Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Of Freaks and Men

Alexei Balabanov's film about 19th-century Russian porn may not be to everyone's taste, but Peter Bradshaw is unsettled and impressed, in The Guardian

Shot in a glittering, wintry monochrome, which attains a heavy sepia tint, Of Freaks and Men is set in turn-of-the-century St Petersburg. It imagines the bourgeois origins of Russia's fledgling porn industry: specifically that catering for images of flagellation and sado-masochism - catching this industry on the cusp of its movement from still photography to rudimentary moving pictures. The film's periodic silent-movie captions and its daguerreotype-hue are in homage to both media.

For this flourishing new porn culture, Balabanov invents a milieu of secrecy, exoticism and aberrant strangeness. The result is a disturbing, erotically creepy, funny and touching film whose images will live in your memory.

It concerns a doctor and his beautiful, blind wife who have adopted a pair of Siamese twins joined at the hip - Tolya and Kolya. The twins' singing ability in adolescence is exploited by their adoptive parents on the stage and they inspire an obsessive following with musical audiences, becoming the toast of polite society.

Nearby, a widowed engineer lives with his daughter Lisa in slightly less genteel circumstances, and the two households become connected by a below-stairs taste in pornography. Elaborate studies of naked women being spanked and thrashed with birch twigs are being turned out with fanatical artistic care by the glacial, deadpan Johann (Sergei Makovetsky) and his sinister, grinning sidekick Victor Ivanovich (Victor Sukhorukhov), as a sideline to their respectable portraiture business.

Johann and Victor insinuate themselves into both houses: and their influence coincides with the descent of one of the twins into alcoholism, and the other's erotic obsession with Lisa. Victor, too, conceives an interest in Ekaterina, the doctor's wife, and the scene in which he tweaks up her skirts to examine her genitalia - while she appears to stare glassily, ambiguously ahead - is an extraordinary moment.

There is something very gamey and very kinky in the way Balabanov represents the consumers of Johann's wares as being women, and this conceit has its own element of pornographic whimsy. Balabanov's juxtaposition of pornography with the trim, prim world of stage performance and bourgeois musical taste - in the form of Tolya and Kolya's sensational career on the stage - endows this secret theatre of sexuality with a vulnerability and a terrible pathos.

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