A Cruel Romance Review

A lavish two-part costume tragedy based on the classic The Dowerless Girl by the nineteenth-century playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, A Cruel Romance (also known as Ruthless Romance) was the biggest Soviet box-office hit of 1984, though it seems to have had little international exposure until now.

It marked a change of direction for the veteran Eldar Ryazanov, who up to then had tended to specialise in contemporary comedy, though it seems to have done his career little harm: he was made a People's Artist of the Soviet Union that year - and no wonder, quite apart from the film's commercial success, its mostly wart-ridden portrait of the venal, money-grubbing bourgeoisie of the then-discredited Tsarist era must have gone down a storm with the Soviet authorities.

The film opens with the wedding of Olga Ogoudalova, though it's clear almost immediately that she's a reluctant bride, married to a (supposedly) rich Caucasian nobleman so that she won't be a financial drain on her mother Kharita (Alissa Freindlikh), who is clearly living some distance beyond her means and who is openly reliant on rich suitors paying court to her two daughters.

But Olga is quickly sidelined in favour of her sister Larissa, who becomes the centre of attention, her various suitors including the dull, pedantic post-office worker Yuli Karandyshev (Andrei Myagkov), the would-be Lothario Ivan Petrovich Semyonovsky (Borislav Brondukov) and the genuine article, Sergey Sergeyevich Paratov (Nikita Mikhalkov), the dashing owner of a luxury steamship that he plans to establish at the heart of a burgeoning business empire.

It's easy to see why Larissa is so taken with Sergey - arriving at Olga's wedding on a white horse, he proceeds to demonstrate both strength (literally picking up a horse-drawn cart so that Larissa won't get her feet wet) and bravery, challenging Semyonovsky to shoot a glass off his head and mocking him when he refuses to do something similar in turn.

But, like Kharita Ogoudalova, he is also living way beyond his means, and rival entrepreneur Vassily Vozhevatov (Victor Proskurin) and bank manager Moky Knurov (Alexei Petrenko) constantly circle him like well-dressed vultures, uttering loaded aphorisms like "Grab whatever you can, there's no sin in grabbing - you only sin when you get caught". When Karandyshev attempts to join in the banter, he is ridiculed for admitting that he's never taken a bribe - was it out of cowardice or the fact that he's too insignificant to attract such offers?

As this brief summary suggests, these are not pleasant people, and the title is all too accurate - though there's plenty of romance, or at least the accompanying trappings (wine, music, dancing, expensive gifts, marriage proposals), it nearly always has an underlying motive that has little to do with the heart. Ostrovsky is as ruthless as his dramatis personae, setting them up to attract our sympathy and then revealing fatal character flaws: the initially sympathetic Karandyshev turns out to be a misogynist bully, and even Larissa confesses to her besotted fiancé halfway through (I won't give away plot spoilers by identifying him here) that she's marrying for convenience rather than love. And if the author's cruelty is still in doubt, he makes sure we know that Paratov has a wealthy fiancée that he can't afford not to marry, so a romance with anyone else - Larissa, for instance - is doomed from the start.

Although the film is talky enough to betray its stage roots in almost every scene, Ryazanov sets the film not just by but also literally on the river Volga, elaborating on a verbal metaphor that ran through the original text. Much of the action takes place on a steamship, which amongst other things allows Ryazanov and cinematographer Vadim Alissov to create a wide range of atmospheric effects involving water, rain, fog and steam, providing neat visual parallels for the emotional torments undergone by the characters (in fact, in a couple of cases, Ryazanov and Alissov were confident enough to abandon the original dialogue altogether: we just watch the scenes played out in silent long shot).

And the film's other star is composer Andrei Petrov, a long-term collaborator of Ryazanov, whose score includes some haunting musical numbers, mostly settings of nineteenth-century women's poetry (though there's some Kipling in there, too). Larissa is often pressed into performing for her menfolk, and her choice of song often betrays what she's really thinking in a way that her carefully modulated, suitor-pleasing flirtations decidedly don't - most notably in a devastating scene near the end when she quietly weeps as she realises the true meaning of the words she's singing and how they apply to her own situation.

