Of Freaks and Men

Pornmaker: Johann (Makovetsky) heads across St Petersburg with flowers for his intended.
dir-scr Alexei Balabanov
with Sergei Makovetsky, Dinara Drukarova, Victor Sukhorukov, Lika Nevolina, Alyesha De, Chingiz Tsydendabaev, Vadim Prokhorov, Alexandr Mezentsev, Darya Lesnikova, Igor Shibanov, Tatyana Polonskaya
98/Russia 3 out of 5 stars
Review by Rich Cline
The opening scenes are shot exactly like cinema from the period--silent, grainy black and white with title cards and no background music, just the hiss and crackle of the film. Then Of Freaks and Men goes sepia-toned and arch, like an early talkie melodrama. We're in turn-of-the-century St Petersburg, and this film about the early porn industry is unlike anything we've ever seen before. And if it's a bit too preachy, at least it's a bracing original.

The film follows a poker-faced pornographer (Makovetsky) who, with his cameraman (Prokhorov) and his smiling, creepy henchman (Sukhorukov), worms his way into two society families. The doctor (Mezentsev) and his blind wife (Nevolina) have adopted conjoined twins (De and Tsydendabaev); and an engineer (Shibanov) struggles to raise his daughter (Drukarova) on his own. All of them will be undone, including the porn-makers themselves.

The film's outrageous period style gives the story a cheeky sense of humour that feels like an elaborate spoof, which contrasts starkly to the deeply disturbing subject matter. The bare-bottomed photos seem laughably tame by today's standards, but Balabanov shows how insidious it all is, slowly, progressively eating away at society while building an underground crime network long before the October Revolution. The film doesn't always work--it tries far too hard to make its case, neglecting the intriguing characters, all of whom are well-played and command our interest and sympathy. But it's so utterly daring and inventive--and important--that it's well worth a look.

[18--adult themes and situations, nudity] 8.Mar.00
UK release 14.Apr.00

Winner: best film (St Petersburg Film Fest 98)

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2000 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall