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A film about hard-currency prostitutes working in Leningrad in the 1980s. Their illegal career choice is the only escape from a drab life (the illegal bit’s having hard currency, not being a prostitute). And it’s not just a choice that attracts the desperate: being an ‘international girl’, working the hotels frequented by foreign businessmen, attracts university students, professional women and girls in their final year at school.
Sounds like a cynical look back at the hypocrisy of those times, perhaps made by a modern Russian director? Or maybe it’s an American propaganda movie from 20 years ago? Wrong on both counts – ‘Intergirl’ was a film made in the Soviet Union in 1989. So surely its director was arrested, and as few people as possible were allowed to see the film? Again, wrong: Pyotr Todorovsky was decorated for his work by the state in 2000, and his taboo-breaking film was seen by 40 million people in its first year.
The film starts with Edward Larsen, a Swedish businessman and client of the prostitutes, asking Intergirl Tanya Zaitseva to marry him. They’ve just had sex in a hotel in Leningrad, and even after she accepts his proposal he offers to pay her for the sex. It’s not a marriage based on love, but Tanya doesn’t care – she tells her mother doesn’t want a life as a nurse earning next to nothing (Mum doesn’t know how she really earns her money), and wants to see the world with her own eyes.
As the story unfolds we see various aspects of broken Soviet society: the nurse moonlighting as a prostitute because her profession pays poorly; the impressionable young neighbour, neglected by her parents, who follows in Tanya’s footsteps; Tanya’s absentee father who, despite having not seen her for more than 20 years, demands an extortionate amount of money to sign a paper letting her leave the USSR – Tanya’s with Edward, but is forced into a night of sex with a Japanese businessman to raise the money.
Todorovsky shows us a Soviet world suffocating in drabness. Rather than romanticising Leningrad as previous (and subsequent) films have, in ‘Intergirl’ we get long shots of the dull, utilitarian side of life: the industrial centre around the port, the street cleaners in early morning, the vast plains of tower blocks spreading for as far as the eye can see. The film suggests that one of the big draws of having a link to the West was an escape from this drabness. The Western men are all smart suits and smiles, and of course have a lot of money which enables the girls to buy the type of things few others can afford. When Edward invites her to a Leningrad restaurant, it’s 20 years since Tanya’s mother has been to one. Tanya and her colleagues get so bored at the hospital that they start drinking one night and discussing the West – a young colleague comments that she likes Western men better because they have consumer goods, like cameras. An argument is only broken up when a patient comes to tell the nurses that one of the men in his ward has died.
About half way through the film Tanya moves to Sweden, and here the work becomes something of a blunt instrument criticising the Western lifestyle: she doesn’t get on in the West as everyone knows what she did before, and her only friend is a Soviet lorry driver who travels between the two countries. The film ends in isolation and tragedy. But overall there’s far less meat here than in the scenes set in Leningrad – perhaps the director had limited experience of life in the West himself. A lot of interesting plotlines are started only to never be finished, the main relationship doesn’t seem to work on any level, and we’re left with a simple message that doesn’t do the earlier parts of the film justice: Soviet people are all good but unfortunate in life, whereas Westerners are cold, addicted to consumerism and hypocritical.
But this is nevertheless a classic well worth watching (there’s a version with English subtitles for non-Russian speakers). It’s a Soviet film with a lot of firsts: as well as being one of the first widely distributed films to take a long, hard look at Soviet society, it’s also the first time erotic scenes appeared in a film from that country. There’s also a new type of female lead for Soviet films – not a mother or a beloved, but an emancipated women in charge of her own fate.
And it’s also a film that could only have been made in a very short space of time; those few years of glasnost and perestroika at the end of the eighties. It was hoped that by facing up to the issues, they could be solved and the USSR would once more become strong – in reality the likes of ‘Intergirl’ only helped to bring about the system’s demise more rapidly.
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