'Ayka’: Film Review | Cannes 2018

Mamma mia, here we go again.

Having worked together previously on 'Tulpan,' director Sergey Dvortsevoy and actor Samal Yeslyamova are reunited for this competition entry about a woman facing life-or-death decisions on the streets of Moscow.

Having kicked up plenty of dust on the steppes of the Palais at Cannes in 2008 with Un Certain Regard entry Tulpan, an almost universally admired blend of warmth, drama and wide-open spaces, Kazakh writer-director Sergey Dvortsevoy returns to the Croisette with competition hopeful Ayka, a far dourer affair set in the drabbest, grubbiest hellholes of Moscow. And if you know Moscow, you know it does drab, grubby hellholes in a big way.

Pivoting around an intense, committed performance from Samal Yeslyamova, who played the main character's sister in Tulpan, this almost feels like a remake of the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta (1999) as the heroine, filmed often in close-up by a handheld camera, treads the snowy pavements in search of work, frantic for money to pay back a debt. Except Dvortsevoy raises the misery stakes by showing in the first minutes that protagonist Ayka has just given birth and, after abandoning her infant at the maternity ward, must contend not only with poverty, rejection and menacing loan sharks and landlords, but also intense postpartum bleeding and mastitis in her painfully milk-filled breasts.

The script, credited to Dvortsevoy and Gennadi Ostrowski, parcels out clues to Ayka's backstory in dinky little increments, but by the end it's clear (and this isn't a spoiler) that she's originally from Kyrgyzstan, borrowed money she couldn't afford from a loan shark to open a clothing factory, and now has no money, only a bunk to sleep on at an overcrowded flat and an expired work permit. That last problem means almost no one dares hire her for a job, and those who will are the type of people who have no compunction about clearing off without paying her and her colleagues for two weeks of work, like the boss at a filthy chicken slaughterhouse.

That's the gig to which Ayka first runs from the maternity ward, terrified she will be late and lose wages she never gets anyway. She tries to get back to another job, possibly in the costume department (although it's unclear) at a TV station, but a former friend has muscled her out of the position (another possibly unintentional echo of Rosetta). She offers her services to a body shop and car-cleaning service, but they won't touch her without papers. While there, a fancy looking Muscovite woman offers her work as a waitress if she can get to an address written on a card in two hours. Ayka scours the neighborhood but can't find the address in the snow-choked streets as a blizzard rages. She does manage to get some work shoveling snow, but by that point the poor woman is nearly dead on her feet.

The only people who show her the teensiest modicum of kindness are another Kirgiz woman (Zhipargul Abdilaeva ), a cleaner who asks Ayka to fill in for her at the veterinary practice she works at, and a black-market female doctor. The latter spots immediately that Ayka is lying about just having had a "miscarriage" and gives her an IV drip to replace some of the fluids she's lost through bleeding while the doctor attends to a late-stage abortion another client is willing to pay top ruble to get sorted out.

Indeed, there's a lot of bloody panties and gore streaming down legs in this movie, as well as scenes of the heroine milking her breasts like a cow to relieve the swelling. It's like a very gloomy art house commercial for what would happen if there weren't organizations like Planned Parenthood to help women tend to their health.  

Joking aside, Dvortsevoy deserves praise for making a film willing to show a woman ready to do anything she can to live, unafraid if those choices make her character unsympathetic. No doubt some will feel repelled just by the way she climbs out of a window to get away from her baby. Others might see in it a harsh but understandable act of desperation by a woman too frightened to risk bonding with her child who, given the circumstances, faces a better chance of survival if he stays in the nice warm hospital where there's at least some food and shelter. Ayka's decision to reject her child is based on a possibly baked-in algorithm governing survival instincts, which makes her barely any different from the dachshund who patiently lets her three pups suckle before the vet sews up her belly wound. Motherly love is an infinitely strange and complex thing.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competition)
Production: A Kinodvor, Pallas Film, Otter Films production in co-production with Eurasia Film Production, Juben Pictures, KNM, ZDF/Arte
Cast: Samal Yeslyamova, Zhipargul Abdilaeva, David Alavverdyan, Sergey Mazur, Slava Agashkin, Azamat Satimbaev, Ashkat Kuchinchirekov
Director: Sergey Dvortsevoy
Screenwriters: Sergey Dvortsevoy, Gennadi Ostrowski
Producers: Sergey Dvortsevoy, Thanassis Karathanos, Anna Wydra, Martin Hampel
Co-Producers: Gulnara Sarenova,, Li Zhu, Luna Wang, Michel Merkt
Director of photography: Jola Dylewska
Production designer: Olga Jurasova
Costume designer: Aleksandra Demidova
Editor: Sergey Dvortsevoy, Petar Markovic
Sales: The Match Factory
106 minutes