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The film Irony of Fate is a staple of New Year in Russia – as much as Soviet Champagne, Olivier salad, and of course popping round to see friends throughout the night once the first toast has been said. For those that don’t know (and there’s no reason you should – as far as I know it’s never been on British television), The Irony of Fate is a Soviet film made from 1975, shown on 31st December every year on Russian television (and, I guess, in other Russian-speaking countries).
On the surface, it’s a romantic comedy about a man (Zhenya) and woman (Nadya) thrown together by circumstance on New Year’s Eve. Initially they can’t stand each other but end up falling in love – it’s light and fluffy, perfect for a celebration that is focused on the family and friends. But there are some hidden aspects which give this film a darker edge.
The main plotline hinges on the fact that Zhenya, a man in his thirties who’s just asked his girlfriend to marry him, goes to a bathhouse (banya) in Moscow to celebrate New Year with friends. He gets so drunk that he ends up on a flight to Leningrad. Time to turn around and go back to meet his lady? Not quite. There’s an identical street in Leningrad to his own Moscow street (3rd Builders’ Street) and the blocks of flats all look the same. Even his key works in the door to the Leningrad flat, and the layout inside is also identical. Thus he gets a taxi to 3rd Builders’ Street and falls asleep, believing he’s still in Moscow in his own flat – though actually he’s in Nadya’s bed.
On the surface comedy gold, but the subtext is a sly dig at the Soviet system under Khruschev, during which time the country was built over by vast plains of flats, producing miles and miles of depressing, identikit tower blocks across its towns and cities. You don’t need to speak Russian to get this bit of satire in the film’s opening moments – a cartoon featuring an architect whose grandiose plans for beautiful flats are reduced to ugly tower blocks by the authorities, and a three and a half minute film sequence sweeping through these identikit blocks. A voiceover then explains with no small irony how everything looking the same means it’s possible to feel at home in any city in the country.
Though things seem to end happlily ever after between Zhenya and Nadya (after what is, it has to be said, over three hours), there is a feeling of Twelfth Night about it. At the start of the film Zhenya asks his girlfriend of two years, Galya, to marry him. By the following morning he’s with Nadya, whose flat he ended up in, and Galya has been all but forgotten. Every time I’ve watched it I’ve felt for Galya – perhaps as the actress is one of the film’s best. I will her to return at the end, telling the assembled cast Malvolio-style that she’ll have revenge on the whole pack of them. Instead we get a death-stare from Zhenya’s mother at her potential new daughter-in-law, which almost does the job.
There’s also the mystery of the casting. The heroine, Nadya, is played by Barbara Brylska – not a Russian but a Polish actress. Nothing wrong with that, you might think – apart from the fact that her Russian is far from perfect. In the final film her voice is dubbed over by one of the other actresses from the film. It seems a strange thing to have done, when at the time in the Soviet Union there must have been an actress who both looked the part and could speak the language well enough. If anyone knows why this happened I’d appreciate the answer.
So there we have it – a slightly corny Soviet classic that doesn’t always make complete sense, but is enjoyable and proves that, contrary to Western beliefs, there was room for dissent (albeit subtle) in the USSR…
There are no free pictures from the film, but you can take a look at some stills here.
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