Nina (Anna Mikhalkova) lives in St. Petersburg; Il'ia (Mikhail Porechenkov) in Moscow. Nina is in marketing and advertising; Il'ia owns hunting equipment stores in Moscow. Both protagonists have good middle-class jobs and loving families, but their affair is a crash site of social contradictions neither character can resolve. Repressed and displaced desires are part of bourgeois family happiness, paid for by social alienation. In short, Smirnova presents contemporary Russian family experience as melodrama or, as one reviewer puts it: “One of her [Smirnova’s] achievements is that she realistically depicts everyday details of Russian middle-class life, the kind of lifestyle that can be found in both the country’s capitals—or, for that matter, in almost any European city, given the film is largely made up of interior settings” (Tom Birchenough, The Moscow Times).
In her directorial debut, Smirnova demonstrates a mastery of narrative that moves the film beyond being just a conventional genre vehicle. She replaces the age-old love triangle with a deconventionalizing love rectangle, with two of the protagonists traveling back and forth between the Russian capitals in pursuit of romantic adventure. The emotional economy of the protagonists’ trips to St. Petersburg and Moscow evokes numerous cultural and literary references, including the Aleksandr Radischev’s late 18th century sentimentalist travelogue Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, its realist-era novelistic relative—Leo Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina, and Anton Chekhov’s famed “Lady with a Lapdog.” Critics have also noted the affinity of film’s narrative stance with several significant films of the Brezhnev era, including Andrei Smirnov’s Autumn (1975) and Georgii Daneliia’s Autumn Marathon (1979).
Smirnova entertains viewers with several narrative red herrings only to return to the melodrama story’s cyclicity, manifested in characters’ endless roundtrips and futile attempts to find an exit from the traps of economic and emotional commitments. Il'ia’s friend Monia (Leonid Iarmol'nik) appears in the middle of the story to provide him with the ducks that Il'ia supposedly shot while hunting during his trip to St. Petersburg. Monia also brings a pike, a magic helper in Russian folklore, suggesting by this prop that the story of their affair might turn into a blissful fairy tale. The pike, however, is dead and its supernatural power does not belong to the bleak and slightly claustrophobic world of middle class happiness. Both protagonists are somewhat frightened by the possibility of change that Monia’s unexpected gift might bring and so they reject it, choosing to stay in the world of melodrama with its conventions of separation and mistiming. Monia offers Nina and Il'ia one more possibility for change by invoking God: when Il'ia introduces him to Nina as Monia, the ever-helpful friend notes that his name is not Monia but Emmanuel (the name literally signifying “God is with us” and in Christian tradition associated with Jesus the Messiah). The name of God, however, falls on the protagonists’ deaf ears and the melodrama follows its own course of longing for the “spiritual occult,” with its inability to satisfy fully this longing in the post-sacred world.
Lucy Fischer points out that the camera work by Sergei Machil'skii, perhaps the most interesting Russian camera artist alive, “lends a considerable interest to the everyday story. At points, scenes are filmed in very tight close up… At moments, the lighting is quite luminous adding a certain incandescence to the imagery. Often scenes are artfully framed by doorways, as when Masha peers into a room in which Il'ia is making a secret phone call to his lover” (KinoKultura 15). In fact, the excessive and self-reflexive mise-en-scène is probably the most important aspect of the film’s form, which, with the aid of Machil'skii’s camera, helps Smirnova tell her story of forbidden longings and symptomatic social illnesses.