Betrayal (Izmena): Venice Review

Betrayal Film Still - H 2012

Betrayal Film Still - H 2012

Strong performances and stylish direction are undermined by some seriously credibility-stretching plot developments in this overwrought, overlong Russian tale of adulterous passions.

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov's adultery-themed drama, a candidate for the Golden Lion, delivers strong performances and stylish direction.

VENICE -- The human heart yet again proves the unruliest of organs in Kirill Serebrennikov's adultery-themed Golden Lion candidate Betrayal (Izmena), at best a longshot to follow up Faust's Russian triumph from last year. Trump card in a technically accomplished affair is Franziska Petri's precisely modulated performance in the demanding central role, this striking German actress balancing ice and fire rather more fluently than the picture itself. Level of jury favor will likely dictate the extent of further festival play, but with critical support likely to be soft at best, distribution outside the Motherland looks a dicey prospect for this adults-only affair.

Perhaps seeking to give a universal feeling to their story, scriptwriters Serebrennikov and Natalia Nazarova avoid character-names and set events in unspecified, unfamiliar areas of Russia which aren't quite urban and not quite rural. Indeed, the post-Soviet architectural backdrops are a constant source of atmosphere and even fascination, as captured by ace cinematographer Oleg Lukichev. What goes on in front of these backdrops is unfortunately somewhat less reliably involving, the nameless characters and their fickle emotions always kept at a certain chilly distance in a film which is full of distorted reflections, mirrors, and observations through windows.

Turning up for a routine medical checkup, 'He' (Dejan Lilic) is calmly informed by examiner 'She' (Petri) during a cardiac test that her husband is having an affair. Then she delivers a casual bombshell, "He cheats on me with your wife," which sends the unsuspecting patient's heartbeat sky-high. The man is, like us, for some time unsure whether or not to believe this total stranger, but his investigations reveal that the infidelity is indeed taking place. But even then it's not clear what the motivations or expectations of 'She' may be. Nevertheless, and somewhat abruptly, 'He' and 'She' quickly drift into a sort-of affair of their own, in a film where many major developments either happens off-camera or are ambiguously presented by Sergei Ivanov's elision-punctuated editing.

But such brain-teasing touches result in frustration and confusion rather than intriguing enigmas, with further levels of distancing added by a broken-backed screenplay that, just as it should be moving towards a climax, takes a sudden disorienting leap forward in time by six or seven years. All that follows in this over-extended closing 'act' feels arbitrary and somehow inorganic, as though the characters have become elements in an archly ironic intellectual exercise rather than living, breathing individuals we can connect to and care about. That's absolutely no fault of the actors, the Hitchcockianly strawberry-blonde Petri and prominent Macedonian stage star Lilic doing their best to navigate the tortuous convolutions of their characters' emotional pathways from reserve towards all-consuming amour fou.

Serebrennikov is best known for Hamlet update Playing the Victim, which took top honors at Rome's inagural film-festival back in 2006. His direction here is stately, sensitive and elegant, capable of virtuouso moments and eyecatching compositions, largely eschewing music apart from sparingly judicious use of Rachmaninov's boldly haunting Isle of the Dead. These classical grace-notes recall the Philip Glass interludes that so elevated Andrei Zvyagintsev's superb Elena from last year, though overall such lofty comparisons can only serve to emphasize Betrayal's shortcomings. 

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: Studio Slon
Cast: Franziska Petri, Dejan Lilic, Albina Dzhanabaeva, Andrei Schetinin, Arturs Skrastins, Guna Zarina
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenwriters: Natalia Nazarova, Kirill Serebrennikov
Producer: Sabina Eremeeva
Director of photography: Oleg Lukichev
Production designer: Irina Grazhdankina

Costume designer: Ulyana Polyanskaya
Editor: Sergei Ivanov
Sales agent: Elle Driver, Paris
No MPAA rating, 120 minutes