Insinuating itself into the viewer's mind the way its nefarious lead characters corrupt and undermine two families in turn-of-the-century Russia, "Of Freaks and Men" is both a dark gem and a perplexing marketing conundrum.

Insinuating itself into the viewer’s mind the way its nefarious lead characters corrupt and undermine two families in turn-of-the-century Russia, “Of Freaks and Men” is both a dark gem and a perplexing marketing conundrum. Pic will get fest kudos, but it’s too much ribald fun for “serious” art film lovers and too offbeat in its birth-of-Russian-porno subject matter and stylized cinematography to catch any significant arthouse B.O. Pray for savvy exploitation of its undeniable qualities and quirky period parlor hijinx.

References for this picture, shot almost entirely in a tinted-sepia recreation of period daguerreotypes, are tough to find, but one could look to David Lynch’s penchant for dwarves and Canadian cult auteur Guy Maddin’s oddball musings. Pic also bears strong stylistic resemblance to Steven Soderbergh’s ill-fated B&W “Kafka.” But “Freaks” contrasts strongly with all of the above in its fidelity to its sympathetic characters and the central premise of sex as the sinister undoing of both the innocent and the evil.

Two St. Petersburg families, one high-society and the other middle-class, come into contact with the strange, dour Johann (Sergei Makovetsky), a professional producer of still pornography, which appears to be a booming trade in old St. Pete.

Railroad engineer Radlov (Igor Shibanov) is being treated for a heart condition by the upper-crust Dr. Stasov (Alexandr Mezentsev), but what binds them more than medicine is Johann’s hold on Radlov’s seemingly innocent daughter, Lisa (Dinara Drukarova). She secretly covets Johann’s forbidden treats, as does the good doctor’s maid, Darya (Tatyana Polonskaya). Further linking the families is the secret relationship between Radlov and his mistress, Grunya (Darya Lesnikova), who is Johann’s sister.

Like a merry, malevolent middle man, Johann’s henchman, Victor (Victor Sukhorukov), creeps between the households, peddling the photos and developing his own lust for the illicit. The objects of his affection are Stasov’s adopted conjoined twins, Kolya and Tolya (Alyesha De & Chingiz Tsydend-abayev), doted on by the doctor’s blind wife, Ekaterina (Lika Nevolina), who reveals her own kinks, which leads to the twins’ sexual coming of age.

Johann’s passion for Lisa, which is stymied by her father, turns to vengeful rage and culminates in sweet revenge when the engineer dies and puts Grunya in charge of his modest estate and soon-to-be-immodest daughter.

Before you can say “sexual revolution,” Lisa is disrobing for Johann’s commercial endeavors, Ekaterina is submitting to a series of humiliations at the hands of the twisted, randy Victor, the twins are dabbling in booze consumption, sexual exploration and a musical career with Victor as manager, and the sincere young artist photographing the entire scene, Pytilov (Vadim Prokhorov), is vowing to save Lisa from the clutches of the porno crowd.

Thought-provoking, funny, disturbing, utterly involving, “Freaks” marks a terrific follow-up to Balabanov’s award-winning ’97 Russian box office hit, “Brother.” Cinematographer Sergei Astakhov’s carefully modulated and composed sepia-tone images are both disconcerting and hypnotically mood-enhancing. While the distancing effect may be counterproductive to the drama, it does lend an aura of faded, forlorn days when the combination of sex and photography was new.

Of Freaks and Men

Production

A CTB production. Executive producer, Maksim Volodin. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris). Produced by Serguei Selyanov, Oleg Botogov. Directed, written by Alexei Balabanov.

With

Johann - Sergei Makovetsky Lisa - Dinara Drukarova Ekaterina Kirillovna - Lika Nevolina Victor Ivanovich - Victor Sukhorukov Kolya & Tolya - Alyesha De and Chingiz Tsydendabayev Pytilov - Vadim Prokhorov Dr. Stasov - Alexandr Mezentsev Grunya - Darya Lesnikova Radlov - Igor Shibanov Darya - Tatyana Polonskaya
Camera (B&W/sepia/color), Sergei Astakhov; editor, Marina Lipartia; production designer, Vera Zelinskaya; costume designer, Nadya Vasilyeva; sound, Maksim Volodin; makeup, Tamara Frid. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight) May 20, 1998. Running time: 93 MIN.
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