Remember the days when there were no word processors and computers? ‘It was twenty years ago today,’ maybe a bit longer, when everybody used to write with a pen and some people did nothing else but interpret another person’s handwriting. Such a job was called ‘typist,’ and the French-Russian 1994 production Katya Ismailova by Hipsters director Valeri Todorovsky tells the story of one in the difficult early post-Soviet years.
Together with Pavel Lungin’s Taxi Blues, Yuri Mamin’s Window To Paris, and Todorovsky’s sophomore effort Love, the film is one of a number of noteworthy collaborations between the two countries from that era. Sometimes also carrying the somewhat misleading title Moscow Nights, it is an adaptation of an 1864 novella by Nikolai Leskov that already inspired Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich to write his opera Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk much earlier.
The movie boasts an impressive cast. Alisa Freyndlikh, a renowned Soviet actress, is probably known to Western audiences for her role in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Vladimir Mashkov owes his fame to Tycoon, The Edge, Behind Enemy Lines, and Mission: Impossible – Phantom Protocol. Lithuanian Ingeborga Dapkunaite has appeared alongside such Hollywood luminaries as Brad Pitt (in Seven Years In Tibet) and Tom Cruise (in the first Mission: Impossible part), as well as in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oscar-winning drama Burnt By The Sun.
Todorovsky’s work can’t be described as anything but a tragedy. Katya (Dapkunaite) is a young and attractive, although initially slightly mousy married woman. She is stuck in a loveless marriage to the mama’s boy Mitya (Alexander Feklistov). Our heroine works for his tyrannous mother, the famous writer Irina Dmitrievna (Freyndlikh). Everything changes, however, when the attractive workman Sergei (Mashkov) arrives at their place to restore the author’s old furniture and Katya and he immediately take a liking to each other.
The movie moves slowly, sometimes as molasses, and offers little hope for a happy ending. At times, it might even be described as a dragging reverse film noir, but one with an interesting psychology. With his devilish brute charm and handsome looks, the womanizing Sergei debauches Katya as if she were the male hero of a Hitchcock offering seduced by the blonde femme fatale. She doesn’t realize what she’s in for until it’s much too late – and there is no way out for her and not even the local cop Romanov (Yuri Kuznetsov) wants to help her.
Katya Ismailova certainly has its lengths, especially when compared to modern movies. Part of it can be attributed to a young director still feeling his way through feature filmmaking. His more recent nostalgia musical Hipsters from 2008 has a much better pacing than his junior effort. It looks more polished as well, thanks to a higher budget and better working conditions than those the young Todorovsky must have experienced as an up-and-coming director under the Yeltsin régime.
Some of the issues of Katya Ismailova are therefore also related to the era. At the time, Russian cinema struggled as much as the whole country did in general. For the most part, the movies lacked the necessary funds and usually also in direction, unsure whether to continue the artistic Soviet way or go for a more commercial Western approach. That is why Katya Ismailova, although flawed, is an interesting document. It represents the zeitgeist of these years, when Russian filmmakers had to reach out to the French to shoot their movies.