Movie Review: The Girl from Petrovka (1974)

Early Goldie magic, 2d time’s the charm __ 7/10

The Girl from Petrovka

Minister: What’s the transition phase between communism and socialism?
Joe: You tell me.
Minister: Alcoholism.

Tag line: A Russian girl, an American reporter, the love they shared …and the country that made it impossible. Pretty good line, but as I say in the subtitle, The Girl from Petrovka is one for viewing a second time. After reading the Goldie autobiography, I made a special effort to acquire this VHS tape, which is rather rare but still inexpensive.

Directed by Robert Ellis Miller
Book George Feifer
Screenplay Allan Scott

Goldie Hawn … Oktyabrina
Hal Holbrook … Joe
Anthony Hopkins … Kostya
Grégoire Aslan … Minister
Anton Dolin … Ignatievitch
Bruno Wintzell … Alexander
Zoran Andric … Leonid

I had forgotten the role of music in the story, especially at the beginning. The protagonist, American reporter in Moscow, Joe (Hal Holbrook), is somewhat of a musician and loves jazz. Joe runs into Oktyabrina (Goldie Hawn) through his local Russian admin person Kostya (Anthony Hopkins), who knows what all the youth counterculture is up to in the USSR closed society of 1974. Oktyabrina—who seems to have ballet skills and dabbles in the arts—keeps a small apartment with others of an underground flavor. In an early scene, one of these others—a young man who’s probably listed in the cast but the name escapes me—plays an original composition on the piano for Joe.

Oktyabrina sets up the performance as a big production, going around and assembling the throng of apartment mates, young and old. Where the piano comes from, who knows? The director and writers do a fine job of seamlessly describing in the action what life would be like in such a society: the lives of most Russians take place outside the formal system; the so-called black market is the real market. Everyone accepts that the government is a Big Lie, but nobody asserts such a conclusion in public. Because that gets you sent away. In the music scene, and those surrounding it, one realizes that this neighborhood is more black market than most, practically exclusively, too. Oktyabrina has no papers.

That’s dangerous, because the whole premise of communist society is your life belongs to the state. Identification is destiny. If you have no ID it means you are defying the state and its whole web of deceit. It also means you most likely are engaging in black market economics. The Girl from Petrovka is perhaps one of the best movies for showing the true state of affairs in large Soviet cities in the key Cold War decade of the 1970s. [Much of it is filmed on location in Moscow, so you have to know the Soviet authorities who let the filming occur are threading a fine line between the dictates of their bosses and giving a true view of life on the streets.]

Oktyabrina is a bit of a pill, and you have to give Goldie snaps for bringing her onto the silver screen so effectively. Most people who knew Goldie Hawn as the skinny bubble headed blond in those days of Laugh In would not realize she had considerable skill in ballet and dance, in singing, and, yes, in acting. Her character is a flighty prostitute, to put no finer point on it, trading her body for the attentions and favors of many men, most of them older, and with some connection to the formal Soviet system. So they protect her, which shows in her motivation. But her character, rather than becoming cynical and misanthropic, appreciates the subtleties of all the finer things in life. Not to the level of erudition, but to a high sensual discernment. She has the charm of a little girl.

For example, on the occasion of the first meeting between Oktyabrina and Joe at her ballet practice she finds out thru bold and direct questioning that of the items of his ex-wife that he’s selling is a pair of black panties. Joe is intrigued, if not captivated, by this wholly unexpected waif. He goes to the bag of goodies and pulls out a hat, which he simply gives to Oktyabrina. Of course, this floors her, and she makes advances toward him that lead to visits to each other’s apartments. Hers we’ve already referred to, but Joe’s is a relative palace—with artwork on the walls, precious furniture, rugs, the product of his wife’s “occupation of buying things” as he puts it—that includes a bath. Okty now knows where she’ll be spending a great deal of her time for the near future…

Truth be told, following the relationship between Joe and Okty is a chore, getting tedious with one addictive behavior (mostly on her part) after another, and the resulting quarrels and other drama even into the time when he falls in love with her. Joe is the classic cynical journalist with the heart of a poet (and musician); he knows that Okty is bad news from every practical angle—she steals from him, she sleeps around, she makes awful decisions about staying out of harm’s way of the state—but she does respect him and is loyal to his virtues as a man seeking to lead an honorable life. Is there a point where she becomes thoroughly enamored of those virtues?

This is a movie whose making is probably as much the gripping story as the handling of the characters and plot. My feeling is that because the producers and creative ones had to step carefully in order to get the movie done, the result was a compromise sure not to please anyone. Anthony Hopkins plays a fine role as Kostya, but I kept thinking by the end of the movie I would figure out what his job was or why his character was included… and I never noodled it out. The same is true of a few of the others. By contrasting the affairs of Joe and Okty with the drab Soviet life on the street, the creators do provide one of the better cinematic references to the nature of the Soviet system: an eternally boring and regimented existence, punctuated by (often illegal) acts of genuine natural warmth of the people, surrounded by a giant prison complex—like the modern USA, only with less of the relentless glittering commercial images and sounds impinging on our eyes and ears.

The Girl from Petrovka is a good movie (definitely worth seeing) that could have been an outstanding one. Personally, I think if the leading man had been played by a Paul Newman or a Steve McQueen and the producers had been more willing to slay the Soviet beast with rapiers of wit and sickles of performance laying waste to the pervasive, malevolent banality of the state, Petrovka would be a 9 or a 10. Goldie was up to it, but she was obliged to tango with nonideal partners who did not ignite her grand spiritual potential. Then who SunFLOWerknows about the ideological fervor? [A movie in the same general ideological vein, which manages to be incredibly entertaining as well as poignant, is Moscow on the Hudson (1984), starring Robin Williams and Maria Conchita Alonso.]

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