A Soviet Fairy Tale: Ironiya sudby, ili S legkim parom! (The Irony of Fate, or I Hope You Have a Nice Bath!, Eldar Riazanov, 1976)

Canon formation tends to be a highly contentious affair, and part of the job of critics, academics, archivists, film lovers, and film programmers is to constantly question and re-evaluate this process. Part of what makes it so tricky is that inevitably each national cinema ends up with two canons, each in a permanent state of redefinition and expansion: the canon of serious, formally rigorous works created with the international film circuit in mind, and a domestic canon of films that audiences turn to time and again for their levity and their ability to crystallise and poke fun at cultural conventions – but that are nearly impossible to export precisely because they are so culturally specific. Ironiya sudby, ili S legkim parom! (The Irony of Fate, or Have a Nice Bath!, Eldar Riazanov, 1976) falls squarely in this second category. The film lays no claim to high art, but it merits its place in this dossier simply because no film is better known or more beloved in all the countries of the former Soviet Union.

It is estimated that over 100 million viewers saw the film when it premiered on Central Soviet Television on New Year’s Day of 1976.1 Viewer enthusiasm and a torrent of requests led to the film being screened three more times on television before being released in a shortened version in movie theaters, where another 7 million viewers saw it.2 Russian sources estimate that between the three television screenings and the theatrical release, a total of 250 million people saw the film in the year of its release – roughly the entire population of the Soviet Union.3 Since then, The Irony of Fate has been screened on Soviet, and later Russian, television every New Year’s Eve, becoming an indelible part of the holiday ritual. There has been only one exception to the rule: Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign of 1985-1987, when the film was banned on the grounds that it promoted drunkenness.

The film’s director, Eldar Riazanov, had made a name for himself exactly twenty years prior with the musical comedy Karnavalnaya Noch (Carnival Night, 1956), which focused on the efforts of a group of young people to organise a fun and light-hearted New Year’s Eve celebration at the local “House of Culture” despite staunch opposition from a grouchy old bureaucrat. Released the same year that Khrushchev made his momentous secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress, the film was perceived to be a forerunner of a period of cultural liberalisation that would become known as the Thaw. Most importantly, it seemed to announce the arrival of a new generation of spontaneous and joyful, if not entirely carefree, post-war youth. The vast majority of Riazanov’s subsequent films, including Beregis’ avtomobilya (Watch Out for the Automobile, 1966), Zigzag udachi (The Zigzag of Success, 1968) and Neveroyatnye priklyucheniya italyantsev v Rossii (The Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia, 1974) would attain a similar level of commercial success by continually repackaging Carnival Night’s mix of youthful enthusiasm and warm-hearted mischief.

As the Soviet Thaw declined into a period of Stagnation under Brezhnev, however, Riazanov’s characters began to grow older and to show signs of wear, earning him fame as the master of “sad comedy”. 4 Like Carnival Night, The Irony of Fate is a romantic comedy that takes place on New Year’s Eve and is imbued with the holiday’s anything-can-happen spirit. Its protagonists, however, are no longer vivacious college-aged youth, but rather embittered thirty-somethings stuck in a rut. Well-known Russian actor Andrei Miagkov plays Zhenia, a surgeon who lives in Moscow with his mother and suffers from commitment issues, while the glamorous Polish actress Barbara Brylska plays Nadia, a St. Petersburg school teacher past her prime. Their encounter takes on the form of a comedy of errors: Zhenia passes out drunk at the bathhouse with his friends on the afternoon of December 31st and is mistakenly put on a flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

The Irony of Fate

Eldar Riazanov in a Hitchcockian cameo as the frustrated passenger whose shoulder serves as a support to the unconscious Zhenia (Andrei Miagkov).

Thanks to the homogeneity of Soviet architecture, Zhenia does not realise that he has travelled anywhere and takes a taxi down familiar-looking streets to his home address: Third Builders’ Street, Building 25, Apartment 12. A brief animation of an architect’s fanciful design being stripped down by bureaucrats to the bare essentials and shots of Soviet apartment blocks in the opening credits have already primed the viewer to know that this highly unremarkable structure will have an important role to play in the story to come. So it is that Zhenia opens the door with his Moscow key, staggers through an identically furnished apartment, and falls asleep on what he firmly believes to be his couch. Sometime later, he is woken up by Nadia, and an argument ensues over who has infiltrated whose apartment. Nadia’s jealous bureaucrat boyfriend, Ippolit (Yuri Yakovlev), arrives on the scene and much drama ensues. Eventually, Nadia is able to convince Zhenia that he is, in fact, in St. Petersburg and not in Moscow, and to send him on his way – only to realise that he is the man for her.

