Husband and wife are lying in bed, early in the Moscow morning. Kolia (Nikolai Batalov), the husband, is up first, groggy but awakened by the couple's energetic pet cat, who's leapt onto the bed. Mischievously, he grabs ahold of the kitty and shoves it in his sleeping wife's face. Liuda (Lyudmila Semyonova) reacts as any interrupted sleeper would, batting it away and jerking up from her comfortable recline. Rubbing her eyes, smoothing down her bobbed hair and bangs, she glances at the grinning man-boy in bed next to her with a mixture of amusement and irritation. He laughs, but he's playing with fire by provoking her so. Before the day's over, he'll have introduced a creature much more threatening into the marital bed, even if old Red Army buddy Volodia (Vladimir Fogel), visiting from out of town, is initially relegated to the sofa.
Silent films and early talkies are often more provocative than the movies which followed (due to state censorship in Germany and Russia, the Production Code in America). Still, how many silents can you remember which stage their climax in an abortion clinic? Bed and Sofa, a 1927 sex comedy/drama (even its genre is not clearly delineated) engages most of the taboos: abortion, adultery, divorce, free love, menage a trois - all that's missing is homosexuality (though this certainly comes to mind amidst a long kiss on the lips, during which Volodia, embracing Kolia, thinks he's kissing Liuda; the conclusion, which finds the two men alone in the room, deciding who'll sleep where, also hints at this subtext). Indeed, this is a film where the wife's affair is revealed halfway through the movie - in most melodramas it would lead to a climactic fight; here it only begins the roundelay which finds both men passing in and out of the woman's affections and between her bedsheets.
Unlike with Jules and Jim, it is not the woman whose fickleness is made to seem crazy, but the men whose bullheaded pushiness makes us sympathize with Liuda. Embodying both Jazz Age and Slavic ideals, with her modish Louise Brooks hairdo topping a stockier, more boxy build, Liuda is torn between her attraction to the two workers who claim her affections - to the comforts of Kolia and the novelty of Volodia - and her frustrations with both of them. Meanwhile, an ominous portrait of Stalin - who had only just taken power in '27 - hangs on the wall alongside a calendar. Initially this seems like a necessary political gesture on the filmmaker's part, but eventually it leads one to tease out allegorical resonance in the onscreen threesome. Could Liuda be like the young Soviet Union, volleyed back and forth between different leaders who claimed her loyalty? Just as Stalin would eventually erase deviant Bolsheviks from Party history (he was already beginning to do this with Trotsky), Liuda replaces Kolia's portraits with Volodia's all around the room (Stalin, of course, stays put).
Whether or not all the picture-swapping is supposed to have political ramifications, it pays off dramatically in the end. Liuda rushes home to an empty apartment from the abortion clinic (where she went, not out of her own desire to end the pregnancy, but at the behest of her beaux, who jealously regard the incipient infant as the other man's). There she writes a goodbye note and takes her own picture out of its frame, at once liberating both her image and her body from the home where her initially adventurous sexual experiments came to be one more form of imprisonment. The movie concludes with the two male saps, one on the bed, one on the sofa (they've been switching back and forth throughout the movie) wondering what to do next. Meanwhile, Liuda leans out the train window, breathing the fresh air and rushing out of town just as we saw Valodia arriving in the beginning (his train bears him into Moscow, to borrow Churchill's characterization of Lenin's similar journey in 1917, "like a plague bacillus").
The film is composed of concrete units, a series of two-shots, close-ups, and inserts of important objects (or cats). The camera punches in and out of different elements within the scene, and switches angles without any movement. Not as reliant on the abrasive qualities of montage as were Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, director Abram Room utilizes editing to create a sense of space and drama, and divisions within both. Scrolling through the images on Netflix (where the film is available for instant viewing) I was surprised to discover that there are almost no shots featuring all three protagonists together - it's usually Liuda with Kolia, or Liuda with Valodia, or the two men with each other.
This subtly heightens the sense of claustrophobia, visualizes the trio's inability to accomodate one another, and highlights the film's assembly through relational cutting rather than juxtapositional montage or single, wide shots. Likewise, the movie is dialectical but not as aggressively or obviously as Eisenstein's works. Aside from the dichotemy of the title, Bed and Sofa opens and closes with the rushing train, features an airplane ride above - but significantly not out of - Moscow in the middle, and punctuates its narrative with comical and often symbolic feline interludes. The film is almost entirely enclosed in the apartment and various workplaces, but is bookended with outdoor sequences.
Ultimately, the portrait of Stalin is telling. Bed and Sofa seems to have its ear to the ground, and it buries both its style and even to a certain extent its message (both quite modern) beneath the cover of conventional storytelling. Soviet films would have to just that to survive in the years to come, yet even this subterfuge would not be enough. Liuda's quite fortunate in the end, to be escaping from the scene of her entrapment...her country, and its cinema, would not be so lucky.