Twilight Portrait: Hong Kong Film Festival Review

Hong Kong International Film Festival
A brave and polarizing debut that renews faith in the digital revolution.

In the wake of being raped by three police officers, a well-heeled and already emotionally dead professional woman enters into a befuddling semi-romantic relationship with one of her attackers in Twilight Portrait, an assured, demanding film that never supplies easy answers for its aggressively enigmatic and frequently unlikable main character.  

Infuriating, divisive, challenging, but never less than completely compelling, doc filmmaker Angelina Nikonova’s debut feature is the kind of festival fare that is catnip to the circuit, but is so inscrutable—and that’s a compliment—it’s the only place Twilight Portrait will find an audience even though it deserves a far broader one. Specialty festivals, women’s in particular (though the feminist arguing will go on for years), specialty cable and limited art house release is possible in Europe and North America for any distributors that found success with Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, which this film fleetingly recalls.

Marina (equally radiant and ice cold co-writer Olga Dihovichnaya) is an upper class (thanks to her father) social worker afflicted with the same lack of empathy and insular perspective that seems to affect all contemporary Muscovites. She’s bored, empty and unfulfilled, and spends her days cheating on her devoted husband Ilyusha (Roman Merinov) with her best friend’s husband, Valery (Sergei Golyudov). She’s as listless in her adultery as she is in her career, where she feels at a constant dead end working with victims of domestic violence. On her way home from a tryst she’s picked up by a trio of thug cops led by Andrei (Sergey Borisov, an ideal of masculine aggression), possibly gang raped and left on the side of the road. In the days following the rape, she begins frequenting an unsavory diner on the wrong side of town and runs into Andrei. Following with a broken beer bottle to do some damage, she abandons that plan and seduces him, then carries on a more involved affair.

For lack of a better phrase, this is low-budget digital filmmaking at its best. Nikonova has a firm grasp on her difficult material, and never wastes a single shot, a single “random” sound or biting word (Marina’s birthday party rant is particularly harsh). Every moment goes to the construction of this Moscow as a mercenary, corrupt place that created Marina as she is. Brutality and disinterest are rife, from the opening scene where the serial raping cops assault a prostitute within earshot of Marina to the utter disdain shown by another cop when Marina tries to report a stolen passport. Stolen, of course, by a car of obnoxious kids that swiped her purse out of her hands as she tried to flag a ride home. The stench of new Russian money, class distinction and the casual sexism and misogyny that surround Marina leave an indelible stamp on her.

Using misinterpreted sexuality as a weapon, Marina’s campaign of kindness and affection—she repeatedly tells Andrei she loves him—is the single threat that will split audiences, but Dihovichnaya keeps her murky feelings opaque and Nikonova never judges her actions. Has Marina finally found a way to make the world better in some tiny way when the bureaucracy allegedly set up to serve us fails? Is she reasserting control over her body? Did she plan on becoming so intensely involved with Andrei? Is there a larger plan? Is she simply a masochist? None of that is ever clear. What is clear is that after Marina is raped, she exists in a physical, psychological and cinematic twilight (manifested by Eben Bull’s simultaneously vivid and muted cinematography), unsure where to go. Twilight Portrait isn’t the kind of film one enjoys, but it, and Marina, is not something one easily forgets.

Producer Angelina Nikonova, Olga Dihovichnaya
Director Angelina Nikonova
Cast Olga Dihovichnaya, Sergey Borisov, Roman Merinov, Andrei Manotskov, Sergei Golyudov
Screenwriter Angelina Nikonova, Olga Dihovichnaya
Executive producer Leonid Ogaryov
Director of Photography Eben Bull
Production Designer Oleg Fedikhin
Editor Elena Afanasyeva
No rating, 105 minutes