Dmitrii Fiks: Balzac Age, or All Men are Bast… (Bal'zakovskii vozrast, ili Vse muzhiki svo…, 2004-5)

reviewed by Dawn Seckler© 2006

Sex in a Russian City


On 20 January 2004, the Russian television station NTV began airing two episodes of Darren Star’s Sex and the City nightly from Monday to Thursday each week. For aficionados of the show unable to commit to a daily viewing schedule from 11:45pm-1:00am, DVDs have long been available at every corner kiosk. Candace Bushnell's book, on which the HBO-produced show is based, is also readily available in prominent Moscow and St. Petersburg bookstores. The result: Russian women (and plenty of men) are as familiar with the intimate affairs of Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha as they are with those of their own friends, if not more so. The popularity of Sex and the City (1998-2004) has spurred a rise in hip, urbane, sexy and fashion-conscious texts, both literary and televisual. Russian “chick lit” crowds the shelves at bookstores and several television shows have attempted to mimic Star’s international hit. [1]

One such show, Balzac Age, or All Men are Bast…, as in bastards, directed by Dmitrii Fiks, debuted on NTV in April, 2004 and ran for a total of 24 episodes over two seasons. This Russian answer to the Sex and the City phenomenon tracks the romantic adventures of four single, female friends—Vera, Sonia, Alla, and Iulia—all of whom are well into the Balzac Age, a euphemism for women over 30. Like their New York counterparts, each of these women sports her own artificial hair color, has her own fashion style, and is primarily characterized by a unique set of neuroses that influences her perception of men and relationships. The women meet at such fashionable Moscow cafes as KofeMania, Etazh, and Akademiia to discuss everything from erotic foot massages to financial woes. Their friendship helps each of them to negotiate the trials and tribulations endured by the single Moscow woman.

Despite undeniable similarities between Balzac Age and Sex in the City—emphasized extra-diagetically by the addition of the tag “Sex in Our City” on the show’s DVD covers—NTV did not enter into a licensing agreement with HBO. Fiks has not simply duplicated Sex in the City, the way AMedia and Sony Pictures joined forces to produce the Russian version of The Nanny (1993-1999), imaginatively titled My Great Nanny (Moia prekrasnaia niania; dir. Aleksei Kiriushchenko, 2004-present). In this age of pre-fab television, Fiks’ show might best be described as a Russian variation on an American theme. He employs the same building blocks used to construct Sex and the City—comparable characters, an endless series of dating calamities, stylish settings, and a comedic streak to counterbalance the melodrama of romantic disappointment. However, one has to wonder how well these building materials fare in contemporary Russia, where the television industry is experiencing a change akin to continental shift and where the feminist movement stands on increasingly shaky ground.

The fab four of Balzac Age cannot appropriately be labeled starye devi, or old maids, the typical Russian epithet used to describe single women over 25. Unlike the stereotype of the unattractive, socially inept, and bitter spinster, these women embrace careers, dating, and the emotional support of female friendship. Nonetheless, it would be a stretch to consider them liberated. Not only does marriage remain the primary goal of all the women except Alla, who unconvincingly claims to be content without a husband, but the show also inserts each of its characters into an archetypal female role, thus refusing to challenge the limited social functions available to women.

Vera (Iuliia Men'shova), the mother figure, stands in for the Carrie Bradshaw character only insofar as she provides the voice-over narration that allows for commentary on and transition between each of the character’s amorous escapades. She is a psychologist and a single mother of one, who lives together with both her daughter and mother. The most conservative woman of the group, Vera is principled, shy, and follows rather old-fashioned passive-aggressive dating rituals. Vera’s “no” tends to mean “ask again,” “try harder,” or simply, “yes.” Alla (Lada Dens), the vamp, who works as a high-powered lawyer, exudes confidence, sex appeal, and a distinct sense of self-worth. Despite her powerful façade and ball-busting reputation in court, Alla repeatedly is duped and then quickly dumped. Time after time Alla is lured into the boudoir by men, who, she later finds out, are married, executing an elaborate con, or otherwise morally dubious.

