“I don’t want to do it like humans.”
The iconic strong woman is a character often portrayed in Soviet & Russian cinema, and a strong woman is at the heart of Aleksandr Proshkin’s 1992 film To See Paris and Die.
Middle-aged, elegant and attractive Elena (Tatyana Vasilyeva) is an admirable, yet coldly driven character whose one ambition is to see her pianist son, Yuri (Dmitri Malikov) get to Paris. She will stop at nothing to achieve this, and is fully prepared to use whatever means she has at her disposal to achieve her ends.
While her son, Yuri attends the conservatory and spends endless hours practicing at a piano in their apartment, Elena plots his success, and she knows that talent alone isn’t going to get him to Paris. She works as a hostess in some swanky faux-ethnic restaurant in Moscow, and there dressed for the part, she shepherds important KGB officials and their guests as they enjoy lavish meals in a sumptuous setting. One of the restaurant’s frequent visitors is a young KGB officer who guides revolutionaries through Moscow, sleeping with them as part of the entertainment package. Another one of the restaurant patrons is a middle-aged bureaucrat who’s on a competition committee to select pianists for the Paris tour.
Elena plots her son’s success but she’s hampered by the arrival of a new neighbor, Evgeny. Crude, obnoxious and intrusive, Evgeny, a jockey, makes a sexual overture to Elena that is summarily rejected, and this sets a course of bitter revenge. Evgeny, however, is immediately popular with Elena’s other neighbour, and this division underscores Elena’s isolation and refinement. Elena’s struggle for Yuri’s success is also hampered by Yuri’s love for a young Jewish girl. While the girl is respectful of Elena and certainly doesn’t want to supplant her role of power and control, Elena is sure that the fact that her son wants to marry a Jew will bury his chances for Paris. Instead, Elena concocts ways to sabotage the romance and cultivates Yuri’s relationship with the KGB girl.
Elena’s character is revealed through her relationships with several men in her life. She prefers to be in control in these relationships–whether it’s her son, the accordion-playing bureaucrat, her shady ex-husband, or her former lover and artist Solodov. And while each of these men see a different side of Elena, there is never a hint of weakness. Perhaps it is in her relationship with Solodov that Elena reveals more emotion and indecision. Even when Elena trades sex for favours, there’s never a hint that she’s humiliated or demeaned by men–it’s business, pure and simple. This all changes, however, with the arrival of the brutish Evgeny.
Some of the film’s best scenes occur in the cramped boarding house. Here, with a complete lack of privacy, neighbours are able to easily spy on each other, and Elena becomes convinced that Evgeny is a KGB spy. Elena is willing to use sex to further her goal, but it has to be on her terms, with her in control. She coldly metes out sexual favours, any hint of denigration is mollified by her total absence of emotional involvement. While Elena’s life is centered on her son’s success, she objectifies him, and drives him as hard as she drives herself, and in her treatment of Yuri she is merciless. In spite of her harshness, and her single-minded ambition to get Yuri to Paris, Elena is a sympathetic character. There are glimpses of humanity beneath her hard glittering exterior–her adoration of Edith Piaf for example. The film’s title: To See Paris and Die is significant. Elena’s ambition is to get Yuri to Paris, but she hasn’t planned beyond that. ‘Seeing Paris,’ is in many ways–at least to Elena–a symbolic, imaginative event. In her mind, she envisions Yuri there, and this vision leads to her destruction.
While the film is set in the 60s, two of the male characters, Yuri and the artist Solodov both have very 80s haircuts for some reason. I had to remind myself that this was the 60s in a couple of places. It isn’t easy to find a copy of this film, but if you are at all interested in Russian film, or the work of Proshkin, it’s well worth tracking down the excellent To See Paris and Die.