Notorious for docus and avant-garde features sabotaged by punishing running times, helmer Ulrike Ottinger stays true to the form with TWELVE CHAIRS, a three-hour-plus adaptation of Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov's oft-filmed early Soviet-era novel. A picaresque black comedy set in the '20s about a trio searching the Ukraine for treasure, TWELVE CHAIRS mines a rich vein of comedy. Pic is shot deliberately anachronistically, with costumed actors mixing with non-professionals in a modern landscape. More accessible than helmer's usual fare, "Twelve Chairs" could find a place at select fest tables, but won't be putting many paying butts on seats.
One fateful day, former aristocrat Claudia Ivanova (Svetlana Dyagilyeva) tells first her son-in-law Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov, then Father Fyodor (Boris Raev) that she hid her best jewels in the seat of one of the 12 salon chairs before they were seized during the Revolution. The two men set off on a race to track down the now-dispersed set of Tsar Alexander II-period chintz seats.
Vorobyaninov soon hooks up with Ostap Bender (well-known local stage thesp Georgi Deliyev), a con artist as slick as his multi-colored satin suit, who soon starts draining naive Vorobyaninov's meager resources. Vorobyaninov promises Bender a share of the loot if they find the chair, and they set off on the chase, Father Fyodor criss-crossing their path.
Some of the more entertaining set pieces include a scene where Vorobyaninov blows all his cash at an upscale joint while pitching woo to pretty student Lisa (Oxana Burlai), and a farcical interlude in which Bender poses as a chess grandmaster to pull a sting on some chess-crazy rubes. Often the wittiest lines are in the dry voiceover, lifted from Ilf and Petrov's book but translated into German. (Cast speaks mix of Russian and Ukrainian.)
Underscoring just how little the more provincial corners of the former Soviet Union have changed in 80 years, Ottinger and her team barely need to dress the small-town set in the Ukraine to make it look like 1927.
But if brevity is the soul of wit, "Twelve Chairs" is lacking, although many quirky, surrealist moments are provoked by the use of non-professional extras who seem unfazed by the period-garbed actors mixing among them. The grubby, impoverished-looking urban landscape, all peeling paint and smashed buildings, adds a resonance to the source book's satire on capitalistic acquisitiveness. These people seem to have little more now than their great-grandparents had when the Revolution came in 1917, apart from trainers and Coca-Cola.
Nevertheless, Ottinger films the terrain with great affection, bringing out its tawdry beauty and sharp Mediterranean (or Black Sea if you prefer) light. An acclaimed still photographer, she does own lensing here, favoring arty, pleasingly off-center framing and long-held, tableau-like set ups that create a curious sense of stasis in a film about people always on the move. Music is almost all source throughout.
For the record, original novel has been adapted several times already in Russia, most recently in 1977 with a 305-minute mini-series, once by Cuban auteur Tomas Gutierrez Alea in 1962, and once by Mel Brooks for a now almost forgotten, if not forgiven, version starring Frank Langella and Ron Moody from 1970.
Leslie Felperin, Variety, Los Angeles/New York, February 16-22, 2004