I was persuaded into seeing Ninotchka on the strength of the following three things I knew about it beforehand: 1) it was playing at the Film Forum, which has never steered me wrong so far; 2) it starred Greta Garbo, and 3) she laughs in it.
Garbo plays the eponymous Nina Invanovna, bureaucrat of the Soviet Union who is sent to Paris to oversee the sale of a set of jewels belonging to The Russian People, after the first set of bureaucrats managed to get distracted by Parisian decadence, boozeahol and French maids. Nina is Very Earnest and believes in the Righteousness of the People, and basically considers capitalist France to be on the very brink of collapse – as obvious in the frankly ridiculous hats.
While she’s in Paris, between managing the legalities around a claim to the diamonds from an exiled Russian duchess, Nina amuses herself by examining Paris’ admirable infrastructure and feats of great engineering, and it is on an excursion to count the steps and measure the foundations of the Eiffel Tower that she meets Melvyn Douglas, who falls instantly in love with her and decides to romance her.
It goes pretty well, until she discovers he’s the one to blame for the whole duchess-wants-her-jewels-back, Soviet-diplomats-are-now-partyboys situation, then she cools off, and he is faced with the task of winning her back. Helped by a pratfall through a table.
Garbo has one of those smiles which fans of the Red Dwarf novels will recognize as a “Pinball Smile:” when it breaks out, her whole face lights up and you can almost hear the bells ringing. She spends the first half of the movie in a delightful serious deadpan, honestly interested in foundations and engineering and in the inevitability of the rise of the people, and the rest with a delightful joie de vivre that fails to lose any of that interest. We never laugh at Nina, but warm to her as she juggles her work and her ideals with her love and her desires.
This is neither anti-Soviet propaganda nor pro-communism; it ridicules both Russia and Paris in equal measures, and for all her transformation, Garbo’s Nina never compromises her ideals or her beliefs: even when she goes back to Russia from Paris she’s full of love for the country. She tells her friends how much she loves the country. She invites people over, telling them to all bring an egg to make an omelette, and she gives away her sexy French lingerie to her best friend.
I came out filled with joy, and a sudden need to watch everything Garbo’s done, ever.
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