But you I'd like to keep around, too

Lubov Tolkalina and Evgeny Koryakovsky play lovers Vera and Timofei, the original two legs of a complicated romantic triangle, in the Russian comedy You I Love.

'You I Love' overcomes its faults with comely stars and gallows satire

Who did damage to You I Love, the Russian-made Berlin Film Festival sensation scheduled to arrive in San Antonio this week? The fetching and provocative comedy about a love triangle between Vera, a female newscaster, her ad-director boyfriend Tomafei, and Uloomji, a Kalmyk would-be circus performer, could be a tardy valentine from contemporary Russians to the West, lobbed high over news reports of mafia hits and state property grabs. But its progression is so erratic, and the conclusion so enigmatic, that in the end our subjects remain fascinating strangers.

Did the film editor excise the soul of the story by trimming Vera's narration to a spotty minimum, much as Tomafei cuts out Vera's heart when he begins an affair with Uloomji and marginalizes her role in his life? Or perhaps the trouble is Uloomji, who cavorts through the beginning of the film with naive glee, interrogating mascots about their work, clowning on feed pails for livestock at the zoo, and falling from a guard rail onto the hood of Tomafei's car (you could say they meet "acute"). Is he a simpleton? No, an artist: a Fauvist performance artist, reintroducing the wild, impulsive, and un-alloyed to our work-driven White Russians. Uloomji is the all-caps, flashing-bright-red, forbidden other, and as a metaphor for issues on which modern Russians are icily ambivalent, I suppose he's perfect: ethnic (the Kalmyks are descended from Mongols), unabashedly gay, and radiating joie de vivre.

Tomafei's transformation from pale, bookish workaholic to wild-haired love desperado is touching, as is his discovery that he has a closeted ally at work. The bond between Tomafei and Uloomji feels as real as any off the silver screen, but why Vera would accept her transparently third-wheel role in this misaligned vehicle is anyone's guess. Perhaps she, like American movie audiences, is loathe to say the menage-a-trois leaves her unfulfilled for fear of being labeled old-fashioned or prudish. It also could be that young urban Russians are cast adrift emotionally in post-Communist globalization, and any anchor is better than none.

   You I Love

Dir. Olga Stolpovskaya, Dmitry Troitsky; writ. Stolpovskaya; feat. Damir Badmaev, Lubov Tolkalina, Evgeny Koryakovsky, Irina Grineva, Emanuel Michael Vaganda, Yury Sherstnev, Victor Shevidov, Valentina Mankhadykova, Anatoly Mankhadykov, Nina Agapova (R)

The film's tone ricochets from light melodrama to the dark madcap comedy of the 1999 film The Girl on the Bridge (La Fille sur le pont). Like that Australian production, You I Love is more French than the French: Love is a matter of fate, and grace - if not American-variety happiness - comes to those who accept their fate. Ad-like montages are used to break the emotional tension and to move the plot through key developments, but they also serve as a meta-commentary for the film and, perhaps, modern Russian life. "Happiness is Cola ... Freedom is Cola," read the lines from an amusingly ironic ad campaign designed by Tomafei's firm that employs Communist imagery to mock totalitarianism and capitalism. But You I Love also uses images and music to change moods like hats, but in such an up-front way that the director seems to be saying, See, I can make you feel what I want you to feel. But this confession is made so patently and charmingly you're tempted to dive headfirst down the rabbit hole after the film's irresistable actors.

When Uloomji's parents kidnap him to save him from his decadent lifestyle, Tomafei's co-worker consoles him: The love we find on earth, he says, is merely an advertisement for the love we will discover in heaven. As a romance, You I Love may be damaged goods, but as an exercise in art overcoming propaganda, it's a wholely delightful 83 minutes.

By Elaine Wolff