Review: The Man Who Surprised Everyone
by Tina Poglajen
- VENICE 2018: The second feature by directorial duo Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov tells a story that merges folklore and local humour with contemporary politics
After Intimate Parts, an ironic melodrama about middle-class Muscovites, directorial duo Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov return with The Man Who Surprised Everyone [+see also:
film profile], based on Merkulova’s memories of her childhood in Siberia. The film, presented in the Orizzonti section of the 75th Venice Film Festival, winning Best Actress for Natalya Kudryashowa to boot, is one of the most eccentric features in the programme, intending to convey a parable about ordinary Russians and their relationship with death, and ending the story with a surprisingly contemporary twist.
Egor (played by Evgeniy Tsiganov) is a state forest guard in the Siberian taiga. He is married to Natalia (Natalya Kudryashowa); they have a son and are expecting a second one. Egor is a respected member of local society, but upon finding out he has cancer, inspired by the story of Zhamba the Drake, the hero of a legendary Siberian epos, who tricked the Grim Reaper by donning a disguise, he puts on a short, red dress, tights, black boots, black eye-liner and red lipstick, and changes his identity to that of a woman – much to the horror of his family and the rest of the village.
Taking an unexpected turn, The Man Who Surprised Everyone, with its naturalistic form and a narrative premise revolving around legends and folklore, edges into the field of contemporary LGBT rights in Russia. In a country where “LGBT propaganda” was criminalised a few years ago, the deeply conservative rural areas of Siberia are a lethal place for anyone who does not conform to the heteronormative imperatives of a heterosexual orientation, nuclear family and binary gender. Egor discovers at first hand that donning the wrong kind of outfit is much too dangerous to life in the village: Natalia, her wife, is devastated with shame, and tries to keep her in the house, her son gets beaten up, and the villagers start gathering menacingly in front of the house. Despite the violent attacks, Egor won’t stop putting on her dress and her lipstick; what she endures reveals the violence inherent in the gender and sexual hierarchy of traditional, patriarchal communities.
Half playfully, half seriously, Merkulova and Chupov construct the tale of the Man Who Surprised Everyone into a story that merges folklore and local humour with contemporary politics. Egor is not only a tortured individual who pays the price for living differently to the way others do; there is another reflection to be found in the character, bringing to mind the countless bleakly comical Russian narratives about the archetype of the naive, romantic idiot – someone who can’t (or won’t) learn from life, and therefore gets attacked and abused over and over again by everyone he meets. Perhaps by taking this unusual route in order to talk about contemporary issues in their country, the filmmakers find an especially effective way of dealing with the topic: by intrinsically connecting it to the heart of the traditional community itself, they show that it was never entirely separate from it.
The Man Who Surprised Everyone is a Russian-Estonian-French co-production staged by Homeless Bob Production, Arizona Films Productions, Pan-Atlantic Studio and Non Stop Production. Germany’s Pluto Film handles the international rights.
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