Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Window to Paris (1993)

If your face is lopsided,

                    don’t blame the mirror.

–Russian proverb


You can like a video store that gets you the latest Academy Award winners or the most recent Jackie Chan flick.  You love a video store that also stocks the highest-grossing Russian comedy of 1993.  That’s what I call service.  Thanks, Darcy and Karen.  Seldom Scene owes you another one.  Now on with the review.

Have you ever been entertained by a drunken, boorish, xenophobic, avaricous lout?  How about an irresponsible, drunken, starry-eyed music teacher?  A sober, shrewish, pretentious pet taxidermist?  Feeling left out?  Have I got a movie for you.  If someone else besides a Russian director had made Window to Paris, war would have been declared. The Berlin Wall would have gone back up.  Only Russians have the right to make a film about Russia that’s this cruel and this funny. The title is a real red herring.  This movie should have been called Window to Russia.  And the view out of that window is none too pretty.  As a matter of fact, it’s so ugly that you’d better start laughing. That this was the most popular movie in Moscow in 1993 tells you more about the conditions in post-Communist Russia than anything you’re likely to read in a North American newspaper or newsmagazine.

Window to Paris opens with what should be a stereotype.  A long line of Saint Petersburg citizens waiting for yet another consumer good in short supply.  Wasn’t this supposed to be the typical Russian scenario before Glasnost and Perestroika?  Has nothing changed?  Yes and no.  What’s changed is that vodka has now been added to the list of things for which one waits in line.  At least in the old days a Russian could drink to forget how bad things were.  Now he (or she) has to wait in line to be able to drink to forget how bad things are.

Not that any of the characters in Window to Paris ultimately go without.  Vodka and beer are consumed prodigiously.  The movie could come with a parental warning for Excessive Intoxication.  Again, were this not a Russian film, one would suspect shallow stereotyping.  Director Yuri Mamin, who hails from St. Petersburg, has no such worries.  He knows Russia has got to be the only industrialized nation whose citizens’ average lifespan is actually decreasing.  Alcohol’s a big factor.  Some Russian workers have been paid with booze when nobody’s been able to find money.  Which is a lot of the time. A lot of Russian society went down with the Berlin Wall; what has replaced it is not easily faced in a state of sobriety. It’s no accident that the most nightmarish vision of  St. Petersburg (dark, cold alleys filled with trash, men urinating on walls, predators whose philosophy is “Now it’s yours…Now it’s mine”, officials so ignorant they’ll buy a cover story about Edith Piaf and Elvis Presley booked for a concert in a local hall) is experienced by the one major character who neither drinks nor is Russian. If drunks and children tend to tell the truth, the truth about life in modern Russia is not in short supply in Window to Paris.

The film’s plot, such as it is, gives Yuri Mamin a chance to savage both East and West.  The film’s central character is a music and aesthetics teacher, Nikolai Tchijov (Sergey Dreyden), working at a “restructured” high school. Nikolai engages his students by reading them ghost stories by candlelight and teaching them Broadway chorus line numbers.  He’s a benevolent Pied Piper, leading a dancing parade of children to his classroom to the sounds of his flute.  He’s also a compulsive piano tuner (this movie gets a lot of comic mileage out of compulsive piano tuning).

Because this is modern Russia, Nikolai is sleeping in the school’s gym while waiting for someone to die and free up an apartment.   His future is tenuous.  The school’s directors have decided that art and capitalism don’t mix.  They’ve painted trilingual slogans on the walls (TIME IS MONEY, MONEY DOES NOT STINK) and stuffed Tchijov’s classroom with boxes of new computer equipment. Pictures of heroes of the Revolution have been replaced by framed blow-ups of rubles, francs, deutschmarks and dollar bills.

Tchijov’s response to the new Russia is impolitic. He attacks the computers with a chair and tells his bosses that “You used to train builders of communism.  Now you train builders of capitalism.  And the results are the same.  Predators and ignorant crooks.” Just before he’s fired, he lands a 162 sq. ft. room in a communal apartment and we’re introduced to the rest of the cast.  As models of humanity, the denizens of the apartment make Ace Ventura look like a highly evolved life form.  The men are all workers at the “Red October” musical instrument factory by day.  At night they play on street corners in a Salvation Army-style brass band and drink themselves into oblivion.  The women are Gloria Steinem’s worst nightmare: loud, vulgar, mercenary, venal.  The apartment itself is filled with cheap bric-a-brac, disused pianos stuffed with contraband vermicelli, and chickens.  Small wonder that the communist revolution failed and democracy’s sinking: the proletariat’s stuck in a 19th century time warp.  The entirety of the twentieth century just hasn’t had that much of an impact on some people.

