A Man from Boulevard des Capucines

English Title: A Man from Boulevard des Capucines

Original Title: Chelovek s bul’vara Kaputsinov

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Mosfilm

Director: Alla Surikova

Screenplay: Eduard Akapov

Cinematographer: Grigorii Belen'kii

Art Director: Evgenii Markovich

Editor: L. Gorina

Runtime: 99 minutes

Genre: Musical Comedy/Western/Melodrama

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Aleksandra Iakovleva, Andrei Mironov, Oleg Tabakov, Igor Kvasha, Mikhail Boiarskii, Nikolai Karachentsev

Year: 1987

Volume: Russian

Johnny First, an early cinema entrepreneur, arrives in a forlorn Western settlement where he begins to screen silent films at a local saloon. A firm believer in the educational potential of cinema, Mr First soon transforms rowdy cowboys into sober and polite movie-goers and gains the love of Ms Diane Little, a local cabaret star. Their engagement upsets Pastor Adams, Ms Little’s unlucky suitor. The saloonkeeper harbours a grudge against Mr First as well: with no more drunken brawls, his income radically drops. To top it all, additional free screenings are held for women and Indians, both reaffirming First’s democratic view of art. As these conflicts escalate, the Pastor and the saloonkeeper hire Black Jack to gun down this recently arrived missionary of cinema, but the latter miraculously survives. Nevertheless, anything resembling calm is quickly destroyed by Mr Second, another travelling entrepreneur who, during First’s short absence, begins to screen morally degrading films, and the town descends back into violence. The film ends with Mr First, his fiancée and Black Jack all leaving the town in hopes of penning splendid new pages for the future history of cinema.

Released during perestroika, A Man from Boulevard des Capucines transposes a Soviet image of the Wild West, formed during the previous decades, onto the canvas of a late-Soviet musical comedy par excellence. This universe of merry drunken brawls, ruthless gunfights and capitalist ‘spiritual decay’ would enter Russia’s collective imagination as one of the last Soviet blockbusters. Similarly, the death of Andrei Mironov before the film’s release marked the beginning of the end of Soviet cinema.

One of the film’s awards was granted ‘for a truthful depiction of the Wild West in the equally wild conditions of Soviet filmmaking’. Besides a few items borrowed from studios in Czechoslovakia, all film props, including the cowboy hats, were domestically produced, thus creating the film’s distinctly Soviet-Western atmosphere. Another obvious example of these ‘wild conditions’ was Gorbachev’s simultaneous anti-alcohol campaign of 1985–1987. Resulting censorship on the depiction of spirits resulted in absurd big-screen images of cowboys sipping milk while watching their first silent shorts.

Surikova’s movie focuses upon the collision between different systems of image production and dissemination. From the film’s opening seconds the viewer is immersed in a universe so remote that modernity itself makes an entrance not via the traditional use of locomotives, but merely a delayed image thereof: Lumière’s Arrival of the Train. Encountering these new, enticing tableaux of civilization, the saloon-dwellers give up their cheerful, booze-addled self-destruction and approach instead the unknown realm of onscreen emotional experiences geared to educate their human sensibilities. As the audience for this pedagogical enterprise gradually expands to include minorities, control is seemingly lost over the population according to economic or religious factors. This loss brings new problems: with the advent of ‘lowly mass entertainment’, the very same audience, hoping for visual enlightenment, seems easily swayed by decadent images as it begins feeding on high art’s corpse. Ironically, it is now an outlaw who comes to the defence of culture’s lost cause.

Despite the celebratory comic mode of the film, its grim message foreshadowed future developments in Soviet cinema. Vasilii Pichul’s Little Vera, a blockbuster produced one year later, exposed these latent processes of moral degradation and civic disintegration. Highly entertaining on the surface, A Man from Boulevard des Capucines resists making any subversive political statements. Instead, we see a star-studded cast of Soviet actors playing with onscreen alternative identities only four years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Author of this review: Sasha Razor