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. Its outside chance of success rests upon savvy exploitation of its undeniable qualities and quirky period parlor hijinx.
References for this picture, shot almost entirely in a tinted-sepia re-creation 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 that sex is 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), and the good doctor’s maid, Darya (Tatyana Polonskaya). Further linking the families is the secret relationship between engineer 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 Dr. Stasov’s adopted conjoined twins, Kolya and Tolya (Alyesha De & Chingiz Tsydendabayev), doted on by the doctor’s blind wife, Ekaterina (Lika Nevolina). She reveals her own kinks , which lead to the twins’ sexual coming of age.
Johann’s passion for Lisa, 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.
Thought-provoking, funny, disturbing and 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 the faded, forlorn days when the combination of sex and photography was new.