There's little to complain about with this transfer - the print is in generally excellent condition (a tiny number of spots and scratches are entirely forgivable in a two-decade-old film), and although this is never stated explicitly, comments from both the director and cinematographer elsewhere on the disc hint strongly that the muted colour scheme is entirely intentional. I also had no quibbles with the transfer - there are no obtrusive digital glitches and there's no indication that the aspect ratio should be anything other than 4:3 (even in the 1980s, Soviet films were still shot in that format), and so anamorphic enhancement is unnecessary.

The sound was originally mono, but it's been given a sensitive 5.1 remix that largely keeps the dialogue confined to the centre speaker but opens up the soundstage with regard to the music and background atmosphere (the steamships are accompanied by a faint subwoofer rumble that gets louder the closer we are to the engine room). Recording quality is perfectly acceptable - the definition isn't quite up to contemporary standards, but there's nothing to quibble with either. The English dub is acceptable as these things go, though the American accents jar somewhat to these European ears, quite apart from the inevitable lip-sync problems. Sensibly, they leave the songs in Russian - but a translation is not provided, meaning that the original Russian soundtrack (which is subtitled throughout) is vastly preferable, not just for authenticity but also on a basic level of comprehension.

The subtitles are by Ruscico regular Tatiana Kameneva and seem to cover all the bases (insofar as a tourist-Russian speaker can judge these things) and are also well-written and 'literary' enough to avoid unnecessary distractions. Commendably, she's also gone to the trouble of digging out the original Kipling poem instead of retranslating it from Russian into modern English. There are 28 chapter stops - not quite as generous as on some Ruscico discs, but sufficient nonetheless. The film was originally screened in two parts, and is split across two discs - though the split occurs where you'd expect it to.

This being one of Ruscico's double-disc blockbuster blowouts (Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears takes a similar approach), there are loads of extras spread out over both discs (the total running time of the additional video material alone is over 75 minutes) - and, gratifyingly, almost all are well worth exploring.

The 'Preface' is an introduction to the film by director Eldar Ryazanov - though as with a typical preface in a modern edition of classic literature, it's probably best sampled after watching the main feature, not least because there are loads of spoilers and at nearly half an hour it's a little too long to act as a light aperitif before the main course.

But it's one of the best Ruscico-produced documentaries I've seen to date - he discusses the political climate in the early 1980s (he made a period drama because the undertainties of the post-Brezhnev era weren't conducive to anything modern), his admiration for both the Ostrovsky play and Protozanov's highly regarded 1937 film adaptation, his extensive reading of nineteenth-century literature (especially women's poetry and literary romances, with a brief digression into the little-known realm of pre-Revolutionary lesbian writing) and his love of Kipling before launching into a lengthy anecdotal account of the film itself: getting the go-ahead from the authorities, casting, adaptation (this was his first solo screenplay in a genre he'd never attempted before), research, location scouting, costume and production design, the shooting (including a near-drowning on set and complications with his inexperienced lead actress) and its release to an overwhelmingly hostile critical reception but phenomenal box-office success.

All this is illustrated with copious clips from both A Cruel Romance and its 1937 predecessor, and interspersed with a detailed critical analysis of the material, both in terms of its literary roots and its relevance to Russian audiences over a century later. My only quibble is that there's just one chapter stop - in all other respects, this is outstanding.

A stills gallery features ten colour images, all selectable via Ruscico's usual excellent thumbnails. Interestingly, the colours are rather more vibrant here than they are in the main feature, though there's little question from Ryazanov's comments that the faded, misty feel was intentional.

Filmographies are provided for Ryazanov (who also gets a text biography), cameraman Vadim Alissov, designer Alexander Borisov, composer Andrey Petrov and actors Nikita Mikhalkov, Larissa Guzeyeva, Andrei Myagkov, Alexei Petrenko, Grigory Burkov, Victor Proskurin, Alissa Freindlikh and Borislav Brondukov. Flipping through the various pages also threw up trailers for A Station for Two (Ryazanov), Agony (Petrenko), Autumn Marathon (Petrov), At Home Among Strangers, A Stranger Among His Own (Mikhalkov), The Princess and the Pea (Freindlikh), together with two more substantial interviews with Guzeyeva and Alissov.

