed rate instead of being selectable on a page-by-page basis, which will inevitably be too fast for some and too slow for others - the whole thing lasts six minutes.
But the relatively lacklustre DVD presentation shouldn't put you off seeking the film out - genuine originals like Balabanov need all the support they can get, and it's commendable that Tartan haven't decided to play entirely safe with their initial DVD releases (the same batch includes rather more audience-friendly fare like Cyrano de Bergerac and Cinema Paradiso).
It's to be hoped, though, that Tartan's subsequent releases will show the same degree of improvement that Artificial Eye's have done - because on the evidence of this and Man Bites Dog it looks as though they've opted for the cheapskate approach, working from the same master tape used to make the VHS version, and the quality of their DVDs is suffering as a result. It's a pity, because a film as overwhelmingly and fetishistically visual as this deserved a lot better: an anamorphic transfer in particular would have worked wonders.