Jolly Fellows -- Film Review

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Advertised as the first Russian film about drag queens, writer/director Felix Mikhailov's "Jolly Fellows" vaunts the brash, in-your-face liveliness of a debut film on a naughty topic. Despite some engaging perfs by a game cast, this curiosity item lacks the emotional connections and in-depth character exploration that could have taken it beyond gay and lesbian fests into the memorable territory of a "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." It has received limited release in Russian and the Ukraine and can hope to do a little more in a few Euro niches.

Travesty, explains an opening line, is an actor performing a role of the opposite sex, and on this respectful note the film takes us backstage at a Moscow drag show with a number of gaudily made up actors in sequined costumes.

Rosa/Robert (Ville Haapasalo) is disturbed to find his long-lost wife (played with neurotic charm by Renata Litvinova) waiting to take their late-teen daughter Sasha away with her. Mikhailov set up this paradoxical situation very skillfully, but lets the thread drop until it is unconvincingly reprised at the end of the story.

Next comes the age-old device of a journalist turning up to interview the actors, who tell her their individual stories in flashback. Two tales stand out, though both promise rather more than they deliver. Lusya/Dmitri (the intense Danila Kozlovskiy) is a strapping young man who drives audiences wild with his pop rendition of "Casta Diva," decked out in one of Nina Kobiashvili's imaginative Las Vegas-style costumes. (Madonna citations abound here.) When he inexplicably decides to chuck it all and return to his native village, he boards a train in full drag, then silently strips in the lavatory in a powerful transformation into a handsome man. He returns home to a traumatic scene: his father is dead and mom has hit the bottle. Instead of pursuing the consequences, however, script opts for his sudden improbable "outing," much to the villagers' surprise. Accompanied by a brief Bollywood-influenced dance number in which he prances down the lane, this flimsy solution robs Lusya's story of emotional closure and depth.

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In a lighter vein, Lara (Pavel Brun) recounts the story of how he once attracted the interest of a Communist functionary during the Brezhnev years when he performed as a gypsy dancer in a school play, leading to an amusing night in the bureaucrat's home.

Though dark things happen in the final reel, Mikhailov remains faithful to the upbeat, slightly unreal spirit of the film by turning it quickly into a fantasy before anyone gets hurt. Editing is fast-moving and camerawork professional throughout. The solid cast includes Ingeborga Dapkunaite as the kooky mom of a young trans, who comes to terms with her son's preferences after a quick shot of vodka.

For the record, the English subtitles on the print used to open the Berlin Panorama seriously limit the comprehensibility of some scenes.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival -- Panorama
Production companies: Survive Entertainment, Timeline Studio, Bokovfactory
Cast: Ville Haapasalo, Danila Kozlovskiy, Ivan Nikolaev, Pavel Brun, Alexey Klimushkin, Renata Litvinova, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Alena Babenko
Director: Felix Mikhailov
Screenwriter: Felix Mikhailov
Producers: Felix Mikhailov, Sergey Kostygin, Alexey Bokov
Director of photography: Gleb Teleshov
Production designer: Nina Kobiashvili
Music: Andrey Danilko
Costumes: Shura Turnashova
Editors: Inna Tkachenko, Roman Ishkinin
96 minutes.
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