There are an awful lot of New Year’s traditions, and all countries and cultures have their own special ways of seeing into the twelvemonth to come. Germans, for instance, have spent the afternoon of each New Year’s Eve watching a funny 18-minute sketch with British actors called Dinner For One, also known as The 90th Birthday, for about five decades now. It has become the most frequently repeated television program of all time. Similarly, Russians have had their own favorite New Year’s movie since the mid-1970s, a romantic tragicomedy by the name of The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath!
The wildly popular three-hour film by Eldar Ryazanov is the most successful Soviet production for the tube ever and hasn’t lost any of its fascination. Making fun of the drab uniformity of public architecture during the Leonid Brezhnev era in an animated prologue and as a key subplot, the two-part comedy offers escapism from the drab realities of Russia at the time as well as a criticism of the soulless uniformity of the Soviet urban landscapes it depicts. Maybe this rather odd combination is the reason why The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! remains a holiday staple comparable to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life in the United States or the aforementioned Dinner For One in Germany and other countries.
Zhenya Lukashin (Andrei Myagkov) is a mildly successful thirty-something surgeon working at a Moscow polyclinic and an eternal bachelor. Once he ran away from his former fiancée to Leningrad. A day before New Year’s Eve, he proposes to his young girlfriend Galya (Olga Naumenko). The two of them want to spend the night together. Not much later, Zhenya’s oldest friends pick him up to celebrate their annual tradition of going to a banya, a public bathhouse, together. All of them get drunk as skunks. The only problem is that the surgeon has long passed out and is placed on a plane to Leningrad instead of his buddy Pavel (Aleksandr Shirvindt).
Not realizing he’s in the city on the Neva, the well-oiled Zhenya tells a taxi driver to take him to his address in Moscow and finds himself at a tenement looking just like the one he lives in – and, more surprisingly, his key fits as well. Even the layout and furniture inside the Leningrad apartment are almost identical to the Moscow place he shares with his mother. When the real tenant, the schoolteacher Nadya Shevelyova (Barbara Brylska), returns home later, she finds a tanked-up perfect stranger sleeping in her bed – and her fiancé Ippolit (Yuri Yakovlev), a well-to-do, earnest man, arrives while the drunk Zhenya is still there. All of the surgeon’s attempts to get back to Moscow and Nadya’s efforts to get rid of him fail. The two of them are forced to see into the New Year together – and unexpectedly fall for each other.
The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! offers an interesting mix of styles and genres. It’s really a good old screwball comedy combined with a romance and musical elements, because the two protagonists each treat us to a song or two. Yet the movie pairs all those components with a sad undertone that many perceive to be the essence of the ‘Russian soul.’ What The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! demonstrates, however, is basically two things. First of all, that the Soviet Union possessed its fair share of excellent actors and directors, such as Myagkov, Yakovlev, and particularly Ryazanov. Secondly, it reminds us that great filmmaking doesn’t necessarily require thunderous special effects and editing at a breakneck pace. Sometimes, it seems, we tend to forget about that bit these days.
Although The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! lacks the gaudiness of modern blockbusters, the classic comedy never bores you for a single second, despite its running time of roughly three hours. The occasional tunes serve as interludes to take a deep breath. They range from humorous to philosophical and have since become an iconic part of Russian culture. Likewise, comic relief is brought to the table in the form of a number of people intruding on the couple in the making, be they Nadya’s colleagues from school, her mother, the repeated returns of her jealous lover, or a random party looking for a place to celebrate. The frequent buzzing doorbell and ringing telephone also add their fair share of disturbing the blossoming affection between the surgeon and the 34-year-old teacher after a period of initial animosity.
