Issue 36 (2012)

Karen Oganesian: Five Brides (Piat’ nevest, 2011)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2012

5bridesThis breezy romantic comedy, by Armenian-born director Karen Oganesian, best known for his film The Ghost (Domovoi, 2008), is dedicated in the end credits to “Our Grandmothers and Grandfathers.” It is not really a nostalgic film about the Great Patriotic War, however: it is far too conscious a fantasy for that to be the aim. It is a modern farce about love in the time of war, and it trades on the moment when the war-weary population was looking forward to life after the war. It is a gift to grandparents—or perhaps grandmothers—whose war was surely unrecognizable to them on screen here: war without violence, love without sex, honesty without deception, marriage without consequences. In this film, beauty is never sullied and kisses are always chaste, men are always chivalrous and women always knowing, danger is never serious and Stalin “is not always with us” (ne vsegda s nami). This is a conscious evocation of those much-loved Soviet comedies, and of early postwar American and British war capers where real threat was absent. Those anodyne treatments of the war experience were always much more about the reconstruction of human values for the postwar world, and producers and directors see life in them yet judging by Five Brides, or by the intended remake of the 1955 film Dambusters, and George Lucas’s Red Tails (2012).


bridesIn May 1945 a group of five decorated Soviet fighter pilots, stationed at an aerodrome in Berlin, are tired of the fight, long to return home, and are afraid that all the pretty girls will be taken by the time they get back. The entire film is essentially their wish-fulfillment. When one of them, Lesha Kaverin (Danila Kozlovskii), is given a 24-hour leave to return home to the Smolensk region, his friend, Vadim (Artur Smol’ianinov) hatches a cunning plan. He persuades Lesha to visit a girl, Nastia (Svetlana Khodchenkova) with whom he has been corresponding, marry her using his (Vadim’s) papers, and bring her back legally to Berlin as his wife. The stage is set for farce, when Lesha’s three other comrades persuade him to find them wives as well with the same ploy. Good-natured Lesha is fortunate to fall in with a tomboyishly pretty postal woman, Zoia (Liza Boiarskaia), who gives him a ride along the dusty road in search of Nastia, only to end up guiding his quest.

bridesThe film is dominated by strong, artful female characters who seem far more aware of what is going on than their rather artless male supports. Even our hero Lesha quickly reveals his charge to Nastia, who dismisses his witless attempts to achieve his goals with the repeated phrase "typical male approach." Towards the end of the film, when four of the female protagonists stand together to force a reluctant decision out of Lesha, Zoia adds: "that’s the female approach." Indeed, it is Zoia and the other brides, as Lesha accumulates them, who end up helping him to secure more brides for his comrades. At each stage, the law is not far behind (but always one step), in the form of a Ms Trunchbull-like commandant (Marina Golub) and a couple of local policemen. The police and the girls’ families are all hoodwinked for a short time, but quickly find out the truth and engage in protracted and frantic pursuits of Alesha and his women through barns and farmyards, with farm animals scattering in all directions.

bridesThere is no darkness or parody in this film at all. Like the old war comedies, it is played with a lightness of touch that is intended to elevate the viewer. It conveys a gently ironic distance from reality through the many farcical scenes, a tone set in the very opening sequence, a literal flight of fantasy. Two of our pilots, in sepia tones, engage in a dog-fight in their plane with flying (plane-less) German soldiers, until one German bestrides the cockpit shouting "Hitler kaput," heralding the end of their fighting days. Similarly, the entire “quest sequence” of the film, heralded by a map showing a plane flying from Berlin to the Smolensk region, is bookended by a small but significant vignette. A man clasping a large bottle of home-brew sneaks into a countryside outhouse as the plane flies overhead, only to stumble out at the end of the sequence with an empty bottle as the plane returns. An old man’s drunken fantasies? The village settings themselves are almost Constable-like in their idyllicism, full of haycarts, golden wheat, pesky bugs, well-fed villagers and recurring village feasts replete with drunken toasts and dancing. Perhaps the very setting of this idyll in the Smolensk region, a region that saw especially vicious fighting and civilian suffering during the war, is a further nod to the irony of this fantasy. The older viewer might also note with some pathos the predominance of women and absence of young men (other than Lesha) in the film.

bridesSuch viewers might also see a few gentle nods to the less harmonious sides of Stalin’s “Joyous Life” in this film. A bust of Stalin intrudes here, a portrait of the leader hangs there. Zoia’s discovery of the five sets of papers in Lesha’s bag causes her to detain him as a spy, a situation that serves only to highlight the buffoonish nature of the local authorities and to bring these two protagonists closer together in the face of that authority. Similarly, when Lesha and Zoia are detained by the Commandant, Zoia is scared that they will be shot, or worse, sent to Magadan. But Lesha’s assurances brush these fears aside. Instead, the film is relentlessly upbeat, sustained by Sergei Chuprov’s music, rich-toned folk motifs played without a break by the Khoron'ko folk orchestra, that match the earthy tones of the visuals and with nary a downbeat throughout the film. Their place of detention in the barn, like all the sticky situations they find themselves in, is a place from which they are easily liberated. The happy ending is as predictable as it is inevitable given the nature of this film, and again it comes courtesy of the brides. The final tip comes at the end of the film, when Lesha’s four wives aboard the plane for Berlin make Lesha go back to the airfield to get Zoia. They tell him that such love only comes along once in a lifetime; it is, one tells him, like a fairy-tale. Even the officious Commandant, who pursues them relentlessly throughout the film and eventually catches up with them at the airfield, ends up officiating at his fifth wedding, this time to Zoia. Her final salute is to love. Viewers of the film cannot fail to see the bittersweet irony of four brides marrying for convenience and a hopeful shot at happiness, and Lesha and Zoia marrying for love. The film telegraphs this irony with the motif of the traditional cries of Gor’ko! shouted by the wedding parties at each of Lesha’s weddings, a call he chivalrously resists until he finally weds Zoia.

bridesIn the film’s coda, we are returned to the sepia tones of yesteryear, as each new couple is captured in a photograph in poses that convey all kinds of uncertainty about their potential lives together. The certainty of Lesha and Zoia’s future is conveyed by Zoia’s assertive kissing of her new husband and a pose that foregrounds her confidence and inner strength. Tellingly, after the photo shoot, two men carry away the framing backdrop.

Frederick C. Corney
College of William & Mary

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Five Brides, Russia, 2011
Color, 104 min.
Director: Karen Oganesian
Scriptwriter: Iurii Korotkov, Irina Pivovarova, Sergei Kaluzhanov
Kompozitor: Il'ia Dukhovnyi
Editing: Sergei Kozin
Sound: Sergei Chuprov
Cast: Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Marina Golub, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Danila Kozlovskii, Mikhail Lomakin, Irina Pegova, Iuliia Peresil’d, Kseniia Ramenkova, Artur Smol’ianinov, Valerii Zolotukhin
Executive Producer: Aleksandr Malinkovich
Producers: Sergei Danielian, Aram Movsesian, Denis Frolov
Production: Kinokompaniia Solo Fil'm

Karen Oganesian: Five Brides (Piat’ nevest, 2011)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2012

Updated: 08 May 12