Friday, March 31, 2023

New year, same movie: Realizations from a rewatch

MosaicFilm and TVNew year, same movie: Realizations from a rewatch
The 1976, two-part Soviet film is essentially the Russian, New Year’s Eve equivalent of “Home Alone” — something you watch every year, even if you just have it on as background noise.

Managing Arts and Culture Editor

If it’s Dec. 31 and you live in a Russian household, chances are “Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!” (“The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!”) is occupying your television screen. This year, my residence was no exception.

The 1976, two-part Soviet film by director Eldar Ryazanov is essentially the Russian, New Year’s Eve equivalent of “Home Alone” — something you watch every year, even if you just have it on as background noise.

The movie centers on Zhenya, a Muscovite, and Nadya (no, not me), a resident of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). On New Year’s Eve, Zhenya indulges in an annual custom of visiting a banya, a traditional sauna, with his friends. As they toast to his recent engagement, they overdo it a bit and end up, in a word, inebriated.

In their drunken stupors, Zhenya is unknowingly placed on a flight to Leningrad that his friend was supposed to take. Still too intoxicated to notice the mix-up, Zhenya ends up mistakenly in Nadya’s apartment, which bears the same address — and general appearance — as his Moscow abode. 

As Nadya stumbles upon the pantsless stranger sprawled out on her bed, chaos naturally ensues. Upon discovering the still-tipsy Zhenya in the apartment, Nadya’s boyfriend, Ippolit, leaves in a jealous rage to do doughnuts on the frozen Neva River and pout, only to repeatedly return throughout the night. Trapped in the city until the next morning flight, Zhenya likewise desperately tries to reconcile with his own fiancée over the phone.

Midnight comes and goes. Friends, relatives, and strangers drop in and out. Calls are made and songs are sung. All the while, Zhenya and Nadya desperately try to explain the ridiculous circumstances of their meeting to those around them, who seem to simply refuse to believe what fate has wrought. 

While I’m no historian, a true appreciation for the plot of the movie necessitates an understanding of Soviet life in the era of Leonid Brezhnev. Rom-com-dram elements aside, it’s no secret that the film serves as an elongated commentary on the uniformity of 1970s Soviet life. Indeed, it’s the same street names, same building designs, same apartment layouts, same furniture and so on, that causes the central mess of the movie — Zhenya is literally able to access Nadya’s Leningrad apartment with the key to his strikingly similar Moscow one. 

I won’t pretend that it’s the most amazing film I’ve ever seen, but it’s a great movie with a novel (yet not entirely implausible) plot, and it’s on YouTube with English subtitles if you’ve got three hours and four minutes to kill. It’s also been an obligatory component of ringing in the New Year in my household for as long as I can remember.

However, last year, in the midst of our first pandemic holiday season, for the life of us, we simply could not finish the movie. The jaunty, animated introduction showing the pitfalls of bureaucratic conventions, the drunken moans of the protagonist and the melancholic poetry against the backdrop of howling wind and snow was a bit too much after months and months of routine in the same surroundings, day after day after day. Sitting in front of the television we had frequented so much over the past months, in the home that additionally functioned as a workspace and university, I don’t even think we made it past the first half of the movie. We knew  that same sort of lackluster repetition all too well. 

I suppose the uniformity central to its story proved a little too startling of a déjà vu for us then. But this year, even though we continue to live in a highly volatile pandemic, we managed to enjoy it. 

Now, if I’m being completely frank, up until this past New Year’s Eve, even during those long-gone “normal” times, I’d never actually seen the movie from start to finish. I knew the basic plot, but even with English subtitles, I never found it particularly engaging.

Of course, I still rely on the subtitles for the finer details, but I suppose I’ve reached an age and level of Russian language proficiency where I’m better able to appreciate the movie. With nearly two years of living through lockdowns and other restrictions also comes a bit more patience and an understanding of the torment of sameness and monotony. I can value the movie as a whole more, but I can also empathize with its deeper, non-satirical themes and messages. 

Believe it or not, there’s more to this Soviet classic than drunkenness, winter and bureaucratically enforced uniformity (there’s also an abundance of acoustic guitar songs, if that happens to be your thing). These are all elements of this film, but it deals more with lofty notions: the nature of love, the volatility of human relationships, the rapidity with which our lives, no matter how mundane, can change for the better, then become worse, then better again. 

Humorous components aside, its overall mood is neither distinctly positive nor negative — it just sort of is. What happens, happens. Fate is the impartial creator, and as they seek to come to terms with the absurdity of all that transpires on what was supposed to be an average New Year’s Eve, characters can either accept what it stipulates, or storm out of the apartment.

Perhaps it was months of being confined to our own living space that made “The Irony of Fate” unwatchable in 2020. In 2021, although being cautious was (and still is) highly justified, maybe it was the ability to actually escape the sameness that made fate as a whole just a little more bearable.

We can’t ignore, however, that this sheer uniformity is what allows Zhenya’s and Nadya’s paths to cross. Had Zhenya not engaged in an annual tradition (although with a bit more zest this time around) and had infrastructure not been designed in an invariable manner, the duo wouldn’t have met. We wouldn’t have a movie we get to watch year after year, either. What ultimately transpires between Zhenya and Nadya is up to you to see (or Google). Regardless, the point still stands — we can find a newness, a novelty, a fate in repetition if only we allow ourselves to be open to it.

I can’t say that we’re living in the most hopeful times, but that’s just it — we’re still living. Things still have yet to go back to completely “normal;” it doesn’t mean that life has stopped completely.

Be patient. Sometimes exactly what you need unexpectedly comes crashing into your life when you least expect it. Or marches out, only to come back in again. Better yet, even if it seems gone forever, it doesn’t mean you can’t find it once more.

Maybe in 2022, the themes of monotony in “The Irony of Fate” won’t seem as recognizable. Maybe I’ll pick up the lyrics to the many songs sung sporadically throughout the film. Maybe I’ll be able to finish it in full a second time around — without subtitles.

At the very least, I’m going into 2022 knowing what I’ll be watching next New Year’s Eve. But for now, I’m content to leave the rest up to fate.




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