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Image Entertainment presents
Of Freaks and Men (1998)

"You, yourself, saw the effects moving pictures have on common people. So your photography will die out."
- Radlov (Igor Chebinov)

Review By: Rich Rosell   
Published: December 18, 2001

Stars: Sergei Makovetsky, Dinara Drukarova, Viktor Sukhorukov
Other Stars: Anzhelika Nevolina, Vadim Prokhorov, Aleksandr Mezentsev, Igor Chebinov
Director: Alexei Balabanov

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nudity and mature themes)
Run Time: 01h:28m:58s
Release Date: December 18, 2001
UPC: 014381073126
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+AB+ D

DVD Review

Russian director Alexei Balabanov's Of Freaks and Men is one of those odd little films that creep up out of nowhere and linger with you long afterward, like an unpleasant dream. It's a sharp-edged examination of the dirty underbelly of turn-of-the-century Victorian society, albeit Russian, and how two wealthy families are torn apart by the dark spectre of sadomasochistic pornography. In this case, it's forbidden photos of nude women being flogged, and Balabanov introduces these images as a drug that seems to dismantle all they touch.

Like a well-crafted soap opera, the story moves back and forth between three groups of people, until their lives slowly intertwine and eventually collide. Radlov (Igor Chebinov) is a wealthy and widowed engineer, living with his grown daughter Leeza (Dinara Drukarova). Dr. Andrei Stasov (Aleksander Mezentsev) and his distant and cold wife Ekaterina Kirillovna (Anzhelika Nevolina) are the adoptive parents of Oriental Siamese twins. Johann (Sergei Makovetsky) is a pornographer, a murderous man who photographs sadomasochistic images of women in a dingy basement alcove. As the plot unfolds, it is revealed that Johann's sister works as a maid for Radlov, and that Stasov's maid is secretly purchasing some of the photos from Johann's seedy assistant Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov). As Johann's lucrative pornography business grows, he is eventually introduced to the concept of moving pictures, and his business then takes an evolutionary leap forward.

Balabanov's script jumps from family to family, at times intentionally confusing, but eventually the storyline begins to become more clear. The use of narrative title cards, much like those in silent films, is used often to relay pivotal information and to advance the story. The plot itself is decidely dark and unpleasant, and Balabanov does not shy away from particularly downbeat conclusions to storylines. This is a grimly refreshing period piece that does not feel bound to any type of so-called normalcy. I like that aspect very much.

Filmed in luxurious sepia, Of Freaks and Men retains an almost antique look about it, and at times it seems that we are looking at still photos somehow brought to life. It is an exquisitely crafted world, with set designs that recreate down to the smallest detail, with everything captured perfectly by cinematographer Sergie Astakhov, who stages a number of visually compelling sequences. The drab, unnamed village in which the story takes place looks absolutely lifeless, full of cold ornate stone buildings and smoke-belching ferries.

There is a treasure trove of genuinely unusual characters and performances in Balabanov's film, but the highlights are the villains. Bald-headed Viktor, all giant teeth and leering eyes, is the trigger that forces much of the tragic events that unfold as the story develops. He is an intrinsically evil man, and his treatment of the Siamese twins is brutally cruel; Viktor Sukhorukov submits a disturbingly memorable performance. Sergei Makovetsky's Johann, looking a little like Jeremy Irons, is a quiet killer driven by a sadly misplaced love. His scene as he sternly travels by boat to propose marriage, although dialogue free, is one of the stronger and surreal visual elements of the entire film.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Image has released Of Freaks and Men in a very sharp 1.66:1 widescreen transfer. The film is presented in sepia, rather than black & white, and that really gives Balabanov's the look and feel of late 20th-century Russia as seen through old photographs. The print is mostly blemish-free, though the few imperfections I was aware of only added to the ambiance. Shadow delineation and black levels are solid, with a nice crispness to the overall image. Credit director of photography Sergei Astakhov with an excellent visual recreation of the era, and his sweeping shots of the forlorn village are eerily beautiful.


Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Russianyes

Audio Transfer Review: A very straight forward audio transfer, presented in 2.0 stereo in its original Russian. The score boosts the depth of the soundfield quite a bit, and dialogue is mixed clearly across the front channels. I was relying on the subtitles considering I don't speak Russian, but I thought the audio track was quite full for a 2-channel mix.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: No extras, other than English subtitles. I would have liked a little background on Balabanov, or perhaps his other films.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

A most unusual film from a celebrated Russian director; dark, twisted and laden with strange and interesting characters. Balabanov moves in increasingly strange circles as he explores the lure of not just illicit photographs and films, but of the darker side of the human heart.



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