Iulia (Zhanna Epple), the daughter, has neither job, nor husband, thus leaving her financially dependent on daddy dearest. A series of losers—sexual misfits, criminals, drug addicts, old communists, etc.—punctuates her quest to find a husband. Iulia’s naïveté and short memory, coupled with a sexual prowess best described as acute nymphomania, allow her to experience every jerk as though he was her first. She falls desperately in love, is taken advantage of, and left stunned and speechless as she comes to realize that yet another man has treated her like a disposable object. Something analogous to an abused, skittish, and hysterical lap dog, Iulia’s character is marked by high-pitched screams, shrill sobs, and tableau-like expressions of shock exemplified by wide eyes and bated breath.

The fourth member of this motley crew, Sonia (Alika Smekhova), plays the role of whore à la Anna Nicole Smith. Having received hearty inheritances from two deceased husbands, she lives luxuriously as she busies herself with the search for her next benefactor—an endeavor as time consuming as any full-time job. Although Sonia’s financial dependence on rich older gentlemen dictates her long-term plans, she does not forgo the opportunity to enjoy the companionship of an endless array of young, sexually potent men. Her two-story apartment provides the space to enact slapstick upstairs-downstairs mix-ups that often involve hiding one man on the second floor or in a closet when another suitor comes knocking.

Even this brief character analysis brings the differences between Darren Star’s and Dmitirii Fiks’ presentation of four single women into focus. The dissimilarity can be explained simply: whereas Sex and the City relies on a worldview informed by third-wave feminism, Balzac Age offers slapstick comedy through a male pornographic gaze. In a particularly disturbing plot twist, Sonia, when faced with the possibility of having to sell her deceased husband’s dacha, serendipitously receives an offer to prostitute herself to an unnamed oligarch. A humiliating interview that involves a tight, black leather skirt and a series of lower body undulations results in a split seem and an even more humiliating job, or so one would think. Sonia fulfills the male fantasy not only by agreeing to be met in a dark room, where she is prohibited from speaking as she is bent over a table and taken from behind, but also by reporting back to her friends that she thoroughly enjoyed the anonymity and receiving payment, and, moreover, that she—the prostitute (!)—feels badly for the friendless, self-proclaimed unethical and amoral oligarch. This is the image of the hip, urban, contemporary Moscow woman?!

Well, in short, no. This is a farcical representation of the ostensibly sexually liberated woman. Not the male writer of the series, the male director, or even the actresses seem to have any interest in offering alternatives to patriarchal domination, to the representation of woman as passive sexual recipient, or to the notion that the proper, respectable woman is coy, shy, and sexually reserved. Russia’s classic refusal of feminism is reiterated in interviews with the show’s leading ladies. Commenting on her character, Iuliia Men'shova says: “Of course, a career and independence are good, but a woman is created to have a family.” [2] And in case there is any confusion, Lada Dens clarifies: “I don’t understand feminists. It seems to me that those unhappy women are simply not lucky in life with men. Happiness is having your favorite man, with whom you hope to have children, nearby. I, for example, have two children and dream of a third.” [3] If we compare these comments to Sarah Jessica Parker’s, who observes that the characters of Sex and the City and the actresses who play them “reap enormous benefits from the women’s movement” (qtd. Sohn 24), we are left to wonder: does Balzac Age set out to imitate or to parody Sex and the City? Or, perhaps, is it an altogether false comparison?

