Issue 67 (2020)

Elena Hazanov: Mistresses (Liubovnitsy, 2019)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2020

liubovnitsyIn recent mainstream Russian cinema the concept of the mistress has often been articulated as an ethical crisis in the process of a transforming post-Soviet popular culture. In Moscow, infidelity has become a way of life—accepted and even expected—as a sign of social status, convenience or progressive taboo-breaking. In the early days of the oligarchs, men maintained multiple mistresses, ordering them in like take-away pizza. Now every self-respecting banker, clerk or minor businessman needs to have a mistress to keep up appearances. The theme of the mistress is everywhere, but up to now the narrative has been told from the male perspective. As reported by the fount of knowledge on all things Russian, RBTH, “according to official statistics for 2018, some 69 percent of women have a very negative attitude toward extramarital affairs” (Ryabikova 2019). Of course, everyone is curious about the "progressive" 31 percent. Bridging the gap between sociology and culture, a spate of recent films has complicated this highly categorical attitude examining infidelity from a female point of view.

The themes of cheating, adultery, lovers, concubines, mistresses and infidelity have become a constant source of drama in Russian cinema and television in 2019. Surprisingly, these are not low-quality melodramas but well-made, significant films such as Another Woman (Davai razvedemsia, dir. Anna Parmas, 2019); Fidelity (Vernost’, dir. Nigina Saifullaeva, 2019); High Above (Vyshe neba, dir. Oksana Karas, 2019); and Love Them All (Liubi ikh vsekh, dir. Maria Agranovich, 2019). What all these films have in common—aside from being “festival fare”—is (and I hate to make this essentializing argument but…) they were all made by women examining infidelity from a woman’s perspective largely for a female audience. They are all sophisticated films exploring complex situations and relationships where the cult of infidelity is not marginal, deviant behavior that needs to be moralized into prohibition. Elena Hazanova’s romantic comedy Mistresses is unique in its comic approach to infidelity with vibrant fantasies of vendetta, as some of the film’s best scenes with the jokes working largely at the male characters’ expense. The film’s female-focused perspective is refreshing, although audiences were clearly divided along gender lines, as is evident in the venomous online audience reviews by male writers; female “citizen reviewers” on Kinopoisk and Megacritic were mostly enthusiastic supporters of the film. Mistresses has clearly resonated with audiences to ensure 1.2 million people saw it in Russia with a box office of $4.8 million.

liubovnitsyThe lightly conservative ideology of many preceding mistress-themed films of the early 2000s has been that the transformation advocated by progressive forces undermines the traditional sanctity of marriage, thereby leading to the collapse of social cohesion. Whereas the threat of infidelity was expressed in Soviet cinema as a potentially career-wrecking scandal, no such anxiety permeates recent Russian films about mistresses. The surge of market capitalism and the oil boom have ensured that sex was just another commodity, without any moral admonishment, and that everything could be bought or sold. Of course, it was all very male-orientated with the paternalism of a resurgent nationalism providing men with the narrative of enjoying the privileges of glamorous escorts, keeping women as chattels without any legal or ethical social responsibilities.

In exploring Alain Badiou’s Ethics, literary critic Terry Eagleton astutely noted:

There is a paradox in the idea of transformation. If a transformation is deep-seated enough, it might also transform the very criteria by which we could identify it, thus making it unintelligible to us. But if it is intelligible, it might be because the transformation was not radical enough. If we can talk about the change then it is not full-blooded enough; but if it is full-blooded enough, it threatens to fall outside our comprehension. Change must presuppose continuity—a subject to whom the alteration occurs - if we are not to be left merely with two incommensurable states; but how can such continuity be compatible with revolutionary upheaval? (Eagleton 2003, 246).

liubovnitsyWhile venerating the pure love of the Soviet cinematic past, there is a paradox in the post-Soviet cinematic transformation around the narratives of infidelity. If communism rejected traditional bourgeois norms, why was cheating on your wife amoral? The Soviet narrative ignored the philosophical play and contradictory rhetoric, and demanded only prohibitions. The post-Soviet cultural transformation, which sought to ensure that the changes were radical and full-blooded enough, reversed the logic of prohibition and advocated an amoral, anything-goes cult of infidelity. But a more recent trend—as witnessed in the recent spate of mistress-films—is an attempt to solve this dilemma as a more radical change, not of just reversing the polarities from moral to amoral, but of altering the criteria and coordinates by which we measure change and transformation.

