The literal subtitle is “With a Light Steam!,” the traditional cordial wish to anyone who is heading into a bath house.
This wacky New Year’s comedy from the USSR is an ode to accidental romance and to washing up for the holidays. “Irony” opened on January 1, 1976 to an estimated 100 million delighted Soviet TV viewers. It’s still a New Year’s Eve tradition with more new fans every year.
Here for Americans is the Wikipedia review
In very few words, in a very little nutshell…
Moscow Surgeon Zhenia Lukashin (named for physician St. Luke?) looks forward to a festive New Year’s night. He’s finally going to propose to girlfriend Galia. (Culture alert: Any attentive Russian viewer will know that Galia will not end up living happily ever after with our hero. And how do they know? Because Galia decides to celebrate with Zhenia alone in a cozy twosome. She’d like Mama to fix their dinner and then leave the flat to go drop in on her own women friends, to return home alone in freezing temperatures after midnight. I ask you. What kind of daughter-in-law is that??)
But before the festivities, Zhenia joins his buddies for their cherished tradition: meeting at the bath house for a good scrub and steam, goodies, and a philosophical heart to heart about the meaning of life. The lads toast Zhenia as “the shyest guy” in their group, for finally getting up the courage to ask Galia for her heart and hand. Then they gang up to demand that their timid bachelor down a shot of vodka to celebrate. Teetotalling Dr. Zhenia fights them off. But peer pressure prevails, sending him off in a state of squeaky cleanliness and severe alcohol toxicity to cope with Nadia, Ippolit, the city of Leningrad, and the whole cast of characters on his own.
It’s not a Bondarchuk epic. These aren’t heroes in a dangerous age, fighting Fascists or forging steel. The setting is mostly one apartment, with accidental acquaintances scrambling in and out in pursuit of their aspirations and fancies, ringing the doorbell, ringing the telephone, and ringing one another’s nerves.
At first viewing years ago, the film went right past me. Why, I wondered then, would the Russian-at-heart still bother to ring in the new year watching champagne foam like this?
But at tonight’s second viewing, the pieces of the answer started falling into place.
It’s All Dialogue
The whole film is conversation. The screenplay must weigh five pounds. The choreography of speech, its timing and delivery, are complex and close-knit. At Ippolit’s first appearance, for instance, all three characters rant and rave their own view of the same event at the same time. The mix of extravagant hyperbole and minimal understatement is remarkably tasteful, benign, good-natured, high-toned, and far more clever and cute than the clunky subtitles let on.
Our hero, in his cups: Driver! 3rd Builders’ Street 25, Apt. 12, 4th floor.
Cabbie: Sure. Even to the 5th.
Hefty Ippolit, who started the fight first: Let go of me! You’ll break my arm!
Surgeon Zhenia, provoked past all patience: Ha. I can break it, and I can repair it!
The nice guy finishes first.
Central actor Andrei Miagkov (as in “miagkii,” meaning “soft”) carries the entire movie in this plum of a leading role. He manages to emote his way from an alcoholic near-coma through successive stages of sobriety, chagrin (“Oh NO — I forgot my LOOFAH!”), flashes of boyish joy, and sincere resourcefulness in a cold world full of surprises.
The characters keep bursting into catchy soulful ballads.
“No One Will Be at Home,” “Along My Street,” “In the Little Train Car,” “Don’t Part With Your Loved Ones!” — c’mon, you know you know the words! They were instant hits. People still sing along.
Even the very opening, the cartoon wink at the history of Soviet architecture, was quite daring for its time and place; it must have struck quite a chord for a generation of people removed from their family home and land, re-assigned to live in boxes in the sky. Overall, this is a spoofy affectionate microcosm of Soviet-era people struggling on and on with the everyday exhaustion of anonymous architecture, bureaucracy, the logistics of travel and communications, winter cold, and urban loneliness. The characters’ solution and medium for living, like water for fish, is getting right in one another’s faces to share their Real Story. No, listen! Really! Let me explain…
Maybe people who really did spend their youth fighting Fascists and forging steel just like to hunker down with the TV and a nice crabmeat salad to sing “They waved their white hankies goodbye/And all of their faces were sad.” Maybe it’s human nature to enjoy a modern fable that somewhere in a vast country there’s a soulmate living on a street with the same name as ours, in a state-issue apartment that looks just like ours does. Maybe there’s still something appealing about a time of year that might hold a little magic and wonder.
This review is for the Steam Club womenfolk, good friends who for years have met every winter solstice to bathe at their favorite hot spring. “With a light steam,” Dear Ladies! Don’t forget your loofah!