Again, the answer is no. The comparison is apt and Balzac Age—from its jazzy instrumental theme song, to its characters and narrative subject—begs us to make it. Russia’s nascent capitalist television industry recognizes successful programming and seeks to replicate it. But with repetition comes difference. It would be surprising were this romantic comedy to embrace an ideology completely out of sync with the state of feminism in Russia. Whereas the Sex and the City writers benefit from feminist righteousness, Dmitrii Fiks and company are following a model that cannot be translated into a pre-feminist society. Furthermore, American television has a long history of representing the single working-woman, while Russia does not. In Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era, Amanda Lotz creates a genealogy that begins with That Girl (1966-1971) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) and leads through the 1980s and 1990s, up to Ally McBeal (1997-2002) and Sex and the City, in order to document female buddy series that “did not bind characters to traditional domestic roles and [to reveal] a common mode for comedic stories about women, particularly those exploring friendships among women” (89). The only cultural reference employed by Fiks is the untied shoelace of Vera’s romantic interest, Zhan, whom she meets on the tram. Every Russian will immediately recognize this allusion to Vladimir Men'shov’s blockbuster hit of 1979, Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit). The homage continues: in the fifth episode of the show’s first season Men'shov has a cameo appearance playing the father to Vera, who is his real-life daughter Iuliia Men'shova.

Unfortunately, the show’s simplistic representation of women is compounded by primitive camera work. Virtually every conversation among the ladies is visually reproduced as a shot-counter-shot sequence that place only one character on screen at a time. Rarely do all four women appear on screen simultaneously, thus reinforcing fragmentariness and diversity rather than bonded female friendship. The strangest shots, though, are those that zoom in on dairy products or grocery store signs: product placement obtrusively interrupts the narrative as the camera goes in for close-ups of President-brand cheese. The production values of Balzac Age, however, are far superior to many of Russia’s television series. The actresses do a fine job and get many laughs for their unabashed physical comedy. Hair, make-up, costuming, props—including the Volvo that Alla drives—set design, and an impressive set of on-location shoots combine to give the show a decidedly professional quality.

As the sitcom era comes to an end in America, it is just beginning in Russia. New shows appear with ever-increasing frequency and voice-over translations of foreign imports no longer dominate primetime. Amidst a television schedule packed with soldiers, gangsters, and detectives, conventional wisdom demands that networks attend to the desire of their female audiences. Although already off the air, Balzac Age deserves to be commended for its bold attempt to represent female friendship. Russian television can expect more female-centered comedic dramas that, hopefully, will contribute to the diversification of stories told about women.

Dawn Seckler
University of Pittsburgh


Works Cited

Lotz, Amanda D. Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2006.
Sohn, Amy. Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell. NY: Pocket Books, 2002.


Notes

1] Other shows modeled to a greater or lesser extent on Sex and the City include Don’t Fight, Girls! (Ne ssor'tes', devochki!; dir. Igor' Nikolaev, 2003-2004), Bachelor Party, or Big Sex in a Small City (Mal'chishnik, ili Bol'shoi seks v malen'kom gorode; dir. Aleksandr Krymov, 2005), and Bachelors (Kholostiaki; dirs. Ekaterina Dvigubckaia, Sviatoslav Vlasov, Pavel Bardin, 2004).

2] “Конечно, карьера и самостоятельность – это хорошо, но женщина создана для семьи”; Allstars

3] “Но я феминисток не понимаю. Мне кажется, это несчастные женщины, которым в жизни просто не повезло с мужчинами. Счастье – это когда рядом есть любимый мужчина, от которого хочется рожать детей. Я, например, родила двоих и мечтаю о третьем”; Allstars

 


Balzac Age, or All Men are Bast…, Russia, 2004-2005
Color, 12 episodes each year; 45 minutes each
Director: Dmitrii Fiks
Screenplay: Maksim Stishov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Nosovskii
Art Director: Iuliia Kozlova
Cast: Zhanna Epple, Lada Dens, Iuliia Men'shova, Alika Smekhova, Andrei Sokolov, Vera Alentova, Gulia Nizhinshaia
Producer: Dmitrii Fiks
Production: A-Pro Video, Motor Film Studio

Dmitrii Fiks: Balzac Age, or All Men are Bast… (Bal'zakovskii vozrast, ili Vse muzhiki svo…, 2004-5)

reviewed by Dawn Seckler© 2006

Updated: 04 Oct 06