A Cruel Romance (Ruthless Romance, Zhestokiy Romans) is a gem of Soviet cinema. Based on the play The Dowerless Girl by Aleksandr Ostrovsky and directed by Eldar Ryazanov, this is the story of Larissa Dmitrievna (Larisa Guzeyeva), a young girl from an impoverished family of the gentry in late 19th century Russia.
The film begins with the wedding of Larissa’s sister, Olga, who’s being married off to a Caucasian prince. The wedding is over, and Olga, obviously a desperately unhappy bride, is about to sail off to the Caucasus with her new, wildly jealous husband whose tribal culture is vastly different from her own. Olga’s future happiness may be doubtful, and while wedding guests murmur their amusement with the situation, the marriage is seen as a stroke of luck for Olga’s mother, Kharita Ogoudalova (Alisa Frejndlikh).
The Ogoudalova family was once considered the finest family in the region, but when the film begins those days are long gone. Matriarch Kharita lives on the family estate which is mortgaged up to the hilt. There’s no mention of Kharita’s husband, but she has three daughters. Anna is married to a gambler and living in Monte Carlo in somewhat desperate straits, and now with Olga married off, that leaves Larissa in the nest. Marrying off the last daughter is an imperative.
Kharita lives beyond her means in order to continue the facade that she’s wealthy, but her problems go far deeper than this. Kharita’s poor judgment is reflected in her dress–she dresses like a much younger woman, but even worse, she places herself and her daughter Larissa in a most morally precarious position by allowing married banker, the portly Moky Knurov (Alexei Petrenko) to give her money–sometimes with questionable objectives.
Larissa seems to have no shortage of suitors. Or at least it would appear so from the large number of men who flock to the social events at the family home. One of Larissa’s most patient suitors is the dull post office worker Yuli Karandyshev (Andrei Myagkov) who’s very easily made to look like a complete idiot by the suave playboy Sergey Sergeyevich Paratov (Nikita Mikhalkov).
Just as Larissa seems to on the path to engagement, fate intervenes. Will she be saved or destroyed as several males in Larissa’s circle take her fate into their own hands….
While A Cruel Romance is the tale of exactly what happens to Larissa at the hands of the men in her social circle, the film also makes a larger statement about Russian society and the erosion of the gentry by the merchant class. The Ogoudalovas are the ‘finest’ family around, but the mother resorts to fobbing off her daughters on the highest bidder, and since the girls have no dowry, they are sold off quite cheaply. Kharita must be held at least partly responsible for what happens to Larissa. Kharita’s carelessness cannot be blamed on either naivete or a desire to see her daughter happy. And then what of Kharita’s relationship with the married banker Moky Knurov? Does Kharita find it convenient to turn a blind eye to his intentions?
Ivan Petrovich is also a member of the gentry, and while he appears as a glamorous, dashing lover–a perfect foil to the stodgy Yuli Karandyshev, in reality, Ivan has plunged his family estate into debt. He owns The Swallow, a huge steamship and plans to become a successful businessman. Wherever Ivan goes, he moves in a self-created cocoon of splendour, action and adoration, but Ivan’s world is as false and empty as he is. Meanwhile while Larissa is courted and romanced, both Ivan’s and the Ogoudalova’s family fortunes are carefully monitored in a predatory fashion by the banker Moky Knurov and Ivan’s rival Vassily Vozhevatov (Victor Proskurin).
A Cruel Romance is a marvelous costume drama, beautifully acted, with a marvellous musical score, and full of gorgeous shots of the Volga. While there’s plenty of romance, it’s delivered with a bitter touch that’s certain to please Russophiles.