Just watched the first episode of “The Romanoffs” a social satire sometimes requiring English subtitles. The location is Paris. Don’t frown – there are millions of people who love subtitles – it gives us a sense of superiority. Actually, I’m thrilled by subtitles. They provide a heighted sense of superiority that you just can’t get from films in your native language. We get to test our three or four years of high school French.
“The Romanoffs” is more of an anthology than a series. The plots and subplots are not on-going, and neither are the characters. The only link from one episode to another will be some kind of connection, scientifically illusory, to the Romanoffs. It must also be mentioned that the ‘episodes’ of “The Romanoffs” are more like individual high concept feature films.
You know the Romanoffs, right? The last royal line to have ruled Russia before the Bolshevik revolution? The Romanoff family came to a bizarre and gruesome ending when they were slaughtered, along with mad monk Rasputin who became a legend by refusing to die easily. The foundational element of the story is that there was a female survivor who trailed a long line of descendants.
In the past there were several frauds who claimed to be descended from the Romanoff line. Those frauds finally came to an end in 2008 when forensics scientists dated and identified some old bones of Anastasia Romanoff, the purported survivor.
Portraits of the Romanoff family being shot down in their palace are matched to the tune of hard-rock-driven Tom Petty’s “Refugee.” Tom would have liked that, maybe he saw it anyway. The song bring you back from the era of the portraits to the present — modern France with its clash of old and new.
We’re speeding along in an ambulance where an autumnal post-middle aged aristocratic woman begs to see the Arc de Triomphe one last time before she dies. She is not dying. She is a drama queen, a grand-dame who puts on airs and lives in a luxurious apartment in the hear of Paris. ( Marthe Keller is Anushka,)
That she doesn’t die is the problem for her American nephew Greg and his acquisitive girlfriend Sophie. Sophie is acquisitive in the sense that she’s hooked onto Greg with a view to acquiring the multi-million dollar apartment said to be the former home of one of a famous Romanoff duke. Among the abode’s many treasures is what appears to be an original Faberge egg, important for other reasons late in the episode.
Back at home and not getting all the attention she feels she deserves, Anushka is attended by her nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart) and Sophie (Louise Bourgoin). Sophie is highly annoyed that she and Greg had to cancel a planned vacation because of Anushka’s fainting episode. The caregiver Greg has hired to assist his aunt arrives late. Anushka could likely hold her own with American rappers when it comes to trash talk: “I forgive you for coming here in yesterday’s clothing and smelling of testicles,” she says to the poor girl, and then fires her.
Beautiful images of Paris swim in the background. Lively French tunes play accompany the visuals. Sophie’s burning hot and uses her good looks to keep Greg on his toes. Even during their lovemaking she keeps up a lively chat which doesn’t in the end defeat her dual purposes, the least noble of which is to acquire Anushka’s apartment. “We’re never going to get that apartment unless the bitch dies.” And the bitch never dies. But that’s the foreplay Sophie employs while Greg tries to get it on.
It’s not as if they’re destitute. On the contrary, Sophie owns a small hotel of the middling sort, complaining to friends that her patrons are increasingly of the lower classes. At a dinner with friends, one of them makes a complaint that seems to be heard everywhere these days: “The middle class is gone. There is nothing left but the poor and ultra-rich.”
After firing the “Polish slut,” Anushka must now endure Hajar Azim, the Muslim caregiver replacement who is greeted by having the door slammed in her face. There are other insults to follow and an ultimate accommodation which leaves Sophie reeling. Beyond the bigotry, there is class warfare and a history lesson. Madame Anastasia LeCharnay (Anushka, for short) claims historical superiority over the young Muslim woman who endures it all with kindness and patience. “We beat you at Tours in 732. In 1204, we burned Constantinople (Istanbul, now). We beat you in Jaffa, Damascus, and Beirut. We took Jerusalem and gave it to the jews, and in 1683, we pushed back from Vienna for good.” Tormenting the poor caregiver further, she holds up a croissant to deliver the final blow: “We took the symbol from your flag. . . “ She holds up a croissant (shape of a crescent) “. . . and every day we eat you for breakfast.”
Anushka may be the Archie Bunker of the French aristocracy but she’s not stupid. While she remains tethered to her class superiority, she develops an uneasy and often intimate alliance with Hajar. The relationship is funny, not mean, and Hajar endures all this with the determination of someone who wants to achieve an important goal. In Hajar’s case, she desires to complete her studies and become a full-fledged nurse. Weiner’s motif here isn’t to inspire hatred of the French upper classes, but rather to ridicule them for their fear of a changed world. The satire is hopeful rather than mean-spirited and thereby more successful. Should I say that Anushka, mainly to spite Sophie but also because she’s become deeply attached to Hajar, changes her will so that Hajar inherits the apartment and its luxuries?
Having watched the episode develop I should have seen it coming but I didn’t. Let me tell you now, I’m dying to. Sophie gets the egg. How she gets the egg is kind of charming and funny but also predictable. What’s not predictable is that it’s a convention in film and TV that one go in the sack doesn’t lead to pregnancy. But come on, boys, admit you have fallen for the shy Muslim girl in the hijaj. What’s up with that anyway? Is it a lurid Arabian Nights fantasy or a pornographic writer’s dream? The stark reality of it becomes clear to Greg when Hajar turns up at chez Sophie-Greg with her seriously stern mother. You do not want to take on this Tunisian woman. The enterprise never loses its comic side, delivering another clever and simultaneously symbolic poke at the avaricious stunned, rejected, and aggrieved Sophie leaves the luxurious apartment clutching the fake Faberge egg.
I think I like “The Romanoffs.” It has no violence. I watch violence in films but only when it makes sense. Same deal in real life, only there it hardly ever makes sense, though I suppose that’s part of it’s attraction for some people. Amirite?
Check out “The Romanoffs.” Only if you’re smart though.