Bed and Sofa (1927, Russia)
Tretya meshchanskaya is a mysteriously lesser-known masterpiece of silent cinema.
Made allegedly in support of the state-sponsored anti-sexual freedom propaganda in the Russian society and also against the abortion on demand, Director Abram Room's best-known film Tretya meshchanskaya i.e. Bed and Sofa, ended up getting banned for encouraging licentiousness. In fact, the Meshchanskaya was removed from its title as it was a name of an actual street and the residents did not want to be associated with such "moral ambiguity"
The film, when released in the US, received an almost similar response.
Though it can be seen as a cautionary tale by some (The Association of Revolutionary Cinematography praised and supported the film), one of the reasons it became controversial is, I think, because of its amazingly strong and independent heroine. She silently torpedoes the very idea of an ideal Bolshevik New Woman.
The story is about a couple living in a cramped apartment. The husband Koila (Nikolay Batalov) works as a mason and his wife Luida (Lyudmila Semyanova) stays at home getting bored and going through film magazines.
Due to the housing shortage, they are asked by the government to take in a lodger. Lucky for Koila instead of taking a stranger, he finds his friend Volodia (Vladimir Flogel) wandering about and so brings him home.
The couple gets the bed and their lodger gets the sofa.
Luida is not too happy with the arrangement but as this is a typical patriarchal set-up, she does not have a say in the matter. There is a natural sexual tension in the house and when Koila informs his friend that he has to leave for a few days, Volodia offers to stay elsewhere. Koila, often arrogant and dictatorial towards his wife, is so sure of his 'manliness' that he laughs away the notion that his wife would ever be attracted to anyone else.
But that is exactly what happens.
Not only Volodia is much gentler than her husband, often assisting her in housework, he also takes her out on an exhilarating plane ride. This leads to the celebrated scene with spectacular aerial shots of Moscow the way it was.
Suffice to say that when Koila gets back, he gets the sofa.
While the men resume their friendship, playing indoor games endlessly, ignoring Luida. Here the film shares its themes with the other Russian classic, Chess Fever. Luida is driven mad by this complicated situation. Not only this, Volodia, now in the position of a husband, begins to turn the same authoritarian person that Koila was. Luida realizes that she has gone back to being where she started from. And then she gets pregnant.
The rest of the film is about whether this menage a trois will survive or crumble.
Bed and Sofa is a film mainly about splits. Between individual and society, men and women and people's sexuality. Room uses the famous Russian montage to emphasise this.
The starts almost leisurely. We are treated to the scenes of Moscow as it sleeps. It is then intercut with the couple sleeping. Throughout the film, the individual is pitted against the larger society, or internal with the external. Because Russia's Cultural Revolution is also underway, attention is paid to the working class. Director Abram Room finds poetry here too.
The homosexual subtext of the film might have been lost on the audience then but today it is rather explicit. Below, Koila is framed against a penis on a statue as he enjoyed his lunch break. His point of view cuts to a split-screen of the city from the top as he sees it. This signifies a split or multiple sexual identities.
In the next scene, we see Volodia, who has been asked to search for a place to find some refuge on a public bench while looking dreamily at a phallic structure.
Koila has a perfect solution to maintain privacy at his house. He splits the apartment into two portions by 'erecting' a screen in between.
Perhaps the most explicit acceptance of homoerotic comes in this famous kiss where Koila after returning from his trip pretends to be Luida. Also, notice how a shot of Luida 'splits' this scene.
The ending, that I will not reveal here, restructures this family in an interesting way while reconfirming this subtext.
The performances are easy, light, and what could be called 'modern' even. The three stars seem to have a grasp of each other's character's motivations and complement each other beautifully. Nikolay Batalov's Koila is a simple person, given to emotions rather than thought and essays this perfectly. Flogel's character is much more sly and one can practically see him think. His performance comes across as more thoughtful as a result.
But the film belongs to Lyudmila Semyanova, who handles her unusual, complex role with nuance. She manages to be simultaneously obtuse and transparent. A lot of credit here must go to director Abram Room who gives his only female character agency. There are many small interludes where we simply stay with her and observe her. This makes the audience consider her state of mind more strongly than any dialogues expressing herself would have.
The plot of the film is loaded with saucy possibilities, but Room and Semyanova keep it bounded in realism. It is due to this investment that when the ending arrives, its act of defiance seems logical and elegant.
Beautifully shot, edited and directed, Bed and Sofa is another Russian masterpiece that deserves more audience.