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A mix of rigid religious traditions and grim political realities takes a toxic personal toll in Closeness, a vivid and depressing snapshot of dire lives in a dismal backwater of the crumbled Soviet empire two decades ago. Held together by a riveting central performance by Darya Zhovner, this first feature by Kantemir Balagov, which won the FIPRESCI Award in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar, possesses an erratic power and will be a welcome presence on the festival scene. But persuading paying audiences to submit to the drama’s all-encompassing miserablism, which includes the jarring presence of an actual snuff video, would run contrary to the laws of nature.
With living conditions in the squalid town of Nalchik, the North Caucasus, in 1998, that make Flint, Michigan, look like Beverly Hills, the only aspect of life that would seem to provide a lifeline of reassurance and continuity are the Jewish values adhered to by a small religious population there. But these are not of primary importance to Ilana (Zhovner), a stunning tomboy in her mid-20s who excels as a coveralls-wearing auto mechanic in her dad’s shop (she seems better at it than he is) and enjoys a rough-and-tumble relationship with boyfriend Zalim (Nazir Zhukov), who’s not Jewish.
With the cramped lives and constricting conditions continually emphasized by the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio of Artem Emelyanov’s hand-held cinematography, the story goes from bad to worse when Ilana’s beloved brother David (Veniamin Katz) — there’s a weirdly pronounced sexual vibe between the two — and his new fiancee are kidnapped, with a high ransom demanded, which the family can’t begin to cover. This brings the local Jewish community together up to a point, but more coin will be needed, and soon.
For the most part, the focus remains on Ilana, whose impulses are as wild as her personal and religious fidelity are tenuous. Her pious mother (Olga Dragunova) drives her nuts with her timid, subservient manner, and Ilana is pushed to the brink when it seems that the only way to secure the ransom money is for her to submit to arranged marriage with a wealthy Jewish family’s milquetoasty kid, which would be a disaster by any measure.
The film’s tense mid-section has Ilana bouncing among booze- and drug-fueled moods and reckless behaviors like an errant pinball. This long nocturnal sequence climaxes with some wasted guys in a bar watching a video consisting of actual footage taken during the 1999 Dagestan massacre of Chechens torturing and cutting the throats of Russian soldiers, material that shortly ended up online.
This scene unsurprisingly prompted some angry walkouts in Cannes, and it should be stressed that Balagov crosses a line here that virtually all filmmakers, no matter how provocative in this most wide-open era, have rightly observed: No one should be caught off-guard and forced, unawares, to watch actual killings in a snuff film designed by its makers to scare the enemy into submission. At the very least, a warning should be added to the beginning of the film as to what lies in store, or else a few seconds could be cut to spare the sight of what’s implicit anyway.
Closeness, the original title of which, Tesnota, also apparently implies being walled-in or suffocated, is dramatically erratic, with tense and compelling sequences alternating with diffuse and/or flat interludes that don’t advance the narrative or pay off in other ways. This is especially true in the late-going, when Ilana’s rebellious nature appears to have been spent or temporarily curbed — it’s hard to know which.
What is not in question, however, is the molten talent of Darya Zhovner. A dark-haired beauty, she’s an arresting presence from the initial scene, in which she wears her preferred overalls while helping her dad fix a car. From there on, she’s the automatic center of every scene she’s in; even as Ilana likes and gets along with her father, brother and boyfriend, it would seem that portraying a rebellious nature is what comes most naturally to Zhovner, who shuttles and snaps among moods and emotions like a hummingbird. If she speaks other languages, she looks poised for a significant career in international films.
Production companies: Example of Intonation (Alexander Sokurov’s Fund), Lenfilm Studios
Cast: Darya Zhovner, Olga Draganova, Veniamin Kats, Artem Tsypin, Nazir Zhukov
Director: Kantemir Balagov
Screenwriters: Kantemir Balagov, Anton Yarush
Director of photography: Artem Emelyanov
Production designer: Alexey Paderin
Editor: Kantemir Balagov
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
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