Bed And Sofa (Tretya meshchanskaya)
Russia (1927) Dir. Abram Room
They say “Two’s company and three’s a crowd” and this is has been never so true especially when the company being intruded on is a marriage. Of course, sometimes this happens voluntarily while one-half of the wedded partnership remains in the dark. But what if there was mutual consent between all three principals?
Husband and wife Kolya (Nikolai Batalov) and Ludya (Lyudmila Semyonova) live in a tiny one room apartment in Moscow, where Kolya works as builder while Ludya stays at home. An old friend of Kolya’s, printer Volodya (Vladimir Fogel) arrives in the city to start a new job and Kolya offers Volodya the sofa which upsets Ludya as their room is cramped enough as it is.
When Kolya takes a job out of town for a week, Volodya decides to repay Ludya with gifts which extend to trips to the cinema and a flight on a plane. The inevitable attraction develops which shocks Kolya upon his return home but after a while, the enmity settles and the trio enter into a unique relationship. Then Ludya falls pregnant.
Bed And Sofa’s release in 1927 was not without controversy, its frank and direct exploration of a three-way relationship being a bit near the knuckle for most sensibilities of the time, despite being totally chaste and innocent compared to modern standards. A year later, the Cultural Revolution would take place and the Communist Party would enforce a strict party controlled remit of “Social Realism” in the arts.
Many filmmakers of Soviet cinema prior to this, such as Sergei Eisenstein, would focus on the struggles of the masses, but this film from writer-director Abram Room makes do with just three central players. This focus allows Room to hold a mirror up to society’s problems and the unfair side effects of the (then) New Economic Policy on an isolated scale which arguably helps twist the knife of cynicism and opprobrium little deeper.
Despite the idea that Soviet Russia was a prosperous country under Communist rule, Kolya’s morning shower is water trickling from a jug while he stands in a small metal basin. And while he is at work with his meagre homemade lunch, Ludya is left to do the cleaning and find a place to put their clothes in a room with barely any room to swing their cat.
Since the notion was that the modern Soviet woman was supposed to be independent, Ludya was indicative of the reality that married woman still bound by the chains of matrimony. As loving as Kolya is, his attitude is very patriarchal and alpha male which makes Ludya’s attraction to the more polite and attentive Volodya quite understandable.
But the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. After the initial shock and hostility, Kolya finds himself on the sofa while Volodya gets the bed with Ludya but soon the novelty wears off and as the two men begin to bond again, Ludya finds herself ignored and twice the slave she was before, with Volodya being even more strict than Kolya.
While some people were too busy being outraged at the three-way relationship forming – hence the film’s alternate release title of Ménage a trois – it seems they missed the pro-female perspective the story was taking, portraying Ludya in a sympathetic light and dedicating the final act to her reclaiming her life and making her own decisions.
In some ways Ludya’s defiant response to the pregnancy, or specifically the reactions of her two partners to it – both men immediately decide not to have the other’s baby – has proto-feminist leanings and does more to support the notion of liberation of women than Communist propaganda would have audiences believe their policies do.
Room uses this pregnancy and the resultant impasse situation is has created between the two potential fathers to address the issue of the legalisation of abortion, which unsurprisingly was taken full advantage of. What is particularly upsetting is the primitive set up and how it is run with such detached efficiency by the staff, nary any outward display of emotion is seen from them.
As grim as this all sounds the film is billed as a satire and there are some choice moments of sardonic humour to be found. Possibly the richest of these, which would probably still elicit a guilty guffaw today, comes when the pregnancy is revealed and Volodya consults a calendar to see if he was the one on conjugal duties when the conception took place!
While the story drives this film the production values are astoundingly high, delivering a visual treat reflecting the unique Russian artistic vision. Beautifully composed aerial shots of Moscow show a smart and bustling city, juxtaposed with some fantastic intimate tableaux inside the print factory Volodya works at, and topped off with footage of a moving train from a variety of angles that are ahead of their time.
For actors with unremarkable looks, the cast are wholly suitable for roles requiring naturalistic, credible performances. Nikolai Batalov looks like he is better suited to comedy but has an earthiness about him appropriate for drama, while Vladimir Fogel’s chiselled features a flexible to convey both sides of Volodya’s personality. It is Lyudmila Semyonova though, whose trapped woman yearning to break free is the lynchpin of the whole film.
It says something that a film almost 90 years old still has a relevance to modern day society, made all the more remarkable due to the relatively strict circumstances it was made under. Room gives us an ambiguous ending suffused with an air of hope that feels like the right one, while signing off with a Billy Wilder-esque cheeky last line which hits the message home with gleeful wallop.
A delightfully wry and trenchant look at 1920’s Soviet Russia, Bed And Sofa will likely remain a curiosity to many film fans, yet its bold flying in the face of convention in the name of social commentary deserves wider recognition and celebration.