The ultimate cult film: The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (1976)
A Soviet television film The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!) was first shown on the New Year’s night in 1975-6. Since then it became an integral part of the New Year’s ritual, akin to The Wizard of Oz (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in Western countries (in the Soviet Union the New Year was the big party, since the birth of the Saviour is obviously a taboo in the anti-clerical culture).
The Irony of Fate is a love story springing from a coincidence that could have happened only in the USSR, where all the buildings look the same and this could lead to confusion to a middle-aged bachelor drunk on vodka and beer. As a matter of fact, behind this musical melodrama underlies a text, remarkably critical towards standardisation of Soviet life and aesthetics. The brilliant animated and silent introduction (sometimes censored) can put you in context just in a couple of minutes:
Of course, this aspect of Soviet culture could have only been satirized during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, a changing political context that led to the golden age of Soviet design (more exclusive and individual). But, watching the film today, we realize that not many things have changed: the story has a strong atemporal feeling to it, and the intro is still portraying very sharply the Russian crazy bureaucracy. As a matter of fact, this atemporality might be one of the key elements in its consolidation as a cult film over the years.
If there’s any Soviet film at all that fits in the concept of cult cinema (that is more a product of Western film studies), it is undoubtedly The Irony of Fate. Apart from provoking repetitive viewings, the film perfectly complies with Umberto Eco’s claims on cult film (see Umberto Eco, ‘Casablanca: Cult movies and intertextual collage‘). The Irony of Fate provides “a completely furnished world” to its viewers, recreating the festive atmosphere and offering the audience to relive the New Year’s night every time the film is broadcast. Partly because of the way it is written (the film has three epigraphs and two finales), partly due to the nature of television broadcasting, The Irony of Fate became “a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs”, which, according to Eco, is essential for transforming a text into a cult object.
Today it is safe to say that The Irony of Fate is a ‘media constant’ and the ultimate cult film because regardless of all the political, social and economic changes that Russia went through, the New Year celebration in the Russian-speaking world is absolutely unthinkable without it. Even now, as I write these lines, I hear the film on the background.