NEP is for New Erotic Policy: The Third Meshchanskaya, or Threesome (1927)
If you think that hippies invented free love in the 1960s, you’re wrong. Russia was never particularly marked by high morality, and the Red October took its toll – fantasies of the emancipated mind were at times driving revolutionaries to the extremes. The sanctity of marriage was dismissed, and to get married or divorced became a piece of cake. The NEP, apart from the New Economic Policy, unofficially stood for the New Erotic Policy. On the surge of total social equality crazy ideas such as nationalisation of women were pushed to the fore and life in polygamous household communes as opposed to families was advertised (see The Tailor From Torzhok, 1925).
Surrounded by this atmosphere, in 1927 Viktor Shklovsky and Abram Room wrote a script, provocatively titled ‘Threesome’ (Любовь втроём).
It was a story about a printer Vladimir, who comes to Moscow, and unable to find a room, settles down on a sofa at Nikolay’s, the old friend, who lives in a small flat with his wife Lyuda. Nikolay’s business trip stirs up a passion between Vladimir and Lyuda. The husband comes back home just to find out that now he is the odd man out, but unable to find a room, he has to settle down on the sofa himself.
To take the edge off, the film, directed by Abram Room the same year, was given a neutral name The Third Meshchanskaya (Третья Мещанская). Internationally the film became known as Bed and Sofa.
However, the subject of the film did not cause such a huge sensation, as the Soviet public was surrounded by similar examples from the real world. The film was in fact just paying tribute to the promiscuous 1920s, when periodicals carried reports about the cases of two men turning up to pick up a lady from a maternity hospital, widely discussed “delicate issues” such as abortion and prostitution, and the famous trio – poet-futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky and a married couple Lilya and Osip Briks – started living together in broad daylight .
Mayakovsky was a passionate proponent of the Revolution, and his love for the married woman gave him another instance in which he could exercise his hatred towards old society with its bourgeois values. Briks also sided with Bolsheviks, and didn’t mind undermining the institution of their marriage in the name of the new model of society.
Now if you started imagining that The Third Meshchanskaya is something like Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) in the terms of explicitness, slow down. Openness of the NEP times also had its limits, so when it came to sex the creators of the film had to resort to metaphoric storytelling. I have to admit, they did it very skilfully and came up with something much neater than trains entering tunnels.
For instance, right before their first sexual intimacy Vladimir offers to read the cards for Lyuda to find out what’s at her heart.
The Queen of Hearts and the King of Diamonds turn up.
Lyuda looks at Vladimir with a smile …
… as his hand takes the King and covers the Queen with it. Fade out to black.
Consolidation of the metaphor: the cards are still on the table.
The characters are in bed together.
Another clever cinematic metaphor occurs after the ‘family reunion’. Vladimir sends Nikolay to get some buns for the evening tea-drinking.
Nikolay returns with buns…
…the boiling tea pot is on the table…
…and Vladimir’s clothes are hanging from the folding screen.
Note the portrait of Stalin on the background of the last still. I am amazed how this shot is unconsciously foreshadowing the future events. Stalin is as if looking down with disdain at the immorality happening behind the folding screen, and planning how he will put an end to all these freedoms in the 1930s, when the total power consolidates in his hands.
Since I’ve already started to refer to The Dreamers in connection with The Third Meshchanskaya, have to say that the extent of explicitness is not the only difference between the two films. If Bertolucci’s dreamers were rebelling with or without a cause, Room’s characters are shown as stuck in the mundane. The relationships that formed among Vladimir, Lyuda and Nikolay are not a sign of protest against the old values, but a result of their narrow minds and primitive approach to life. Their tiny flat with the bed and the sofa is their world.
Soon Lyuda finds out she’s pregnant, and the men offer to chip in together to get her an abortion. Instead she finds the strength to break out of the “vicious triangle” and departs on a train, leaving the two men behind. The film ends with Lyuda’s train going into the unknown. Happy ending, Soviet style. I think it’s pretty hard to swallow that the bright future awaits the heroine, moreover, her departure adds homosexual overtones to the already uncertain finale.