The apartment’s ringleader, and Tchijov’s foil, is a boor named Gorokhov (Viktor Mikhailov).  When he discovers that a spatial anomaly (thank you, Star Trek) connects his apartment with a rooftop in Paris, all he sees is a glorious opportunity to strike back at what he sees as two hundred years of Western parasitism: “They got rich at our expense.  Who protected them from the Tartar-Mongols?  We held them back for 200 years.  Meanwhile they evolved!”  Bigoted and outraged, Gorokhov’s a Russian Archie Bunker.  He’s a lightning rod for unpleasant truths.  Truths about an anarchic, gangster-ridden Mother Russia with a resurgent anti-Semitism and a nostalgia for a communist Golden Age.  Truths about the West of the American Dream, with its planet–killing resource exploitation, sales of DDT and cigarettes and armaments to developing nations, supra-national corporations, mindless consumption, and spiritual drift.  Gorokhov might not be right about TV having more radiation than Chernobyl, or all Parisians having AIDS, but he hits closer to home when he walks around in Paris and rants about “Loads of stuff all up and down the street.  And not a buyer in sight!  Who needs this stuff?  Three, ten, twenty, thirty different varieties.  It’ll all end up in the garbage.  But if you ask for some they’d rather die than give it away!  So many churches, and they don’t even believe in God!” Tchijov’s one job offer in Paris is playing Mozart in a nude orchestra (“No one here needs Mozart with pants”).

Gorokhov and his cohorts seize upon their “window to Paris” as a golden opportunity for plunder.  Nikolai wanders about like an overgrown kid, dazed with a childlike wonder at the strangeness of it all. He falls in love with and rescues a damsel in serious distress (she’s crossed Gorokhov’s path once too often).

In the end, the window closes.  Everyone (almost) winds up back in St. Petersburg.  Happy to be home?  Well…. Tchijov at one point tells his students, whom he’s taken on a field trip through the space warp and who do not want to go back home: “You were born at the wrong time in a miserable, bankrupt country.  But it’s still your country.  Can’t you make it a better place?”  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Russians are famous for their pessimism. But there’s got to be hope for a country that can still produce movies like this one.  Perhaps Gorokhov is right when he exclaims incoherently but passionately:  “Madame, it will be OK.  Yves Montand!  C’est la vie!”


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

 Once again, I’ve been unable to track down a copy of this entry’s featured film to allow me to take a second look.  Although streaming has made it possible to track down almost any piece of music one might choose to listen to, this isn’t true for many older or foreign films.  That I was originally able to watch Window to Paris courtesy of our local little video store shows that we had it pretty good even in the pre-streaming days.  Thanks again, Darcy & Karen, for bringing a little more of the world to the East Shore.  And thanks to Reo Rocheleau who, in 1987, in the back of his corner store in nearby Nelson, started one of the coolest video stores to be found anywhere outside of a major urban center.

Movie Information

Genre: Fantasy | Comedy | Drama
Director: Yuri Mamin, Arkadiy Tigay
Actors: Sergey Dreyden, Agnès Soral, Viktor Mikhailov, Nina Usatova
Year: 1993
Original Review: August 1999


Long Tack Sam

I tracked down this eye-opening documentary after reading the director’s article “Long Tack Sam: My Great Grandfather the Necromancer” in the Summer 2005 edition of Ricepaper magazine.  Billed as the “Oriental Monarch of Mystery” Long Tack Sam was in his heyday one of the world’s most respected magicians and head of an extraordinarily talented family.  From the website:

 “This feature documentary offers a whimsical tour through the history of Chinese magicians and performers in the Western world. Long Tack Sam was an internationally renowned Chinese acrobat and magician who overcame isolation, poverty, cultural and linguistic barriers, extreme racism and world wars to become one of the most successful acts of his time. Filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming travels the globe searching for the story of her great-grandfather, the cosmopolitan Long Tack Sam. A celebration of the spirit of Long Tack Sam’s magic and art, this richly textured first-person road movie is an exhilarating testament to his legacy and a prismatic tour through the 20th Century.”

Part One: How well does the Vatican’s ‘Best Films’ list hold up today?

Part Two: Looking back at the Vatican’s 1995 ‘best films’ list

The Vatican Film List

Vatican Best Films List

In 1995 the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications published a list of what the Catholic Church considered to be 45 of the best films ever made.  In 2019, journalist Alison Nastasi wrote two articles looking back at the council’s choices.  Along with those two articles, I’ve included a link to the full list and to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops annotated list (each of the 45 films is given a one-paragraph descriptive summary).  For those interested in looking at cinema from a Christian perspective, Steven D. Greydanus has curated the website (“film appreciation and criticism informed by Christian faith”) since 2000.  He’s the film critic for the National Catholic Register and a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.

Lost and Found in Translation: Steaming Isn’t Afraid of Subtitles

This 2017 article by Glenn Kenny for The New York Times describes the methods used to subtitle films shown in theaters and films streamed online.  My wife and I have been watching a lot of Spanish television programs on Netflix over the last couple of years, and we’re very grateful to be given the option of subtitling rather than dubbing.  I watched the first season of Babylon Berlin in an English dubbed version—before I figured out how to access all of Netflix’s language options—and it just didn’t feel right.  As a Spanish language student, I love the chance to hear the original programming; and my wife, who doesn’t speak Spanish at all, has become as big a fan of subtitling as I am.  With the impressive array of foreign language film & TV now available, sometimes the biggest challenge is just figuring out what the original language is.  Note: Kenny’s article references both the Heera and Crunchyroll streaming channels, but I believe that the former is no longer in operation.  I’m not an Amazon Prime subscriber, so I can’t be sure.  Crunchyroll, on the other hand, is thriving.