The film’s bittersweet tone and mixture of comic and lyric moments has led Riazanov scholar David MacFadyen to compare it to Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977).5  Zhenia, Nadia, and Ippolit are all curmudgeonly characters and it takes a while for the viewer to warm up to them – and for them to warm up to one another. Part of the film’s charm lies in its refusal to rush them. The Irony of Fate was made for television from the outset in a two-part format, with each part coming in at about an hour and a half (three hours total). This leaves plenty of time for the characters to offend and forgive one another, to speak of painful past experiences in hints and snatches of poems. As one unusually frustrated critic later noted, “It’s high time for them, like the heroes of any typical American film, to crawl into bed together – and that would cheer up an impatient audience. But they keep dragging out their orphan-like lyricism, making various confessions about their misfortune in love while they sing romances.”6

The Irony of Fate

A drunk and belligerent Ippolit takes a sobering shower in Nadia’s bathroom.

Because the film was made for television, the cinematography is as utilitarian as the apartment building in which the action is set. The small, cramped spaces of the two apartments, the bathhouse, and the airplane do not allow for wide shots. The whole film is thus composed of medium and close-up shots that help the camera hone in on the intricate play of emotion on the characters’ faces. What the film lacks in visual flair, however, it makes up for with a soulful soundtrack. Numerous critics have described The Irony of Fate as a chamber play punctuated by vaudeville-like musical acts (and a dash of slapstick whenever an increasingly drunk and belligerent Ippolit reappears). Zhenia and Nadia quickly bond over their mutual love of the guitar and take turns singing to one another. Instead of popular songs, however, they choose high-minded poetry by the likes of Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko set to music by composer Mikael Tariverdiev. In their book on film and television under late socialism, Elena and Alexander Prokhorov contrast the “low key, personal” nature of these performances with the “Soviet mass song of Stalin-era productions”, which they characterise as “loud” and “choral”.7 The song numbers here work not to integrate Nadia and Zhenia into a broader community – a function often assigned by scholars to both American and Soviet musical comedy – but to do the exact opposite: to insist on their individuality and depth of feeling.

The Irony of Fate

Zhenia and Nadia express themselves through song in The Irony of Fate (Riazanov, 1976)

Their choice of poets and the delicacy with which they express themselves, however, do mark Zhenia and Nadia as members of one particular group: the Soviet intelligentsia. Prior to the Thaw, the heroes of Soviet films had been predominantly members of the working class. Starting in the mid-1960s, however, the intelligent begins to appear with increasing frequency on the Soviet screen, and – interestingly – in comedy just as much as in the more serious genres. One has to think only of the mass popularity of hapless graduate student “Shurik” across three films directed by Leonid Gaidai: Operatsiya ‘Y’ I drugie priklyucheniya Shurika (Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures, 1965), Kavkazskaya Plennitsa (Kidnapping, Caucasian-style,1967), and Ivan Vasilievich menyaet professiyu (Ivan Vasilievich Changes Professions, 1973). That The Irony of Fate, a film for and about the intelligentsia, could be so wildly successful speaks to the extent of the urban, educated audience by the mid 1970s.

Just as the film attests to an evolution in the class composition of Soviet viewers, it also speaks to a major shift in gender relations. Both MacFadyen and the Prokhorovs point out that “the syntax of late-Soviet comedy” was predicated on a “romance between a strong female lead and a weaker male partner.”8 Nadia calls all the shots in the film, while Zhenia appears at first glance spineless and indecisive, a man who, we anticipate from the outset, will pass from the strong arm of his mother to that of his future wife. In this regard, the film, which was described by viewers and critics from the outset as a “Soviet fairy tale”, maps perfectly onto the archetypal Russian folk tale: both center on a hapless male protagonist, Ivan the Fool (“Ivan Durak” or “Ivanushka Durachok”), who through no intention or effort of his own is granted Vasilisa the Beautiful (“Vasilisa Prekrasnaya”) for his mate. (And although Vasilisa may be called beautiful, her defining feature is her intelligence). Scholar Michele Leigh compellingly argues, however, that if we look closer, we will notice that Zhenia “gradually discovers his masculinity” over the course of the film. “All the verbal back and forth, the chasing, the fisticuffs, and the prolonged kiss in front of Nadia’s friends creates a change in Zhenia,” she writes. “He tells Nadia that thanks to her he is becoming a different man, more confident, more impudent, and more masculine.”9

Riazanov’s cinema thus presents a paradox. On the one hand, his films strongly appealed to women with their empathetic portrait of a broad range of female experience, from young women quite content to be on their own to aging spinsters, unhappily married women, single mothers, and socially shunned mistresses. On the other hand, the films’ vision of a happy household is an inherently conservative one. In many of them, just as in The Irony of Fate, a heterosexual romance instigates a mutual co-evolution in the two protagonists, “softening” the woman and “strengthening” the man.

