City Tales (Part 2)

Still from the film The Irony of Fate, 1976, Mosfilm Studios. Source:

The Irony of Fate – 1976

The Russian equivalent of Love Actually (2003) is the holiday classic, The Irony of Fate. Every New Year’s Eve since 1976, celebrations go as follows: Russians see the previous year off watching the first half of the three-hour-long movie and welcome the new one watching the second half.

The film’s singular career began on TV. Its January 1st premiere was followed with such positive responses that a second premiere, this time on the big screen, was scheduled for August 1976.

However some people are puzzled by the film’s mythical success, like film critic and editor at Seance magazine, Andrei Kartashov. ‘It’s funny’ he says, “because Ironiya Sudby (the Russian title) is actually a comedy but it’s based on a premise that’s very depressing.”

The Lowest Point of the Stagnation

“On New Year’s Eve, a man, after a drink too many, goes home to what seems to be his apartment only to discover that he is in another city and in the apartment of an unknown woman,” writes Anna Lawton in her book Kinoglasnost: Soviet Cinema in Our Time (1992). Add to that jealous fiancés who refuse to believe that the whole story was an accidental mix-up and you have Eldar Ryazanov’s most popular film to date.

“The residential outskirts of the big cities,’ Lawton continues, ‘and the lives of their dwellers, have become so uniform and depersonalized that this sort of mix-up is conceivable with a little stretch of the imagination. It is even conceivable to use the key to one’s Moscow apartment to open someone else’s door in Leningrad.”

Gone is the youthful energy of Krushchev’s Thaw and stories influenced by the French New Wave, of young people strolling aimlessly through the streets of Moscow.

Indeed, in Walking the Streets of Moscow (1964) and July Rain (1967), the screen is saturated with idealist characters, intellectual discussions and blooming bodies. The country’s renewal of hope following Stalin’s death, was further emphasized with intrigues set in spring and summer — a sort of visual reference to the period known as otepel (the Thaw).

The Irony of Fate, on the other hand, is set ‘in the middle of the winter, it’s like the lowest point of the Stagnation’ remarks Kartashov. The main characters, Zhenya and Nadya, both lead uneventful lives in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Like all Soviet people, from Krasnodar to Vladivostok, they live in standardized apartment blocks and own the same “Polish furniture”.

Melancholy, it seems, rather than depression is the word that best describes the ambience of 1970s Soviet films, and the cloistered environment of Nadya’s apartment where most of the story unfolds, only adds to the feeling.

Animated prologue from the film ‘The Irony of Fate, 1976, Mosfile Studios.

Lonesome Cities

For a few years now on my street

I have heard the footsteps of my friends leaving.

This slow departure of my friends

Is pleasing to that darkness beyond my windows.

O solitude, you are so stern!

Nadya sings these verses to a group of friends who came unexpectedly to partake in the New Year celebrations. Olga Fedina translated the poem by Bella Akhmadulina in her book What Every Russian Knows (and You Don’t). In it, the city appears like a crowded gathering of lonely people.

Contrary to early pictures, the urban landscape is no longer a place of togetherness. Real estate and the emotional standstill of city dwellers replace previous themes of youthful optimism. In the Irony of Fate for instance, the heroes have plans but no dreams.

Nadya plans to marry Hipolyte because at thirty-something years old, her clock is ticking and Zhenya, a doctor, has finally proposed to his authoritative fiancée. The future for both of them looks like a succession of predetermined landmarks and if Nikita Mikhalkov’s drama Family Relations (1981) is any indication, things are not looking good.

Still from the film The Irony of Fate, 1976, Mosfilm Studios. Source:
Still from the film The Irony of Fate, 1976, Mosfilm Studios. Source:

The later follows Maria Kanavalova as she visits her family in the city. She is faced with a desolate picture — her daughter recently got divorced, her granddaughter listens to loud music to drown out the adults yelling, and her ex-husband who left her years ago for another woman, is neglected by his children and an alcoholic.

There is one element, however, which redeems the desperation of Soviet films from the 1970s — and that is love. Despite its desolate background and melancholy characters, The Irony of Fate remains Russia’s most loved romantic comedy, evidence to the fact that love can still be found, even in a hopeless place.

Further Watchlist

  • Walking the Streets of Moscow, Ya shagayu po Moskve, 1964, Georgiy Daneliya
  • I am Twenty, 1964, Mne dvadtsat let, Marlen Khutsiev
  • July Rain, 1967, Iyulskiy dozhd, Marlen Khutsiev
  • Office Romance, Suzhebniy roman, 1977, Eldar Ryazanov
  • The Garage, 1979, Eldar Ryazanov
  • Autumn Marathon, Osenniy marafon, 1979, Georgiy Daneliya
  • Family Relations, Rodnya, 1981, Nikita Mikhalkov
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City Tales (Part 2)

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