liubovnitsyMistresses is the story of three spurned, but cunning young women who meet in a bar, go on an all-night bender and miraculously turn their lives around and start a new movement that helps hundreds of women just like them… Well, that is the short, folky summary, but it is a little more complicated and thematically more compelling. Three women do meet in a Moscow bar at a point of crisis in their lives. They have just realized that the men they were seeing have been lying to them: they were married and had no intentions of leaving their comfortable lives. Ira (Andreeva) tells Masha (Aleksandrova) and Alisa (Bortich) about how cleverly she avenged her lover’s betrayal. Once she realized that her boyfriend, a professor, was actually married, she set up a meeting with his wife at the same bar that he was due to meet her and—boom! Masha and Alisa are impressed by the tactic and decide to enact sweet revenge on their married lovers with Ira’s help. And then, as a warning to others, they help scorned mistresses all over Russia to enact ingenious forms of payback on their foolish paramours. They become famous as avenging angels, and more and more women seek their services. But at the high point of their triumphant spate of increasingly cruel vendettas, they realize that what they are doing has gone too far. They pause and reassess their goals, and then they recognize that what they were always seeking was not to be avenging angels but to have meaningful relationships with people they love. While the conclusion may suggest that the film promotes a conservative ideology of the sanctity of hetero-normative marriage, there is a pleasing element of innovation that belies a typical romcom. This is not a world inhabited only by obnoxious men and a small group of marginal women with loose morals. Hazanova’s perspective suggest that not all men are pigs and not all women are angels, but that women make mistakes, too and can take things too far… and that vengeance does have its limits… Of course, the best scenes are the heist-like operations capturing and shaming the lying cheats at their perfidious game.

liubovnitsyWhile this is a comedy, it does show the pervasiveness of cheating as a social virus. Unlike the early days of the capitalist transition when wealthy businessmen and jumped-up bureaucrats tried to prove their power and wealth by the gorgeousness and number of their mistresses, the new Russia is far more democratic. Every common married police officer, university lecturer or office worker can have a mistress. That infidelity is so widespread possibly does not make it any better, but the transformation of ethical thinking may suggest that the hardline categorical Soviet attitudes may have changed somewhat.

Tat’iana Gurko, Head of Family Sociology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, suggested that “during the past decade, the family values of young people have been starting to exclude the expectation of lifelong marriage. The new generation, including those with children of their own, has loyalties that lie with successive marriages, children out of wedlock, cohabitation with unmarried partners, and even infidelity” (Maltseva 2014). Hazanova’s comedy on the exploits of superhero-like avenging mistresses is a dynamic take on infidelity and the limits of women’s vengeance that extends the transformative ethical logic of social relationships in the big city away from sociological data and into a satisfying, provocative comedy of bad manners.

Greg Dolgopolov
University of New South Wales

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Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. 2002. Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others, London: Verso.

Maltseva, Anastasia. 2014. “The contemporary Russian family: Traditional in word, slippery in deed.” Russia Behind The Headlines 25 July.

Ryabikova, Victoria. 2019. “How do Russian women deal with cheaters?” Russia Behind The Headlines, 20 August.

Mistresses, Russia, 2018
Color, 97 minutes
Director: Elena Hazanova
Script: Artem Vitkin, Elena Hazanova, Denis Kuryshev
DoP: Mark Zisel’son
Composer: Diana Arbenina
Production Design: Iuliia Kronrod, Evgeniia Rublina
Cast: Paulina Andreeva, Aleksandra Bortich, Iuliia Aleksandrova, Mariia Shalaeva, Sergei Garmash, Gosha Kutsenko, Iurii Stoianov, Maksim Lagashkin, Aleksandr Robak
Producers Artem Vitkin, Grigorii Granovskii, Mikhail Dvorkovich 

Elena Hazanov: Mistresses (Liubovnitsy, 2019)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2020

Updated: 2020