The interview with Larissa Guzeyeva runs just over seven minutes, and was shot on one of the film's locations, which she hasn't visited since filming. She reminisces about her fellow actors (especially Grigory Burkov, who had since died) and how supportive they were, especially as this was her debut film. There's a lot of self-analysis: on the one hand she says that had she been more experienced she'd have done things differently, but on the other her real-life naïveté couldn't but help her performance - and it closes with a rather touching reflection on how this ended up being her only large-scale film.

The interview with Vadim Alissov opens with the revelation that both his sister and his mother had played the part of Larissa - the latter in the 1937 film - so it was very much a family affair. He then describes certain scenes (illustrated with clips) and talks about the visual approach and his relationship with director and designer - revealing in the process that Ryazanov wasn't too proud to accept suggestions from his younger colleague Nikita Mikhalkov if he thought they benefited the film, and how difficult it was to create a convincingly fake mist (serendipitously, many of the long shots were taken in a real mist that just happened to descend on cue), and other technical challenges. He crams a lot into just over ten minutes, and I could happily have listened to more.

'An Introduction to A Cruel Romance' turns out to be a nine-minute Mosfilm promotional featurette that runs along very similar lines to its Western counterparts: a brief rundown on the film and its literary background, but mostly an interview with director Eldar Ryazanov in which he talks about the film, the cast, how he was determined to be different from the 1937 film, and why a director best known for comedies should want to make a period tragedy. Composer Andrei Petrov discusses his approach to the music and his (then) two-decade working relationship with Ryazanov, and brief soundbite interviews with Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexei Petrenko and Alissa Freindlikh touch on their contributions. It's rather more polished than many Russian featurettes that I've seen, making particularly effective use of nineteenth-century silhouettes as a linking device, and plenty of illustrative clips.

The 1937 film (Yakov Protazanov's A Dowerless Bride) has been referred to repeatedly, so it's good of Ruscico to dig up an unadulterated clip for us (in the 'Archive' section), even if it runs less than two minutes. Assuming it parallels the 1984 version, it's the scene right at the beginning where Sergey helps Larissa get into the carriage, though staged in a rather less macho fashion - instead of picking up the carriage bodily, he merely lays his cloak down on the ground to keep her feet dry. Wimp.

'Songs' highlights three of them: 'The land of love is just a fraud', 'The bee to the opened clover' and 'And as I go I will say', presented in the form of clips (roughly two minutes apiece) from the scenes in the film in which they feature. This is a simple approach, but surprisingly effective, largely because the songs are so vividly highlighted in the film itself. Subtitles would have been appreciated, though, especially as translations already exist elsewhere on the DVD.

So much for the film, but what about the original author? Fear not, there are three Ostrovsky-related extras: a hefty five-page text biography leads to a thirteen-minute archive documentary that backs up a similar biographical rundown with images of Ostrovsky, his house, places associated with him and various other artifacts (such as the notes he made when he was a court clerk, which gave him ample opportunity to observe humanity in all its infinite variety). No credits are supplied, but I presume this was made relatively recently for Russian television - it's in colour, the technical quality is rather better than many such archive films, and it's more concerned with the facts than any ideological spin (that said, I still treasure the tour of the Gogol Collective Farm with its 'socialist fields' on the Viy DVD!).

The Ostrovsky section is fleshed out with a brief (just over two minutes) travelogue of Kostroma, the town where Ostrovsky ended up after leaving his Moscow birthplace, and where the film was made. Although neither Ostrovsky nor the film are mentioned here, you do get to see the Soviet war memorial, the Museum of Wooden Architecture and other attractions, along with a fascinating glimpse of Soviet tourist marketing in action.

Menus and textual materials are available in Russian, English and French, all subtitled extras offer English, French, Dutch, Italian and Spanish, while the Ryazanov preface features all the subtitle options of the main feature.

All in all, this is one of the more pleasant surprises of my ongoing trawl through the Ruscico catalogue - not just for the general excellence of the film but also the superb packaging. Fans of the edgier brand of costume drama - Dangerous Liaisons springs to mind - should get plenty out of this, and the subtlety and intelligence of Ryazanov's direction has made me hungry for more of his films (A Station for Two and the intriguingly titled Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! are imminent).

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