As soon as it was first broadcasted, The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! became an instant phenomenon in the Soviet Union. An estimated 100 million people are said to have seen the comedy drama’s original showing on the New Year’s Day of 1976, with over 250 million watching the ensuing re-runs due to public demand. When the film hit the theaters in a shorter version a couple of years later, another seven million viewers ran to the communist movie palaces. Although Andrei Myagkov had long been a familiar face in productions for the stage and screen, The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! turned him into a star over night. He won the State Prize of the USSR for his performance as Zhenya Lukashin, as he did for starring as timid, nerdy statistician Anatoli Novotseltsyn in another hit comedy drama for television by Eldar Ryazanov, Office Romance, alongside one of the grand dames of Soviet cinema, Alisa Freindlikh.
The director himself had already been well established by the time he shot The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath!. Tragicomic features for the big screen, such as Carnival Night, Hussar Ballad, and Beware Of The Car, were among the most popular Soviet movies since the mid-1960s and have also remained in the hearts of many Russians. The success of the New Year’s Day television drama guaranteed that could continue producing endearing works like Office Romance, The Garage, Station For Two, and A Cruel Romance until the end of the USSR. Yuri Yakovlev, on the other hand, cemented his status as a Soviet acting legend with his appearance as the jealous Ippolit. He had already been among the most beloved thespians in the country, thanks to his roles in Hussar Ballad, literary adaptations such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. His best-known part, however, may be that of Tsar Ivan the Terrible in Leonid Gaidai’s hilarious comedy Ivan Vasilevich Changes His Occupation based on a story by Mikhail Bulgakov.
New Year’s films are still incredibly popular in contemporary Russia. Part of their charm, of course, has to do with the fact that it’s probably the most important holiday in the country, because Orthodox Christmas isn’t in December, but in early January, and not everybody really celebrates it. That’s why Russians usually get their gifts for New Year’s. Yet the ongoing success of The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! is likely as much of a reason why movies like Evgeni Bedarev’s New Year’s Tariff or the two Six Degrees Of Celebration comedies by Night Watch and Wanted director Timur Bekmametov have mushroomed in recent years. In fact, the same filmmaker tried to cash in on the popularity of The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! in 2009 by creating a direct sequel starring Konstantin Khabensky, Elizaveta Boyarskaya, and Sergei Bezrukov, with appearances by the original cast of Andrei Myagkov, Barbara Brylska, and Yuri Yakovlev, and a cameo by Eldar Ryazanov. It grossed over $55 million domestically.
None of these modern New Year’s movies, however, even comes close to the magic of the 1975 classic. We laugh and we cry with the Leningrad love triangle as they go about their light-footed back-and-forth banter paired with a heavy dose of bitter sweetness. As despicable as Ippolit may sometimes be, he evokes our deep sympathy. All he has ever tried to do was to live ‘the right way.’ He doesn’t drink or swear. What it gets him is being left by his girlfriend for what he considers an inebriated ruffian. At the same time, Zhenya and Nadya both realize how unhappy they are in their current relationships and how volatile happiness can be. When the night is over, however, their romantic but surprising love affair feels more like a delusion than a Cinderella story. Heavy-heartedly, they go their separate ways again, only for Nadya to reconsider and fly to Moscow after Zhenya.
What, then, can we take away from The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath? To begin with, the movie will hopefully show those western stick-in-the-muds still living in the past that there are and always have been people just like you and me, even in the so-called ‘Evil Empire’ behind the Iron Curtain. The comedy drama written by Eldar Ryazanov and Emil Braginsky brims over with humanity. Apart from the laughter and the tears we share with Zhenya, Nadya, and Ippolit, we also deeply feel for these characters and the situations they film themselves in. As spectators, we’re hanging on the edges of our seats because we want to know whether the surgeon and the schoolteacher will end up together. At the same time, we pity Ippolit, the ‘fool,’ especially when he increasingly starts behaving like one in the course of the movie. As long as we suspend our disbelief, however, the message behind The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! seems to be that we should just try to live for the moment, for we’ll never know what tomorrow (or even today) may bring.
Note: You can watch the entire movie for free on YouTube in Russian with optional English subtitles, courtesy of the studio responsible for the production, Mosfilm. Check out the links to both parts below.