Evgenia Dobrovolskaya’s captivating perf sparks “Actress,” veteran Russian helmer Stanislav Govorukhin’s sly tale about an actress with an unquenchable, contagious sense of humor. Far from temperamental Margo Channing territory, pic’s theatricality resides in its characters’ exuberant exits and entrances, supportive empathy and appreciation for piquant bits of absurdity. A classically Russian spin on the screwball romantic-comedy genre that has proven so elusive in Hollywood nowadays, charming pic deserves international arthouse runs, though lack of timely hooks or sexy stars may dim its prospects.
With her career and lovelife in limbo, Anna Pavlova (Dobrovolskaya) is given to moments of pensive wistfulness. Despite the respect displayed by her fellow thesps in lively backstage banter, her bit part allows little room for her obvious talent. Her sole behind-the-scenes swain is the troupe’s officious, gray-haired electrician (Alexander Abdulov), who conveniently has an apartment in the same building.
But, once ensconced next door with her flamboyant best friend Musya (Maria Aronova), having her future read in the cards or just shooting the breeze, Anna is free to kick back and indulge in the kind of ironic repartee that otherwise went out with Eve Arden and Joan Blondell.
Subtitles do a journeyman job of translating the numerous puns and plays on words, but it matters little, since the women’s bubbling enjoyment is as infectious as it free of malice.
Thus, when Musya invites her husband’s old school chum Vikentiy (Yuri Stepanov, a balding, roly-poly version of the handsome, absent-minded scientist of Govorukhin’s Stalinist-era “Not by Bread Alone”) to a match-making dinner, the shy parasitologist (“how romantic,” Anna sighs mischievously) finds himself immensely entertained throughout the evening, drawn out of his intellectual shell by copious rounds of vodka and conversation. By the time Vikentiy putters off, he is already half in love with the luminous Anna.
Helmer Govorukhin’s usual light, almost whimsical touch lends his characters’ felicitous moments a dollop of improbability and a great deal of attitude. When Vikentiy’s snooty mother comes to call, she mistakes Anna for the maid. Anna cannot resist the opportunity to assume the role, her sense of the ridiculous trumping any anger or hurt.
Govorukhin gets full mileage out of the theater’s interconnected backstage areas and the peculiar apartments-within-apartments layout of Moscow residences, creating a series of exits and entrances that are simultaneously theatrical and organic.
Tech credits are pro.