A perfect triple feature – though an absolutely exhausting one – might be Twilight Portrait, Katalin Varga, and A Gentle Creature (or Old Joy, for that matter). Angelina Nikonova’s debut feature (Hey Mike, speaking of great debuts, here’s one!) was recommended by a friend and it’s cringe-inducing, frustrating, layered, and angry – all great things.
Olga Dihovichnaya plays Marina, an upper-class social worker with an influential father and a useless husband. After a brutal rape at the hands of three police officers Marina’s life completely changes, with many of her actions expressed – sometimes inexplicably – towards those around her.
Sergei Borisov is fantastic as Andrei, who I won’t say too much about so as not to ruin the film. Suffice to say, his unbelievably deep voice serves him well, impressively echoing into his unimpressive flat. He pulls off a great combination of brutality and sympathy (something I had trouble with in Three Billboards…which I think works in spades here for, among other reasons, the narrower spread of the story and time-spent).
Dihovichnaya is also awesome in a really difficult role. Marina goes from adulterous, closed-off, and exasperated, to manic, dangerous, and paranoid in only a short, believable span. It’s a great arc and she nails it.
I couldn’t find the specs online, but I swear that Twilight Portrait is shot on some kind of relatively low-end digital camera. You can feel that video-ness at times. I read someone comparing it to Dogme 95; that feels a little cheap to me. Sure, there’s at least one obvious similarity to The Celebration, and maybe the video points in that same direction, but otherwise it has none of the nervous energy, lo-fi production value, or “rules” associated with that movement. Actually, if it feels like anything of a period that came before it/concurrently, I think it feels pretty Romanian. Lots of interior conversations between people of different classes; a threat of violence often hanging around the frame; a loosely handheld camera, but one that isn’t frantic.
The mise-en-scene isn’t clean as, say Graduation, and Nikonova doesn’t really shoot static, or in many wide frames (lots of close-ups in this one), but, furthermore, the idea of the inescapability of one’s social situation feels like, among others, Tuesday, After Christmas, Aurora, Graduation, and even parts of 12:08 East of Bucharest.
The comparisons To Sergei Loznitsa’s work are pretty clear, I think. Both show a damn corrupt, distances Russia. Interestingly, one of my favorite parts of A Gentle Creature was the work Loznitsa did with his extras. I don’t think that Nikonova’s blocking of them is as complex, but it works to the same ends.
For example, the critical early scene where Marina breaks her heel: Nikonova shoots it in wides and mediums-
-but with the point of showing how many people walk past her without helping (it takes so long, in this extended inciting-incident sequence for someone to actually help her). That first shot above is great. I don’t think it’s any accident that the man checks her out from behind as he walks away.
The second and last frames above serve similar purposes, but it’s almost more frustrating as we get closer. The last shot has people walking right past us, ignoring us and Marina.
There are plenty of other extras that we either meet or see that are unflattering:
Some shots in Twilight Portrait go really dark:
Sometimes I feel like that’s a function of a camera that can’t really handle low-light, but it’s also really disturbing. The still above is from a really discomforting scene where we can’t see exactly what’s happening in the back seat but we can hear it.
The film is really frank about sex in many ways (one of which, very difficult to watch, comes after the still just above). It’s also about the idea of female versus male pleasure, which we’re introduced to very early on as Marina has sex with her lover. Nikonova cuts between Marina and her point-of-view, which is decidedly banal (a toilet, a wall). You get that idea that if, in a different film, we got his POV it’d be a breathless ECU of her neck:
The last shot of the film is beautiful. It’s part of that frustrating-ness (without real spoilers: Is this part of an elaborate revenge scheme? Has Marina just insinuated herself into a new life to upend it? Is this about PTSD? Is this about what an old, comfortable, boring life has to offer against one that is new, ugly, and somehow refreshing?). Regardless of interpretation, it’s the kind of shot that feels endless, and that the possibilities are multiple: