Also by The Slacker: mystery novel ‘New Holland’
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This film sounds rubbish, but somehow it’s amazing. Here’s the story: geeky, repressed father of two Anatoly Novoseltsev works in a Soviet-era statistics office. His best mate and fellow employee Yuri Samokhvalov encourages him to try and impress his frumpy, cold-hearted boss Ludmila Kalugina. And guess what – after failing miserably at first Novoseltsev impresses her with his honesty and kindness, and – after the mandatory trials and tribluations – they fall for each other and go off into the sunset together.
It sounds like a poor quality Hollywood effort: the kind of thing I usually avoid at all costs. But so many Russians (and, indeed, Soviets) held ‘Office Romance’ so dearly that I decided I had to check it out. I’ve probably seen it ten times now.
So what makes it such a good film? Well, its theatre roots give it a quality that sets it apart from modern day geek-gets-the-girl movies. It is based on a play, and many of the main actors started in the theatre. Indeed, Alisa Friendlich (Kalugina) and Oleg Basilashvili (Samokhvalov) continued to work on the stage in Leningrad during filming.
But the pick of the actors is undoubtedly Andrey Myagkov (Novoseltsev). Unlike the modern geeks, who are either too handsome to be geeky or else so pathetic that they just garner sympathy, Novoseltsev is a geek with an edge. He’s clumsy, stuttering over pathetic chat-up lines about picking mushrooms and unable to control his naughty children, but occasionally he shows real soul: putting down his boss for her loftiness and arrogance, or standing up to Samokhvalov when he finds out the dirty tricks he’s really up to. He’s someone compelling to watch.
Like its stablemate The Irony of Fate (which has the same director and features many of the same actors), Office Romance makes some sly digs at the Soviet society of the seventies. Known as the period of stagnation, these were days of women spending half an hour at their desks doing their make-up to start the day, secretaries knitting whilst gossiping on the office line and employees being far more interested in gossip than serious work, all of which is portrayed in the film with an apt tinge of sadness. These were days of shortages and poverty for many but, according to my mother in law, far kinder days than the ones we now live in.
Closer to the standard Soviet message is the portrayal of Samokhvalov (his surname translates as ‘praise-self’) as the office bad boy – he’s lived in the west and seems to have learned his tricks there, all whilst smoking endless Marlboros and avoiding striptease shows. Samokhvalov reminds me of former Russian Prime-Minister and current opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov in the way he looks and carries himself – though no doubt that’s where the similarities end, given the very different times we live in.
So what’s the best thing about this film? It’s not the slightly crazy happy ending, reminscent on one level of Benny Hill; nor is it the strange roof garden which seems to come with Kalugina’s job. The best aspect is without doubt the sweeping scenes of Moscow set to songs performed by Friendlich and Myagkov: scenes of busy train stations, snow in the trees, commuters hurrying onto and off buses. There’s nothing surpising or unique within these shots, apart from the fact that the snow was filmed in September. Their beauty lies in the fact that they’re scenes from a world now gone and, for many, forgotten – there’s nothing forced or staged in these magic minutes, just people moving through a place no longer there. It reminds me of one of my favourite photograph books, ‘The Optimism of Memory’, which shows a series of photographs from Leningrad in the 1970s – a must for anyone who’s ever been there, or who’s mystified by the Soviet Union.
You might have heard there was a follow-up film last year – ‘Office Romance: Our Time’. The acting’s pretty crap, though the actors are all good-looking – something for everyone, depending on your persuasion. The storyline follows the original exactly until the last half hour, when things actually do get interesting. Probably worth a watch, but only just – it’s another modern Russian film aping Hollywood far too closely at the expense of its own culture.
Stick with the original, though, and you won’t be disappointed.
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