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PostPosted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 12:28 pm 
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BORISOV AND DIHOVICHNAYA IN TWILIGHT PORTRAIT

A woman on the wild side

In Twilight Portrait/Portret v sumerkakh, a woman is left off in a bad neighborhood by her lover and breaks a heel, has her handbag stolen and is raped by policemen. This changes things. Her husband is weak, dependent on her rich father. She doesn't think much of her best friends, as she tells them at a surprise birthday party. She tells no one of the rape. By chance she runs into one of the rapists, the handsomer one, and lies in wait for him with a broken bottle outside his shabby apartment building. Instead, she kisses him in the elevator. Later they have sex in the same elevator. For a while she pretends to go to visit her mother. "You need a break," her husband Ilya (Roman Merinov) has been telling her. But instead, she moves in with the rapist, his humorous total stoner younger brother (Vsevolod Voronov), and their gaga and vaguely menacing grandpa (Alexei Belousov). The stoner brother's brief monologue is one of the only fun moments of the piece. One might also include scenes at a trashy roadside restaurant that has daytime karaoke. When the about to be brutalized woman tries to order a glass of water it recalls Nicholson at the diner in Five Easy Pieces.

I'm talking about Marina, a chic, good looking woman, played by Olga Dihovichnaya, who co-produced and co-scripted this film, and lightens its effect. Supposing the great French actress Yolande Moreau took the role. Moreau, with her inwardness and dogged intensity and lack of youthful looks, would draw our sympathy and arouse our curiosity more. But Dihovichnaya is easy on the eye, and we can understand why Andrei (Sergei Borisov), the brutal but coldly handsome cop, would take her in for a while, despite his smacking her angrily every time she says "I love you."

Marina's life is obviously at a crossroads and that's made ten times more intense by her brutal afternoon. Her motives are unclear. She is a social worker dealing with children's problems and scenes show she is losing her sympathy for her clients and her faith in her ability to help. With typical overkill, the script has her tell somebody this as well. Marina's motives with Andrei are unclear. In shacking up with him she might be planning a delayed, subtler revenge than the broken bottle would provide. Or she might be experimenting, experiencing a kind of sexual Stockholm syndrome, or have lost her self respect. Or she might be trying to atone for her loss of rapport with her clients at work, or seeking to reconnect with the less fortunate classes she used to want to help.

Given Marina's job -- which she points out she can practice because her husband has a more lucrative one -- pedophilia, incest, and child abuse are secondary themes. And boredom. That may be what is at the roots of Marina's story, and the moral decay of modern Russia, and an alienation and angst Antonioni would understand, as he would understand the desolate landscapes on the outskirts of town (Marina and her husband are blessed with an enviable downtown apartment). But in Antonioni's day, the camera might roam the edge of town, but a film didn't begin with two rapes (the cops do a roadside prostitute before they later come to the "stuck up" Marina).

Twilight Portrait refers to a setting on a used camera Marina buys in a gesture of compassion -- or stupidity: nothing is unambiguous here -- and also knowingly points to a prevailing grayness and darkness that give the film a visual style (rather successfully: two still cameras, Canon EOS II's, were used throughout, without artificial light, and Eben Bull's cinematography has won a festival prize). The film feels as if Krzysztof Kieślowski had set out to offend feminists and combined two or three of his Decalogue films into one, a longish one (135 minutes) -- and tossed out his usual profound sense of humanity. Leslie Felperin reports from a Russian festival that the audience had very mixed reactions: "some felt the film offered a daring, psychologically complex but still-credible portrait of a woman's unexpected reaction to sexual violence; others, especially Russian and older viewers, felt the pic violated core feminist tenets, or simply considered it too unpleasant or implausible."

But almost anything can be considered "too unpleasant or implausible" nowadays: that's no excuse for rejecting this strong and original first film. My main criticism is that Nikonova and Dihovichnaya have, as I've already suggested, crammed too much into their screenplay. Even when Marina goes to the airport, she encounters a set of abusive parents. The writers could have relaxed and let their story breathe a bit. They try too hard. But they keep it watchable, and the scenes at the karaoke restaurant and the cop's dump of a flat are memorable.

Twilight Portrait is set in Nikonova's native Rostov-on-Don, in the south of Russia, with some attention to the accents and flavor of that area. It debuted at the Kinotavr Sochi Open Russian Film Festival, and in Europe, at Venice. It was also shown at Toronto, Warsaw, London, and Stockholm. It was watched for this review as part of the MoMA and Film Society of Lincoln Center New York series, New Directors/New Films. Public showings of the film at the latter are scheduled for these days and times:

Friday, March 30th | 6 PM | MoMA
Saturday, March 31st | 1 PM | FSLC

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