Ia liubliu tebia tries to be modern and breezily open about homosexuality. But, as Andrew James Horton discovers, its attitude to its Kalmyk hero is more stuffily conservative.
Olga Stolpovskaia and Dmitry Troitsky's Ia liubliu tebia (You I Love, 2004) is worthy of some attention if only because it has the intriguing distinction of being hailed as "the first gay-positive movie from [Russia]." Sexuality in general stayed firmly in the closet in Soviet film-making between 1917 and glasnost (a Russian film showing a sex scene wasn't made until 1988 ), and homosexuality was even more of a taboo.
So with its novel claim to fame, brisk and cheerful editing style and hip pop tunes, Ia liubliu tebia is a feel-good romantic comedy that should do much to blow away the cobwebs from the closet Russian film has been stuck in for so long. But while it should, will it?
Filling the void
A lunchtime pick-pocketing incident brings together Timofei, a spindly-limbed Moscow advertising geek, and Vera, slick and sexy anchorwoman for a TV news show. Both suffer from a certain spiritual hollowness in their roles as vanguard of Russia's head-forward lunge into capitalism. Their sex life also seems to have been eroded by the politico-economic reality ( a connection made explicit in a reference to a friend whose "virility depends on the value of the dollar").
Thus in each other the two find a perfect match. Vera even has in Timofei a partner who understands her attempts to fill the void through her addiction to food. Their passionate relationship is just about to reach the one-year mark when Uloomji, a Kalmyk lad who overcame homelessness by finding a job at the zoo feeding reindeer, falls onto Timofei's car.
|A relationship on the rugs|
Rattled by the state of the semi-conscious stranger, Timofei drives the victim back to his (Timofei's) sumptuous flat. Vera is not amused at the newcomer, and even less so when she finds the pair of them sleeping in an embrace. She takes this as an assault on her feminine power, a feeling intensified by her own doubts about her position as public face for her TV station.
Slowly, though, she starts to come to terms with her partner's bisexuality, even taking him to a gay romp and engaging in a steamy threesome with a stranger (overheard by a bemused Uloomji via a mobile phone). More than just revealing hidden sexual tendencies, Uloomji brings to the couple something of the spiritual side that they missed, and even provides the inspiration for a particularly successful poster campaign for Timofei.
But Uloomji's family are less than amused, and a struggle starts for control of the boy's life.
Different views of the body
Ia liubliu tebia gets off to a slick start with artful graphics, imaginative editing and atmospheric sound design. But as is so often the case with films that employ a post-New Wave tricksy-ness in the post-production, the pace slackens off quickly to a more conventional narrative, design and editing style, leaving the opening segment to look like a glossily attractive but somewhat misrepresentative lure. The same can also be said of the film's treatment of homosexuality, which, while bright and positive and certainly open, reflects and perhaps even reinforces Russian society's unease about sex in general and being gay specifically.
It is, for example, curious that the film falls into old sexual stereotypes by having several nude shots of Vera, while Timofei and Uloomji's bodies, although not entirely hidden, are not flaunted in nearly as provocative manner as Vera's flesh is. Vera's physical sexuality is highly stylised: one scene has her dressed in lingerie revelling in her body as she pretends, for the sake of shock value, to have just had a sex change, while in another we see a subjective nightmare of her own low self-esteem as we see her presenting the news naked.
|More of the female body than of the male?|
Timofei's sexuality is more introverted, even cerebral, and his body is usually shown in non-sexual situations or artfully obscured. Even when he does get passionate (with Uloomji at his flat and at the gay party) the clothes either stay on or we are given only coded representations of gay desire—a miniature bust of Tchaikovsky (Russia's most famous gay personality) rolling around on the floor while the composer's music blasts out of the stereo. This seems to follow a pattern in post-Communist cinema that "sexes up" women while portraying male sexuality as being more concerned with intimacy and friendship.[4
] Indeed, a beautiful sexually charged woman coming between a once-strong male-male friendship, with a "happy ending" that preserves the homosocial bond, is a cliché of "straight" cinema in central and eastern Europe.[5
The ethnic and the sexual
Perhaps understandably, Ia liubliu tebia codes the sexual other with a cultural one (or ones, given that Timofei's black American boss, John, also turns out to be gay). Uloomji's Buddhism, rural upbringing by a superstitious grandmother and closeness to nature allows him to introduce a spiritual quality that the capitalist Muscovites clearly lack, while his circus antics underline the fact that he is someone with balance. Thus, in discovering their bisexuality, the characters get in touch with their inner selves, and there is a charming ethnically inclusive ending that can be read into the film which sees Uloomji integrated into Russian life and "bad ass" boss John turn out not only to have a tender side but also to be able to quote Pushkin in Russian, validating him as "one of us" to Russian viewers.
|"One of us": The happy threesome|
But the multiculturalism of this ending is undercut by the treatment of Uloomji in the film, which conforms to old Russian stereotypes about people from the more far-flung republics of the federation. Uloomji arrives in Moscow fashionably dressed, clean-shaven and looking like one of the club scene crowd. But he's never seen an ATM before and tries to use it by inserting a passport photo of himself. The associations of him with superstition (he makes tea to scare away evil spirits), his background in herding sheep and his wonky-toothed, gangsteresque uncle draw on colonial attitudes. (Marginalised Asian characters were a mainstay of Russian cinema in the Stalin era and particularly war films, as they sought to validate the Soviet Union's rather dodgy claims to ethnic inclusiveness.)
If one were to be generous to the film, it could be said that Stolpovskaia and Troitsky lay out the colonial attitudes (as in the news report at the beginning in which Vera announces that gastarbeiter are responsible for 11 percent of Moscow's crime) in order that they can be exposed as false. But Uloomji is a cardboard cut-out, undergoing no character development (as Vera and Timofei do) and seems more of an accessory to their sexuality rather than a man with a sexual identity of his own, all the more odd since Damir Badmaev, the actor who plays Uloomji, gets top billing in the credits. The film, whose cinematography repeatedly stresses the monumental quality of Moscow,
|Man of the centre with a boy from the margins|
gives its voice to two members of the Russian cultural elite while marginalising the ordinary cultural, ethnic and sexual outsider. Indeed, Uloomji and John ultimately find acceptance only by being integrated into Russian culture, as if outsiders can never be understood simply on their terms.
A right-wing reading of Ia liubliu tebia might conclude that homosexuality, as presented in the film, is the preserve of decadent elites—senators and media types—who facilitate their pleasure through voiceless ordinary people, such as homeless immigrants and sailors. While a more left-wing reading would undoubtedly not be so harsh, these diverging views in sexual matters and the worrying treatment of ethnic issues create an ambiguity about the film that leads one to ask if it is not a conservative wolf dressed up in liberal clothing. All of which dampens Ia liubliu tebia's ability to be the blast of fresh air Russian cinema could do with.
Andrew James Horton
Printer-friendly version of this article