Issue 29 (2010)
Feliks Mikhailov: Jolly Fellows (Vesel’chaki, 2009)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2010
Despite being a relatively modest production (filmed in thirty days for approximately $ 1.5 million and released on only seventy screens in twelve cities), the premiere of Jolly Fellows (Vesel’chaki) carries great symbolic meaning since it represents one of the first Russian films to focus specifically and exclusively on the lives and fates of the country’s sexual minorities. A cinematic debut for television director Feliks Mikhailov, who is best known for producing the TV reality show Stars on Ice (Zvezdy na l’du), Jolly Fellows zeroes in on the difficulties faced by the most visible and oftentimes most vulnerable segment of the queer community: its drag artists.
By examining the lives of five queer Russians in a country where only recently the mayor of Moscow, Iurii Luzhkov, opposed the gay pride parade on the grounds that it was a satanic act, Mikhailov and his cast took on a topic rife with pitfalls. From the start, the film’s creator faced the danger of either trivializing or exoticizing his subjects—and the effect of either would have further entrenched tokenistic and offensive representations of same-sex relationships in Russian popular culture. Although not without its (sometimes lamentable) oversights, Mikhailov’s film nonetheless succeeds in humanizing the queer collective at the center of the narrative. More than a defense of sexuality minorities’ rights, the film also defends the right of people to live in ways they see fit, eschewing the collectivist mindset. By focusing on the ultimate outsiders in a patriarchal and misogynist society, the film serves as a sort of manifesto for all the misfits and outcasts fighting the straightjacket of mainstream culture.
The plot revolves around five drag performers who work in the same Moscow nightclub, sharing each other’s trials and tribulations as well as lipstick, wardrobe, and savings. Mikhailov—perhaps because he partially based the film on the times he had previously spent working with the drag community—capably depicts the nightlife with its adrenalin rushes, sense of camaraderie, and varied levels of intoxication. Aside the glitz, glamour, and partying typical of nightclub life, Mikhailov invites the viewer to consider the problems this motley crew faces in a homophobic and patriarchal society. Although some of the issues the protagonists face are universal (such as raising children and dealing with deficient parents), Mikhailov focuses on issues specific to the queer community, concentrating especially on the different and deeply personal paths that led these five men to their drag personas. As will become clearer below, Mikhailov is careful not to conflate drag with homosexuality; the men’s autobiographies presented in the film make clear that their decision to don women’s clothing did not have much to do with their sexuality. Even when the drag performer happens to be gay, Mikhailov directs the viewer’s attention to psychological and environmental motivators that influenced their decision to become drag artists.
The Muscovite Gertruda, or Gelia, (Ivan Nikolaev) and Liusia Mokhnataia (Danila Kozlovskii), the troupe’s youngest members in their late twenties, embody the relatively recent narrative of queer youth. Both characters tie their choice to transgress traditional gender/sexuality norms to the rejection of their respective conservative, heteronormative environments. Gelia stands up to the neighborhood bullies who demean her because of her interest in music and the performing arts. Fed up with the continual verbal and physical harassment, Gelia transforms into a blonde femme fatale and seduces the lead bully in a local disco, effectively turning the tables on his former tormentor. Through this small victory, Gelia adopts the female character from a position of strength. Unlike the urbane Gelia, Liusia hails from the provinces and although she enters the drag scene out of financial necessity when her academic career in the capital falls through, she remains in it because of the fans, the comradeship, and personal fulfillment. After five years on the scene, Liusia, however, decides to return to her native village to take care of her mother. But upon seeing the spiritual and material destitution of her childhood hearth and the sorry state of her now alcoholic mother, Liusia decides to return to her adoptive family in Moscow. More than just a performative act, Liusia’s drag character becomes an affirmation of (her) inner innocence and goodness. The older troupe members in their forties and fifties—Rozalinda Shtain, or Roza (Ville Haapasalo), Lara Konti (Pavel Briun), and Filomena Bezrodnaia, or Fira (Aleksei Klimushkin)—became drag performers more instinctively and for more inarticulable reasons. Fira most directly states that she adopted her drag character because it communicated her jovial and expressive personality; raised by a highly-placed Soviet general, Fira never lacked materially but missed the emotional warmth and a certain joie de vivre. Consequently, Fira is always the life of the party and never misses an opportunity to uplift those around her.
Although these personal stories engage, in most instances the motivations of the characters are clumsily declared rather than relayed in a powerful visual way. Part of this is due to the fact that four of the five drag performers literally narrate their stories to a reporter from a Moscow daily who is sent to interview them about their lifestyles. Moreover, oftentimes the conflicts Mikhailov raises remain undeveloped and lack a satisfactory dénouement. For instance, Liusia remains with her mother for only a couple of days before returning to Moscow. Their relationship is never examined nor is it clear why Liusia’s mother turned to drink: out of sorrow for her deceased husband, out of loneliness, or even out of quiet desperation for not having seen her son in five years? By deserting her mother all over again after being entirely absent for five years, Liusia hardly comes across as a victim in the situation. The relationship between Roza and her daughter is also frustratingly underdeveloped. Although Roza’s daughter is the de-facto manager of the club and seemingly comfortable in this “transgressive” nightlife environment, Mikhailov introduces a short scene in which the daughter demands that her father meet her prospective suitor in “proper” attire and in a “proper” setting. It remains a mystery why such discomfort arose in the daughter and why Roza eventually agreed to her daughter’s terms. It seemed like a nod to Mike Nichols’s The Birdcage (1996) that went nowhere. Toward the movie’s finale Fira’s boyfriend breaks up with her because he has just found out that she has contracted HIV during an illicit affair. This scene, so emotionally fraught and ripe for investigation, gets little further consideration; it is unclear how this seemingly accidental scene adds to the film except to distract from the central narrative. The combination of similar narrative dead-ends give Mikhailov’s film the feel of an abridged television production rather than one made for the screen. Although Jolly Fellows is relatively successful in stringing together a tableau of five different personal histories, the psychological complexity of individual stories often gets lost in the process.