The Irony of Fate

Nadia wanders around the historic center of St. Petersburg after Zhenia has left, in the film’s unique sequence of wide exterior shots. During that walk, she makes up her mind to follow him to Moscow.

The Irony of Fate lies at a critical moment in Riazanov’s filmography, where his work seems to pivot from boisterous adventure films where “an improbable or purely fantastic event […] turn[s] the boredom of daily life into a vortex of comic escapades” to darker explorations of human needs, desires, and failings in Sluzhebnyi roman (Office Romance, 1977) and Garazh (Garage, 1979).10 Despite Riazanov’s acute sensitivity to sociological dynamics and psychological mechanisms, however, the jury is still out on whether he can be considered a “political” filmmaker. On the one hand, his work daringly mocks elements of Soviet reality and exploits their comic potential. On the other, his satire always seems to stop just short of critique.

Numerous critics have seen both Riazanov’s adventure films and those centred around romance as inherently escapist. “Riazanov’s films gave the late-Soviet viewer the comfort of seeing private life as a refuge from the cynical and frustrating public sphere,” the Prokhorovs argue.11 Others, like Michele Leigh, are more generous: “Couched within these romantic comedies with a Soviet twist are serious economic and social issues, such as the failing economy, the black market, inefficient business and governmental practices, as well as the changing relationships between men and women.”12 Riazanov himself certainly felt that he was running a great risk each time he began work on a new film: “Every time […] I had to force a slave out of myself and overcome my fear of Soviet authorities,” he said in a 2008 interview with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.13

Doubtless, the appeal of Irony of Fate to both Soviet and post-Soviet viewers is that it provides a kind of “chicken soup for the soul” without disguising the harsh realities of life. It is a film that, in the words of one contemporary critic, “begins very funny and ends in great seriousness.” 14 Doubtless it is this mixture of honesty and wishful thinking, of human awkwardness, vulnerability, and empathy that keeps audiences coming back year after year.

Endnotes

  1. David MacFadyen, The Sad Comedy of El’dar Riazanov: An Introduction to Russia’s Most Popular Filmmaker (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2003), p. 218.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ivan Akimov, “40 let s ironiyei,” Gazeta.ru (December 30, 2015). http://api.gazeta.ru/culture/2015/12/30/a_8003195.shtml
  4. MacFadyen, op. cit., p. 217.
  5. Interview with David MacFadyen quoted in Vladimir Erkovich and Elena Bobrova, “This New Year, Raise a Glass to Ryazanov,” The Washington Post, December 16, 2015, p. H5.
  6. A. Makarov, “Anatomiia liubvi,” Kul’tura 48 (March 5, 1994): 12, as quoted in MacFadyen, op. cit., p. 221.
  7. Elena Prokhorova and Alexander Prokhorov, Film and Television Genres of the Late Socialist Era, (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), p.114.
  8. Prokhorova and Prokhorov, op. cit., p. 146.
  9. Michele Leigh, “A Laughing Matter: El’dar Riazanov and the Subversion of Soviet Gender in Russian Comedy,” in Marina Rojavin and Tim Harte (eds.), Women in Soviet Film: The Thaw and Post-Thaw Periods, (London and New York: Routledge, 2017), p.124.
  10. “Obituaries: Eldar Ryazanov, 1927-2015,” Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2015, p. B7.
  11. Prokhorova and Prokhorov, op. cit., p. 130.
  12. Leigh, “A Laughing Matter”, op. cit., p. 113
  13. As translated in “Obituaries: Eldar Ryazanov,”Los Angeles Times, op. cit.
  14. L. Polskaia, “Glavy beskonechnoi knigi,” Literaturnaia gazeta 51 (December 17, 1975): 8, as quoted and translated in MacFadyen, op. cit., p. 219.

About The Author

Masha Shpolberg is a Ph.D. Candidate in the joint Comparative Literature and Film and Media Studies Program at Yale University. Her work focuses on Eastern European cinema and the evolution of documentary film form.