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Of Freaks And Men Review

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Behind the crumblingly respectable facade of turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg, prim bourgeois ladies take as much furtive delight in photo-erotica as their fathers…

★★★★

In stark contrast to the uncompromising realism of Brother, Alexei Balabanov's fourth feature is a deliciously stylised throwback to the sepia-tinted flickers of the early 1900s. But while in pictorial terms it may have more in common with such silent pastiches as Guy Maddin's Careful, thematically it's very much a companion piece, as the director again suggests that Russia has always been a country in the thrall of corruption and exploitation, whether the crimes were perpetrated by Tsarists or Communists.

Behind the crumblingly respectable facade of turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg, prim bourgeois ladies take as much furtive delight in photo-erotica as their fathers. But when a prominent engineer dies, his defenceless, yet decidedly curious, daughter Liza, (Drukarova), is coerced by an immigrant pornographer, Johann (Makovetsky), into starring in homemade spanking movies, while his malevolent sidekick, Viktor (Sukhorukov), seduces the blind wife of a recently deceased doctor and forces their adolescent Siamese twins into performing as a musical novelty act.

Continuously referencing Russo-Soviet film history, Balabanov takes gleeful pot shots at the audience-pampering indolence of the generic mainstream. Several concerns from Brother also recur here, with Danila the hitman's passion for CDs being mirrored by Liza's obsession with phonograph records. Balabanov deserves praise for fashioning a world where virtually every action is enigmatic.

What is most striking about this disturbingly dark satire is Astakhov's masterly cinematography, which not only evokes the primitive photography look of the era, but suggests the passing of an age of innocence, when weakness and trust were not rewarded with abuse and degradation.