What Jolly Fellows lacks in character development it compensates for byconveying the motley crew’s bon-vivant attitude and also convincingly expressing a sense of the group’s cohesion. In the vein of Stephan Elliott’s 1994 Australian drag cult classic, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, this drag queer collective manages to charm with their mutual care and affection. The comic element is derived from the interactions of the drag troupe’s five members. Consequently, the film fulfills its promise of being an untraditional comedy. The comedic element is thankfully not situational but based on the protagonists’ witty verbal exchanges; Mikhailov had the good taste not to overdo the scenes in which gender confusion plays a central role in the comedy. Had he done that, the first Russian movie about such a serious issue would have missed an opportunity to grapple with an important sociopolitical issue.
Another side-effect of focusing on so many characters is that the protagonists’ interactions with the (mostly) heterosexual world lack nuance. In the majority of cases Gelia, Liusia, and others face a largely hostile world outside the club’s makeup room. To deny this reality would certainly constitute willful ignorance of the perilous actuality faced by Russia’s queer community. At the same time, by reproducing only the fissure points, the film does not move beyond the homo-hetero binaries, pitting hetero and queer characters against each other in a battle of the wills. Structured on the premise of this hetero-queer tension, the film (expectedly) ends in tragedy. Roza dies at the hands of a man who seems driven to punish gay men for the sexual abuse he suffered as a minor at the hands of a pedophile. The remainder of the crew dies in their defiant confrontation with a band of working-class stiffs. While the heartbreaking conclusion serves to impress on the audience the ruthless realities of this segment of the population, it also recreates the ideological binary in which queer characters embody the principle of free expression whereas heterosexual characters by and large stand in for forces of moral conservatism. While this type of rendering can be considered expedient and valuable from an activist point of view, artistically it sacrifices a certain regard for individual psychological complexity.
The film does not end with a pessimistic finale. In the concluding take Roza runs in a white billowing dress toward her valiant comrades on a grass clearing that evokes Arcadia or the Elysian Fields. The friends, reunited in the afterlife, run across the opening, continuing to celebrate their zest for life and their solidarity. The ending—although bordering on maudlin—ultimately proves not only quite moving, but also works to underline the comedic aspect of the film and prevents it from becoming too dark or politicized. By ending on an optimistic note—if one can use this qualifier in this context—Mikhailov softens the edges of an accusatory tone, underscoring the friends’ indelible bond rather than their brutal killings. On a cynical note, however, this reviewer wonders whether the sentimental ending blunts the shock of the drag queens’ execution.
Although Jolly Fellows certainly does not reinvent the genre dealing with transvestites and drag performers, it represents a heartening step in the right direction for Russia’s cinematography in addressing the lives of the country’s sexual minorities. One hopes that Mikhailov’s gutsy debut encourages other Russian directors to tackle this controversial topic while dedicating more attention to fleshing out the inner world of the queer protagonists and treating their relationships with their surroundings in both subtle and forceful ways.
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1] To be fair, two other post-Soviet Russian films had grappled with portraying same-sex desire: Iurii Pavlov’s mystical drama The Creation of Adam (Sotvorenie Adama, 1993), and Ol’ga Stolpovskaia and Dmitrii Troitskii’s love triangle drama You I Love (Ia liubliu tebia, 2004). Thus despite (erroneously) billing itself as the first film to deal with the issue of same-sex desire, it would be more correct to consider it as first gay-themed film intended more for mass consumption than for the festival circuit, publicized as it was much more forcefully than the two that preceded it.
3] This shortcoming is no doubt the result of Mikhailov having to cut out approximately an hour’s worth of filmed material for the final version. While it is impossible to say whether the discarded material would have added to the psychological complexity of the protagonists, it stands to reason a longer version would have allowed for deeper psychological insights. See the transcript of Dmitrii Borisov’s interview with Mikhailov on the program “Poputchiki” on radio station Ekho Moskvy, 17 October 2009.
4] During the Ekho Moskvy radio interview, Mikhailov noted that his film was, like the drag acts themselves, an homage to, and adaptation of, celebrated and established cultural icons. He aimed, therefore, to “russify” the drag cult classics: S. Elliott’s 1994 The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert and B. Kidron’s 1995 To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
Shliantsev, Denis, “Gei, slaviane!” Vzgliad: Delovaia gazeta, 14 October 2009.
Jolly Fellows, Russia, 2009
90 minutes, color
Director: Feliks Mikhailov
Scriptwriter: Feliks Mikhailov
Cinematography: Gleb Teleshov
Composer: Andrei Danilko
Cast: Ville Haapasalo, Danila Kozlovskii, Ivan Nikolaev, Aleksei Klimushkin, and Pavel Briun
Production: Survive Entertainment
Feliks Mikhailov: Jolly Fellows (Vesel’chaki, 2009)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2010