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OF FREAKS AND MEN [Pro Urodov I Lyudej] (1998).

Here's a one-of-a-kind cinematic oddity -- a Soviet-made, experimental period-drama, obviously filmed on a budget, but with subversion and talent to spare. Lemme put it this way, think Guy Maddin meets Eisenstein, as filtered through a Dark Brothers movie. Or perhaps a pre-WWII Russian BOOGIE NIGHTS? Yes, it boggles the mind, and so will this overwrought, oversexed and deliriously overstyled visual feast from director-writer Alexei Balabanov. Beginning like a silent-film (befitting the story's time period) and soon shifting to Sepia-toned sound, were introduced to an array of St. Petersburg characters. There's Dr. Stasov and his adopted Siamese twins, Kolya and Tolya; Engineer Radlov and his comely daughter Liza (Dinara Drukarova); plus Johann (Serge Makovetsky), who's destined to become the cold and casually-homicidal kingpin behind Russia's early pornographic industry. The storyline initially bounces from one thread to another, with seemingly-little connection, but Balabanov begins to tighten the noose when one of Johann's cruel filth-peddlers, Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov) becomes intrigued by Stasov's conjoined "freaks" and begins photographing these young boys in the nude. Plus, when Radlov dies, and leaves his home (including Liza) to longtime housekeeper Grunya -- the secret-sister of Johann -- this sleaze-merchant quickly insinuates himself into the household. And let's not forget Johann's photographer, who's busy courting Liza. Full of outrageous dramatic turns (from forcing a blind woman into a spanking movie, to the freaks' unexpected acceptance into high-class society), this small film paints an epic portrait of humankind's aberrant desires. Yet while its subject matter is the stuff of exploitation, the tightly-structured filmmaking and storytelling shifts it into an altogether new realm. A uniquely-cinematic tableau of fetishes, carnality and cruelty, this embraces perverse turn-ons which are rarely touched upon in US fare, but does so with an over-the-top, almost hypnotic artistry. Of course, in spinning his intricate story, Balabanov provides loving recreations of what was once considered scandalous pornography. Technically superb on every level, with expert cinematography by Sergei Astakhov, this might not be the most lighthearted romp, but it's beautifully crafted, deliriously twisted and altogether fascinating.

© 2000 by Steven Puchalski.