Screenwriter Michael Idov makes an impressive directing debut with the super-smart, confidently lensed “The Humorist.” Set in the waning days of the Soviet Union when decadence and repression went hand-in-hand, the film is a portrait of a comedian whose intellect becomes a burden when he can’t adapt himself to the increasingly heavy chains of expectation and censorship. Idov’s exceptionally clever dialogue is matched with a sharp understanding of structure, culminating in a terrific bathhouse scene with more than casual nods not just to “Julius Caesar” but to the whole fall of the Roman Empire. Released earlier this year in the territories of its its production companies, “The Humorist” is oddly only now finding festival berths.
Boris Arkadiev (Aleksey Agranovich, a standout) didn’t set out to be a comedian, but his novel flopped and he found a lucrative career doing stand-up throughout the USSR. Success hasn’t brought him happiness, as a tense dinner at a friend’s house in Latvia makes clear when he has a testy clash with colleague Simon Grimberg (Semyon Steinberg). But Boris, confident of his superiority, notwithstanding having had too much to drink, gets the upper hand when he leaves with Simon’s young girlfriend Lina (Polina Aug). The dinner scene works well in revealing personality through bluster and insecurity, creating a picture of privileged Soviet artists in 1984. But it also shrewdly exposes anti-Semitic attitudes when Boris, whose last name is actually Aronson, tells some Jewish jokes — and a few others try out their own, uncomfortably charged attempts at ethnic humor.
Though popular with the public and the authorities — one couldn’t exist without the other — Boris is going through a crisis, made worse when his actor friend Max (Yuri Kolokolnikov) tells him about the freedom that comics in the U.S. have to be able to say what they want. Home life is also difficult, given how often he’s on the road: His lawyer wife, Elvira (Alisa Khazanova), is supportive yet he’s not communicating anything apart from prickliness, and his Bowie-loving teenage son Ilya (Daniel Shifrin) resents his father’s frequent absences. Making matters worse, Ilya’s rebellious music makes Boris realize just how constrained he is in what he’s allowed to say. The point is driven home when he’s visited backstage by KGB agent Sasha Nikonov (Artyom Volobuyev), a fan whose request for a special favor reinforces the extent to which Boris’ success depends on official support.
The point is further underlined when he’s forced to accompany a couple of KGB thugs who turn up at his home in the middle of the night, refusing to tell him where they’re taking him. To his surprise, the reason is (on the surface) benign: A cosmonaut in space has asked that Boris do his most popular routine for him via a satellite hookup. His relief — he’s not fallen out of favor with the Communist Party — only exacerbates his inner crisis, since the absurd situation shows how little control he has over his life. Things come to a head when Sasha turns up at the office of Boris’ agent (Pavel Ilyin), saying a general (Anatoliy Kotenyov) needs him to perform at his wife’s birthday party.
The ensuing scenes are the film’s best, capturing the doleful decadence of the Soviet elite and then, in the bathhouse scene, the chilling power grabs reminiscent of the Roman Empire at its most dissolute. Idov sets things in a sauna designed like a mini amphitheater, the men dressed in white towels reminiscent of togas to further the parallels that soon become unmistakable. It’s been a while since we’ve seen such a sharp depiction of Russian life just before perestroika, when smuggled knowledge of the West made Communist control feel ever more constricting, and the ruling class was increasingly cut off from reality.
In the film world, Latvian-born Idov is best known as the co-scripter of Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Leto,” but he’s also a writer in English whose novel “Ground Up” was recently optioned by HBO. His screenplay for “The Humorist” crackles with sharp-witted dialogue but also reveals the film’s darker elements and the insidiousness of a society moving into unchartered territory beyond mere corruption. He clearly developed a symbiotic relationship with DP Alexander Surkala, as the cinematography is exemplary, fearlessly confident, observational but not prurient, and making full use of the cold, diffused light. Also noteworthy is Aivars Žukovskis’ production design — from Boris’ large Moscow apartment, only possible for someone crowned by the Party; to the theater green room, recalling tense backstage scenes from classic movies; and then the late sequence in the white marble bath house, with its ancient associations made disturbingly contemporary.