Judge Brett Cullum goes into the "Iron Closet" and finds two guys, a girl, and a nice look at Moscow.
The heart wants what it wants.
Here's a rough one for you: how many Russian movies have you seen that deal with homosexuality? The answer for almost anyone is none. You I Love claims to be the first film from the former Soviet Union to deal with homosexuality in any way, shape, or form. I don't have the research capabilities, nor do I know much about the history of gay images and themes in Russian cinema, so I have to take the claim from the producers and actors at face value. Picture This! Home Video presents the film in a very well put together package, and it's our first chance to see what Moscow gay life is like. It is an eye-opening film in many ways, and it is surprisingly slick and glossy. The only problem with the film is a troublesome time line, and a very palpable tentative quality to any of the scenes involving two men. It seems You I Love is a little scared to be the first gay film in this part of the world, and it didn't get widespread cinematic release in its own country of origin. Instead, it has traveled the world through gay and lesbian film festivals, and enjoyed a major city release by its US distributor.
The story of the film is convoluted, but here's my best synopsis. Tim is living the life of a playboy in Moscow. He's got a stylish job as a creative director for an advertising firm that produces commercial spots for big American brands like Coke and Marlboro. His apartment is painfully well appointed, complete with books and the most modern art and appliances. He is even courting a famous anchorwoman named Vera who seems to love him a lot. Then one day he hits a young Kalmyk male (a nomadic tribe of people from Mongolia) with his car, and takes the boy home to make sure he is okay. The young man's name is Uloomji, and a sparks immediately fly between them. Vera is horrified to find out her yuppie boyfriend is physically involved with a homeless naïf who works at a zoo taking care of deer from Siberia. Eventually Vera softens, and a bizarre love triangle begins to form between the three. Together they all explore what it means to love and be happy, and come to startling conclusions about how they want to live their lives.
Olga Stolpovskaya wrote the script from her own experiences, and also borrowed a lot of plot points from the collective adventures of her circle of friends in Moscow. She has created what she refers to as a "psychodramatic liberation-deliverance"—which basically means she got a lot of stuff off her chest in making You I Love. She directed the picture with her artistic partner, Dimitry Troitsky. This was their first full length feature, although the pair had extensive backgrounds in making short films, commercials, and music videos. Their past work seems to influence You I Love in extreme ways. The imagery they use is sophisticated, and the film boldly speaks a wonderful visual language. There are many images contained in the movie that will stick with you long after watching it. The pair of filmmakers engage us with sophisticated visual metaphors, from recurring visions of apples (the forbidden fruit) to the contrast of a man walking down a busy street with a deer (a study in isolation). Quick edits, sumptuous production values, cunning use of pop songs, and tricky camera moves make the film a visual feast. I was shocked to see how the whole movie could have been an episode of Sex and the City directed by Baz Luhrman (Moulin Rouge). Had the characters not been speaking Russian, I would have mistaken the movie for a Western project.
You I Love is a strong first feature that feels quite assured, but it does have its flaws. The movie falters in the emotional department. Tim is such a strange, impenetrable character that the audience will find it hard to believe that both Vera and Uloomji fall for him and compete for his affections. Maybe it's the cool-as-hell apartment he owns, but Tim rarely shows much emotion or even physical heat. Meanwhile, we only truly get to know Vera very well as the story progresses. I assume the fact that the scriptwriter is a woman meant she identified most personally with the female lead, so she ends up being the narrator of the piece and the fulcrum which balances the stories of both men. Uloomji is painted in broad racial stereotypes, but the half Russian-half Chinese man who plays him is endearing. I was almost reminded of Chuck and Buck, a similar US film where a simple man gets a crush on a yuppie. He is the innocent caught for the first time in the drama of the big city. All three leads do an admirable job even with the obstacles they face, and they are all extremely attractive.
A strange choice in the film is the characters' sexual identities. Nobody in the cast is unapologetically gay; and during a sequence where Tim and Vera go to a gay party, it's Vera who gets some action going with a blonde muscular stud. It would be a rare case for a woman to find physical contact at a gay function, and You I Love seems to keep everything extremely gray instead of flamboyantly gay. The actress playing Vera is shown in several love sequences with Tim that are rather steamy; in contrast, whenever Tim and Uloomji get together they keep their clothes on—even in the shower. Don't let the provocative cover photo with the "hot gay film" quote fool you—all the sex scenes involving two men are restrained down to a PG level. There are still more shots of breasts than anything else in this movie, as if it were a gay fable envisioned for a straight palate. The very idea that Tim would want to have a woman and a man in his life seems to be unsettling, merely because it avoids labeling Tim as truly gay. Films often resort to bisexuality when they don't want to offend anybody. Here, You I Love is trying to be a gay film when ultimately it falls into the more socially acceptable bisexual label.
Strangely enough for a story about two men falling in love, it's Lubov Tolkalina as Vera who punches through all of the visual splendor to walk away with the most revealing and truthful performance. Her hurt and longing as she watches Tim spiral out of control as he seeks out pleasures that exclude her is quite powerful. Her slick anchorwoman persona crumbles nicely, in contrast to Tim's hard veneer and Uloomji's innocence. Movies are about characters going from point A to point B, and Vera is the one who actually changes the most, even though she has no sexual revelations. But in the end that is what the film is about. It's a meditation on love more than anything else, and her soul-searching gives You I Love emotional heft. The film explores what homosexuality means to all three characters, but the woman in the story is the one most affected.
I was reading a press kit for the film, and it mentioned that Vera catches Tim with the other man on their one year anniversary. Here it was in print, and yet I had a hard time getting a sense of time from the movie itself. It seemed to me they were only a couple of dates into the relationship, and I was actually thinking that would be more believable to me. I could see accepting someone's bisexuality a couple of dates into a relationship rather than after twelve months. The film's stylistic choices are so strong it impedes clear storytelling in some cases. You I Love has a brisk kinetic pace with quick edits and montages that make the narrative seem secondary. The movie looks striking, but it loses some of its impact.
Still, all in all, I have to say You I Love is an interesting movie that should be revealing to anyone that has no idea how truly Westernized Moscow has become. Gay audiences will find it an interesting entry in the genre, and straight viewers will admire the visuals of a city rarely seen in motion pictures. Everyone will be thrilled by You I Love's most impressive asset—its visuals and use of design. Check it out for the cinematography and the technical merits, all of which the film excels in. It feels revolutionary, even if the gay angle gets a little muddied for the sake of not alienating Russian audiences by placing most of the emphasis on bisexuality. Hopefully this will mark the beginning of more independent features coming out of Russia, where for a long time (until the early '80s) most films were produced and approved by the State. With You I Love, Pandora's box has been opened, and now we can see if more gay filmmakers will release movies from behind the former Iron Curtain and reveal what has been hiding in the Iron Closet.
The DVD Picture This! Home Video has released contains a very clear, well delivered transfer of the movie. Color palettes are rendered sharply, and only minimal edge enhancement crops up now and then. The audio mix is an aggressive 5.1 affair which creates a nice accompaniment to the exquisite visuals. Extras include great interviews, outtakes from the film set to music, and some looks at the behind-the-scenes shooting of the film. The menus are strikingly handsome as well, incorporating the apple themes often seen in the movie. I look forward to more of their efforts, as they seem to be a rather young company with an interesting slate of artistic foreign films that do not get wide release here in the US. If You I Love is any indication, they take their commitment to art house cinema quite seriously.
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