If your face is lopsided,
don’t blame the mirror.
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.