Vodka, Violence and Vindictiveness: A Bleak Vision of Russia

in 21st Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Kira Taszman

When Russian director Angelina Nikonova presented her feature debut Twilight Portrait (Portret v sumerkakh) in the Weltspiegel cinema in Cottbus, she warned the audience: “I see that you brought some drinks along. Well, you are going to need them.” She was right.

By awarding her work the prize for Best Feature Film, the International Jury of the Cottbus Film Festival opted for the arguably most disturbing and controversial film of the competition. It tells the story of a young woman, Marina (Olga Dykhovichnaya, who also co-wrote the script), who gets raped by policemen and later moves in with one of her violators.

Apart from the provoking subject matter, tackling the moral conflict between justice, revenge and forgiveness, the film also paints a frightening picture of Nikonova’s home country. She sees post-socialist Russia as a thoroughly corrupted society ruled by violence and indifference and displaying a great social divide within its population. The nouveaux riches, clad in costly attire and working as businessmen or doctors, dwell in guarded apartment fortresses. The poor, on the other hand, live in suburban ghettos full of stench and filth: some of them could actually be considered a new lumpenproletariat.

Both milieus have in common that they share no human values like solidarity or pity. One of Marina’s so called friends betrays her with her husband, whereas she does the same thing with her husband’s best friend. When she tells a female doctor friend that she has been raped, her interlocutor shows no sign of emotion.

The way the crime came about is also telling: Walking alone in a dark Moscow street, Marina tries to get a ride into town, which no one is granting her, let alone for free. As a result, her handbag gets stolen by the drivers of a passing car. When she finally begs several young people to lend her a cell phone, all they do is laugh at her. That makes her an easy prey for the forces that are actually supposed to protect her: the one police car with the officers on board who were already seen raping a defenceless girl at the beginning of the film.

When she later moves in with Andrei (Sergei Borisov), one of the policemen, she discovers his desolate living conditions: he resides with his senile grandfather and a drug addicted brother in a small, shabby apartment. An emotional cripple with a broken marriage, Andrei only became a policeman in the first place because he craved the respect he was denied during his childhood.

What the film conveys is far from positive: poverty makes you bad, but so does wealth — in an anarchic society where the only value is money and where there are no functioning authorities, justice does not stand a chance. It also postulates that individuals have to take matters into their own hands, sometimes going as far as forgiving their tormentors. However, a lot of women, especially those who have experienced violence, are likely to disagree with that approach.

This bleak view on Russian society was shared by some of Nikonova’s fellow countrymen who presented their films in Cottbus. One of them, Vladimir Kott, won the Audience Award and the prize for Best Director for his second feature Gromozeka. In the centre of his film are three friends, who in their teens performed together in a band. Now, all of them are in their late forties: Eduard (Nikolai Dobrynin) is a surgeon having an affair with a much younger colleague. Vasily (Boris Kamorsin), a police officer for 25 years is now condemned to tedious paper work, whereas Moserov (Leonid Gromov) does night shifts as a taxi driver.

Once, their lives had a purpose. Now the three men feel either idle or sexually frustrated or both. Their hopelessness is accentuated by the fact that their children, the young generation of today’s Russia, don’t stand a chance either. Moserov’s daughter makes a living by shooting pornographic films whereas Vasily’s son is a petty criminal, who gets paid for beating people up.

Vodka seems a temporary way out of the mess, so does porn. But Moserov’s experience is also that protecting potential victims is not worth the while: When he defends a young female passenger who gets beaten by her boyfriend in his cab, they finally both turn against him. Vasily has to deal with a similar incident when he tries to save a young man from being beaten up by a gang. Furthermore, Moserov is so desperate that he tries to teach his daughter a lesson by hiring a crook (who turns out to be Vasily’s son) to disfigure her. Respectable jobs such as a kindergarten teacher (Vasily’s wife is one) are poorly paid and not valued any longer.

The glass is less than half empty in Gromozeka, even if some scenes offer comic relief. But ultimately, pessimism prevails in the form of disease, accidents and death. Life is a morass, and the two generations depicted in the film are in it up to their necks.

Finally, Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev confirms his reputation as a master of his craft with his new chef d’oeuvre Elena. The drama had already been awarded the Jury prize at the Un certain regard section in Cannes, now it was presented in Cottbus as a special screening. The story of middle-aged former nurse Elena (Nadeshda Markina), who has to choose between her wealthy husband and her asocial son, is told in the minute detail of everyday actions. Moreover, it is truly breathtaking to observe how Zvyagintsev creates suspense by combining camera perspective and sound.

To the timbre of intense classical music, the camera tracks the husband Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov) in a painfully long sequence: driving from his parking lot to the fitness centre, working out on the equipment, sweating and simultaneously observing a young attractive woman. Then, suddenly, drama kicks in. The spectator had anticipated it without guessing what precise turn it would take. From that point on the film develops into a nerve wracking psycho thriller.

Here again, the motivation of the protagonists is — unsurprisingly — a pecuniary one. Elena lives in a luxurious penthouse apartment, the coldness of which is stressed by its relative emptiness and little adornment. Her son Sergey, a good-for-nothing, lives with his family in a desolate suburb tower. Vladimir’s daughter, on the other hand, is situated at the top of the social ladder: a seemingly disagreeable party girl who does not even dream of working and can afford not to.

Luckily, these contrasts are exposed in a very sober, almost cold, fashion. Also, the director does not judge his characters. At the end, it is hinted that blood may be thicker than water. Also, a narrative as well as a visual circle is closing, leaving behind an overwhelmed spectator.