‘The Humorist’ ‘Meduza’ reviews Michael Idov's new film about a fictional Soviet comedian
Earlier this spring, a new film debuted in Russia by Michael Idov — the screenwriter of the film “Summer,” and the TV shows “The Optimists” and “Londongrad.” “The Humorist” is about the life of fictional Soviet entertainer Boris Arkadyev. Idov wrote the screenplay with his wife, Lili Idova, and Alexey Agranovich stars in the main role. Though the movie is ostensibly about the lack of creative freedom in the USSR, Meduza film critic Anton Dolin says the film actually addresses Russia’s contemporary situation directly.
“The Humorist” is a strange and disturbing movie that causes discomfort and lingers in your mind. After you see it, you’ll want to hide behind cliches, like “what a strong debut” and “such powerful acting,” which are true, but this isn't enough for a film review. “The Humorist” is not exactly what it seems. In terms of plot and setting, it’s the biography of a fictional entertainer from the 1980s, Boris Arkadyev. In reality, however, it's a film about the censorship of humor, soft totalitarianism, and the moral choices thinking people face in life. Essentially, it’s a movie about Russia today.
In one of the first scenes of the film, an intoxicated Arkadyev, who is immediately identified as Jewish, improvises a response to the question “Why don’t Jews become cosmonauts?” “They don’t recruit them because they won’t come back — they’ve already got too much experience with living in a vacuum.” “The Humorist” very accurately conveys a sense of airlessness, though it begins on the windy shores of the Baltic Sea, in the resort town of Jurmala (a mecca for Soviet entertainers). For Michael Idov, who grew up in Soviet Riga, it’s one of several personal touches in the film.
A student of cinema in the United States who wrote several books and made a rather successful career in journalism (and then abandoned it), Idov is fortunate to have dual optics: he looks at the late Soviet experience from within, through the lens of childhood nostalgia, and from the outside, with the irony of a successful emigrant. This was already evident in Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Summer,” where Idov’s screenplay dissected the myth of the “Zoo” and “Kino” as a fantasy that deliberately neglects reality. Rock music in the USSR was a semi-restricted “safety valve,” and that was even truer for television and variety-show humor. It’s easier for comedians than musicians to disrespect the authorities when their backs are turned. The establishment didn’t catch every veiled middle finger, but audiences felt them all immediately.
Warning: The trailer below features adult content.
There was likely great temptation to make “The Humorist” into a veiled biopic about one of the comedy stars of the era (Mikhail Zhvanetsky, Arkady Arkanov, or maybe Gennady Khazanov). Or the film could have moved away from specific archetypes to show Arkadyev as a charming, talented loser who is forced to restrain his talent because of the demands of the era. But we don’t really know anything about the story’s protagonist. We don’t know whether he cheats on his wife accidentally or while drunk, if his only published book is any good, or if he’s written anything successful other than the hit he’s constantly repeating. This is precisely why the character turns out so intriguing, touching, and simultaneously repulsive.
Arkadyev successfully tours throughout the Soviet Union, returning occasionally to a spacious Moscow apartment, where his smart lawyer wife waits for him with their two children: a preschool-age girl and a harmlessly rebellious teenage boy (with an electric guitar from dad, and a bedroom wall that sports a rare David Bowie poster). Arkadyev coasts on a hit joke — a monologue told by a beach photographer who charges tourists for photographs with his pet monkey, Arthur. It never fails to get laughs, always at the same moments. But what’s eating him up inside? What keeps him from putting down the bottle of cognac, and what fills his voice and eyes with anxiety? Arkadyev is being torn apart by love and self-loathing, pity and contempt, and most of all by the inability to respect himself and the impossibility of changing that. No amount of success, alcohol, or women can help him forget it. If this is a midlife crisis, it's unlikely to pass.
To play this starring role, Idov cast Alexey Agranovich, a relatively unknown but wonderful actor who’s directed several excellent festival ceremonies. Agranovich has had few movie parts (he appeared in the recent films “Acid” and “Myths”), and he lit up the television show “A Particle of the Universe,” but his work in Kirill Serebrennikov's productions of different Russian classics at the Gogol Center was the real revelation. In theater, Agranovich recently played Baron and Chairman in Pushkin's “Little Tragedies,” after previous roles as Aduev-senior in Goncharov's “Ordinary History.” This was apparently Idov’s launching point when inventing Boris Arkadyev: a pragmatist and a cynic who’d achieved success in life and learned to hide his own fragility perfectly.
There are other excellent roles in “The Humorist” (mostly small ones) played by Alisa Khazanova, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Polina Aug, and Semyon Steinberg, but by and large this movie is about its main protagonist — so much so that its best scene features Agranovich in an empty room talking to a deity his character doesn’t believe in. After all, the “vacuum of space” is both the social setting of stagnation and an existential pitfall of that vile but attractive philistine wellness. It’s an internal vacuum and weightlessness that turns your stomach. At one point in the film, characters watch a spacecraft launch on television. Instead of God, the USSR had the cosmos: “Our boys flew up there, and they didn’t see anyone in the sky” (this common Soviet joke is used to good effect in the movie). Tired of his own quips, Arkadyev calls out to this empty space (unsuccessfully, of course).
The film’s climax finally frees viewers from the features of its time and place. Set in another cleansing space where everyone ends up naked, it’s a bathhouse, or maybe it’s a church, or perhaps a home model of the Colosseum to host the story’s final battle. The enemies here, however, are phantoms: Arkadyev’s main adversary is a mirror. The character speaks about this directly and can barely look at his own reflection in his dressing room before performing his formulaic, tired act. Maybe he’s actually the monkey taking the pictures on the beach? If so, how does he finally become a human being? Over the course of the movie, Arkadyev also begins to serve as a reflection for the audience.
This past New Year’s Eve, the state TV station Pervyi Kanal released an unexpectedly audacious parody show, titled “Little Blue Urgant” (modeled on the popular musical variety show that aired from the 1960s to the mid-1980s). Danila Cross and Ilya Sobolev — two fearless young stand-up comics who aren’t typically allowed on network television — joined the “trolling show,” dressed in 1980s suits, appearing as “a satirist” and “a humorist.” On the show, they recited verbatim monologues by the Soviet comedians Mikhail Zadornov and Yan Arlazorov. The program’s organizers say they expected these long-obsolete texts to elicit hysterical laughter from the audience precisely because the jokes were so tired and artificial. It’s hard to say if this experiment was a complete success. Faced with the national humor of the very recent past, the public refused to recognize its former self and genuinely wondered what was supposed to be so funny.
“The Humorist” shows that Russians haven’t come very far from those days, and demonstrates how rapidly they’re looping back to these times again. When the credits roll to a song by the rapper Face, for some reason it’s not at all surprising to hear him struggling with the same questions that tormented Arkadyev. And there’s really nothing funny about it.
Translation by Sera Passerini and Kevin Rothrock