Abram Room’s Bed & Sofa, from 1927, is saucy and smart little gem, and was notorious in its time for its sexual openness. Viewed through the prism of 21st century mores, it is quaint and dated. It is ,however, also a telling look back at a time when one was only as free as society was willing to allow.
Volodia (Vladmir Fogel) is new in town. Our first look at him is as he pulls into Moscow on the train, looking to start a new life in the big city. As he hefts his luggage, and stares at a massive map of the city, he is clearly meant to represent an innocent; someone who is not yet insulated himself from the manic bustle of urban life.
Kolia (Nikolai Batalov) and Luida (Lyudmila Semyenova) are a young married couple occupying a dismal little apartment in Moscow. He is a construction worker, she a housewife, and Room doesn`t take long in starting to give some insights into their lives. Although Kolia clearly isn`t a bad man, he is portrayed as somewhat of an oaf; He wakes Luida by putting the cat on her head, and flicking a balled up bit of paper at her. It`s telling to see that she doesn`t really appreciate her husband’s sense of humor.
When Voloida enters the scene, it`s in much the same vein. Prompted by Kolia (an old army buddy), he just barges into the apartment, terrifying Luida. It`s only when she is cringing in a corner that Kolia appears, letting her in on his joke. Kolia then announces that his buddy will stay there and sleep on their couch – Luida gets no say in the matter.
Things calm down from this awkward beginning, and the three settle into routines, with Volodia sleeping on the sofa. Luidas’ reticence to his presence start to melt away somewhat, because he is actually a pretty good guy to have around the house; He cleans up after himself, and the extra income has benefits, as well. One day Volodia brings home a new radio, and this is seen by Luida as an important event in the household.
Then, one day, Kolia announces that he needs to go out of town for a couple of weeks. Volodia immediately says that he will move out, because it wouldn’t be proper for him to live there with another man’s woman. The neighbours would gossip. Kolia laughs this off, saying cruelly “Who would seduce my wife?” Once again, Kolia is not really trying to be cruel; he is just incredibly insensitive and obtuse. It’s not hard to imagine that this flippant sentence helps drive the events that follow.
Thrown together without Kolia, the relationship between Volodia and Luida undergoes a sea change. An innocent date at an airshow is significant, because it releases something in Luida. She has never flown before, and is clearly frightened as Volodia coaxes her into a small plane. She clings to him as it takes off. Then, after they are in the air, her guard comes down. Watch her as the flight progresses – Her fear gives way to wonderment and joy. My favorite scene in Bed & Sofa is of Luida telling Volodia that she wants to switch places with him, the better to see out the window of the plane. The film is not being very subtle here; the exhilaration of this experience lays bare the shortcomings of her existence with her husband, and it is the beginning of the end for the marriage. This is echoed in another scene where Luida and Volodia go to the cinema, and she remarks that she doesn’t remember the last time she went to a movie. Volodia reminds her of everything her husband isn’t.
Predictably, and scandalously, the inevitable happens – The two begin an affair, and when poor Kolia finally comes home, he has no idea what has gone on in his absence. There’s a sly little wink as he notes that his calendar hasn’t been updated, and he asks “Did time stop without me?” No, it sure didn’t. Kolia being Kolia, he also brings what he considers a gift – a basket of berries, and a command to make some jam out of them.
The film now flips into another gear, as Kolia realizes that his wife and his buddy are in love. Instead of the anger that we might expect, Kolia’s reaction is one of resignation and muted acceptance. He offers to move out, and even goes so far as to sleep on a desk at work. Luida takes pity on him one day, and invites him to come back to the apartment to sleep on the sofa. The husband and the lover have now exchanged positions.
In 1927 in Russia, Sergei Eisenstein was just getting started on revolutionizing the way movies were made. Although Bed & Sofa bears no thematic resemblance to Eisensteins work, it is likely that Room might have seen Battleship Potemkin and Strike!, and thus it’s not surprising to see some of Eisenstein’s influence seep into this film. Room balances the claustrophobia of the tiny apartment with montages of everyday Soviet life – Crowds of people in the steets, humming machinery, and imposing Moscow city-scapes. The juxtaposition of frenetic urban life with this intimate little romantic drama points up why these people might just huddle together, even in an imperfect situation. Perhaps that’s why these three people exist in this seemingly bizarre triangle in that little apartment.
It’s simplistic to say that is movie is an indictment of male chauvinist lout-ery, but there’s no question that the two male characters don’t come across very well. After Kolia moves back in, and the new roles get established, a funny thing happens: The two men bond again. As Luida works away in the kitchen, the two men play checkers and chat away, interrupting their game to demand their tea, or some bread and jam. In essence, Luida has exchanged one inattentive man for two.
It’s interesting to see how the topic of sex is handled in a Soviet silent film. The film is understandably restrained about overt sexuality, but in some other regards, it is brazen. In these tiny quarters, there isn’t really any privacy, and Room utilizes a dressing screen to illustrate sexual activity. In a comical twist, the screen, with discarded clothes hung over it, is a reminder that sex is going on at that moment – And both men get to experience it.
It’s not evident at the beginning, but ultimately Luida establishes that she is the strongest of the three main characters. She is the one who facilitates the three-some, and it is done out of goodness – She realizes that Kolia is struggling without anywhere to live. When she finds herself pregnant and is told by both men that she needs to get an abortion, she again doesn’t appear to have any say in the matter. She does suggest that they split the cost, which re-inforces to each man that she has been with the other.
It’s when she is at the abortion clinic that Luida finally steps forward and establishes her own morality. Silently waiting for her turn, she casually glances outside and sees a young child in a stroller, and this is the impetus for her to finally say, no, this is my life. She decides then and there that she will have the baby – On her own.
At its foundation, Bed & Sofa is about a woman and her awakening. Today, we can look at its message and say that it is a very modern and grown-up view of love, respect, and commitment, but taken in terms of the 1920’s it is audacious. It is from a place and time where societal norms weren’t challenged, especially for women. That’s what makes Luida’s ordeal here so affecting – Rather than let herself be bulldozed by her men, she steps up and says “I have some say in this. I refuse to be disregarded”.