Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: 'Barber' Just Doesn't Cut It




If you are a Nikita Mikhalkov fan, maybe you should stop right here. If, on the other hand, you were as disgusted as I was by his latest assault on Russian history, read on.


I went to see "The Barber of Siberia" last week, in the company of my friend Sonya, a charter member of the fast-fading Moscow literary intelligentsia. The huge hall of the Pushkin Movie Theater was filled, not quite to overflowing, but a very respectable crowd for a midweek afternoon. We were squeezed under the banks of speakers, making for significant aural discomfort during some of the rowdier scenes.


The movie is a kind of Russian "Titanic" f impossibly overbudgeted, outrageously hyped, and with a "love story" that has women all over the country wringing out their hankies as the final credits roll by. There are no icebergs, but the important elements are there: doomed lovers defying the system and losing their lives but gaining cinematic "greatness" in the process.


The plot, such as it is, is quite simple. A handsome, young Russian military cadet meets a beautiful, young American adventuress and embarks on a series of increasingly self-destructive escapades because he is Russian, and, as billboards all over town tell us, "that explains a lot."


"The Barber of Siberia" is lovely to look at, it is long and fairly entertaining in a melodramatic, exploitative kind of way. I have no problem with that f everybody's gotta make a buck, and if Mikhalkov cleans up at the Oscars, I'll just chalk it up to the idiocy and craziness of Hollywood and go on my way.


What has my blood boiling is the movie's pretentiousness. The director has created a prettily wrapped bonbon of a film that will reinforce for Western audiences all those comfy notions about the Great and Mysterious Russian Soul.


For the naive viewer, there are numerous pseudo-significant insights gained by the American heroine as she plumbs Russia's chaotic depths.


"Russia is a land where the animals are like people and the people are like animals," we learn from a truly ridiculous Maslennitsa scene, full of happy peasants, tippling bears and men who beat each other up for the fun of it "because it feels good."


As one who has made a career out of issuing superficial generalizations about Russia, I am heartily offended when subjected to them from anybody else. At least my excesses can be written off as the hubris and ignorance of the foreign observer. What's Mikhalkov's excuse?


There is plenty to keep Russian audiences ruminating, as well, although the message here is a bit darker: Americans are, invariably, crackpots, sadists or whores, until tamed and ennobled by Russia.


There are some pretty risible moments on the Slavophile front. I just loved the scene where the symbol of pure Russian womanhood, a simple serving girl named (what else?) Dunyashka, stands poised with a mini-sickle in her hand, waiting to strike down the evil American adventuress. Buxom and broad-faced, with her little serp raised, she looks for all the world like the figure of the kolkhoznitsa in front of VDNKh.


There can be little doubt that "Barber" is aimed Westward. Most of the dialogue is in English, even when Russian characters are speaking to each other, and here in Moscow it has a terribly distracting voice-over translation. If you want to see the original, you'll have to wait for a special showing at Americom, or better yet, go to London or New York.


But the film is being used by figures all across Russia's political spectrum as an illustration of the country's immeasurable greatness. Horse manure. "Barber" is a Palekh box, exquisitely executed but with little relationship to reality. I liked "Gone With the Wind" as much as the next person, but I know better than to adopt it as a disquisition on the nature of slavery in the American South.


Mikhalkov now seems to want to use the film to launch his presidential campaign. Fine. He won't get my vote.


As the last view of the vast taiga faded from view, and with Oleg Menshikov's wonderful, smiling face still imprinted on my mind's eye, I turned to Sonya for a quick, knee-jerk reaction. We looked at each other in stunned silence, and then, at virtually the same moment, muttered, "uzhas" (horrible).


None of this, of course, has kept me from going to see the film three days in a row. I've been living in Moscow for close to 10 years, and that, you must understand, "explains a lot."