Films Worth Talking About:

Schindler’s List, El Mariachi, Groundhog Day, Point of No Return, Falling Down, La Scorta (The Escort), Much Ado About Nothing, The Piano, Farewell My Concubine, Jurassic Park, Cliffhanger, Like Water for Chocolate, In the Line of Fire, Sleepless in Seattle, The Joy Luck Club, Short Cuts, Three Colors Blue, The Age of Innocence, Germinal, A Bronx Tale, Demolition Man, The Remains of the Day, Philadelphia, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Tombstone, Kalifornia, Cronos, Cool Runnings, Sonatine, Naked, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Mrs. Doubtfire, Menace II Society, Les Visiteurs, Raining Stones, The Blue Kite, Benny & Joon, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Little Buddha, The Scent of Green Papaya, Swing Kids

The Bigger Picture

Films:  Don’t Think About White Monkeys (2008)



The Word on the Street

[Note:  There are only 15 User Reviews for Window to Paris on the Imdb website, reflecting its current hard-to-find status.  Hopefully that may change.  Is there a streaming service for Russian film & television that offers English translations?  I’ve never heard of one.]

A funny and scathing critique of Russian society and culture during the transition from communism, OKNO V PARIZH also shows the west in an unfavorable light. A group of Russians living in St. Petersburg (a.k.a. Peter the Great’s “window on the west”) find a magic portal that instantly transports them to Paris. Mamin’s film is truly hilarious, and just “weird” enough constantly keep even the jaded film viewer on his toes. The songs, the dream sequences, and the deliciously disgusting fringes of society from both cultures mingle to create a memorable and meaningful film. Anyone trying to understand the shift in Russian cultural sentiments since the fall of the USSR should begin here.   [james-brandon-1]

My first Mamin film, saw it on IFC long ago, and LOVED it. It seemed absolutely artistic, original, fun and hilarious. Not a moment in the film let me down or made me bored, and i was laughing a lot or had a smile on my face. I mean this movie is truly funny. But here’s the catch: it’s also very artistic and creative – if you don’t know Yuri Mamin (probably, sadly, because so many of his GREAT films aren’t available here) he has a very original style like no one else’s, and for me this isn’t even my favorite film of his (right now it’s the insane (“Saideburns/Bakenbardy”). Also, i have to say as a Russian, this film is great because you really do see what Russians are like. And this is possible because this is a true Russian film to me, NOT a foreign film trying to be American or trying to appeal; Mamin did not sell out (nor has he since, Gorko (1998) was as good if not better. This is true Russian style filmaking that came out of communist Social realism.

If you liked this film, i think you have a very high chance of loving Mamin’s other films, in fact i like quite a few of them more than this one. I guess this one is his most accessible film. A similar film is Fountain, taking place 6 years before during perestroika, it has the same actor in the leading role, and more of Mamin’s regulars who you will recognize from Window to Paris; this one has one supernatural twist in the end but is mostly a realistic comedy, a great one. Viva Mamin, hopefully Criterion will hook all of his movies up one day, he’s still working, and his catalog is so great! See any of his films if you can.   [WeGetIt]

What a marvelous and multi-faceted film! Accurately but humorously portrays Communist Russia’s class struggle and communal life. Juxtaposes an educated musician against blue-collar “bloodsucking” neighbors, as well as bleak Leningrad against the colorful splendors of Paris. A wonderful metaphor for the utopia many dream of finding: our chances of reaching it are limited, and when the opportunity presents itself, some throw themselves fearlessly into it, others hesitate until it is too late, while still others fail to recognize that they’re already there. One of the few films that can be viewed hundreds of times and never grow old.   [SFMovieFan]

This movie has one of the funniest discussions of Elvis Presley and Edith Piaf that I’ve ever heard. So watch this movie. You’re sure to love it. It’s sort of a precursor to “Being John Malkovich”.   [lee_eisenberg]

This Russian and French film was made just around the time the Soviet Union was ending and chaotically giving way to a capitalist Russia, and that’s reflected over every inch of it. There’s a cute premise — a down-on-his-luck music teacher moves into a new apartment and discovers a literal window to Paris that literally only opens every twenty years.

This leads to some very fun, absurd comedy with Russians and French finding their way through the window and becoming very confused — as well as a great deal of very self-conscious social commentary on the state of Russia at the time. This leads to some interesting contrasts, with the farcical often set against scenes of unhappy people on filthy streets. This contrast doesn’t always sit easily, and i doesn’t always increase the humor of what’s going on but it does always leave an impression….the film winds up very difficult to forget, for its rather wild combination of the whimsical and the grim.   [hte-trasme]

I saw this film when it first came out – in a theatre no less! – and it is still one of my favorites; it is such a sweet, little film. I rate it right up there with Cousin Cousine, A Brief Vacation (Una Breve Vacanza,) and My Friend Henry (Ystäväni Henry) as must-see foreign films.   [mwelsch]