Grumpy bureaucrat Serafim Ivanovich Ogurtsov is the new director of the House of Culture, just in time for the annual New year's show. He is disapproving of every performer, and constantly tries to force his own stodgy ideas upon them. His employees respond by cheekily rebelling against their new boss, distracting him with every trick in the book as they try and get the show running as intended...
Carnival Night (which translates to Karnavalnaya Noch, because apparently the Russkies thought the word Carnival was far too short) is a charming 1950s musical. Easily on par with the content Hollywood was producing at the time.
The story here is basic, and the runtime short. This is a good thing, as it allows the movie to be what it wants to be, without ever feeling stretched out. The first act consists of Ogurtsov being shown all the acts for the upcoming night, while giving his own ideas, each one more dull than the last.
The best example of how pedantic he can be is seen with the clown double act. First he insists on changing their performances, then when they do he criticises their morals. They try to explain the satire to him, but not only doesn't he understand, he refuses to learn, and insists he knows better and his way is right. That really is the crux of Ogurtsov's character. Someone who knows diddly squat trying to dictate what can or can't go on.
The climax starts surprisingly early, with the show taking up almost the entire second half of the film. One of the most important aspects to get right, it's a success, and this is a show I would gladly pay to see! There are fun acts throughout, of various types, and 'poor' Ogurtsov inadvertently ends up as part of the act in a few, much to the amusement of the crowd. If only the grumpy git realised how happy they were, he'd lighten up! But if he did that we'd be out of a classic villain.
Despite the short runtime, the cast here is pretty well defined. I definitely would've liked to see more of them, but none were wasted. The main heroine is the charming Lena Krylova, who tries her hardest to rally everyone together in the face of adversity, and overcomes each hurdle with a smile. I liked how she takes equal part in the shows too, and isn't all talk.
There's a dose of romance too with coworker Grisha, as he continuously tries to pluck up the courage to tell Lena how he feels. She already knows, but is waiting for him to actually say it himself. It's a sweet little subplot, and funny. The remainder of the cast are nice too, like the nice older couple, and Ogurtsov's adorable secretary.
Carnival Night is a musical in a diegetic sense. Characters aren't breaking out into song in the typical unreal sort of way, but because it's their jobs, and they're either rehearsing, or performing. This is handled well, and all the songs are lovely, and spaced apart well
The direction by Eldar Ryazanov is on par with his other films, perhaps the best he ever was. Carnival Night is effective both in a small scale sense, and with its grand performances. This was his first solo directing gig for a feature film, and he was lucky to get it! Apparently the studio heads were skeptical at first, but his work clearly paid off with the movie's immediate success and lasting impact.
The actors here all do great jobs. Igor Ilyinsky makes for a hilariously grumpy antagonist, and Lyudmila Gurchenko is adorable and plucky. Everyone else do great jobs, visually, comedically, and musically too, with not a bad note throughout.
While Ryazanov moved on to new projects, he would eventually return to his original feature with a sequel in 2006. As it's a much-belated sequel, and a Russian movie made beyond the year 2000, I have little hope it's any good, but it might be a pleasant surprise (albeit an overly long one at 2 hours and 58 minutes!), and it could serve as a fitting swansong, as Eldar Ryazanov's final film before his death in 2015.
Carnival Night is one of the best Soviet films out there, and a great introduction! Watching this feels like a dream and one wishes the modern world was more like what's depicted here. There are still assholes these characters have to deal with, but it's all with such good spirit, and ultimate victory, the way it should be...