Low-key love story “Relations” offers a bittersweet account of an adulterous couple carrying on a long-distance affair that starts to unravel both their marriages. Pic’s plot engine may date back to the days of the Model T, but refit for contempo Russian setting is well crafted, upholstered by a fine-grained script and driven by more than competent perfs. Debut for writer-helmer Avdotia (aka “Dunya”) Smirnova should do solid upscale biz domestically, where it opened June 29, and could develop international relations, especially with Euro broadcasters.
Director Smirnova, originally a journalist, is best known offshore for scripting “His Wife’s Diary” and “The Stroll” — both directed by Alexei Uchitel, who takes a producer credit here. “Relations” demonstrates Smirnova’s skill with femme characters, which was one of the key components lacking in Uchitel’s underwhelming last directorial outing, “Dreaming of Space,” penned by Alexander Mindadze.
“Relations,” whose Russian title “Svyaz” could be alternatively translated “liaison” or “connection,” dives in with the affair already up and running between Muscovite company director Ilya (Mikhail Porechenkov) and St. Petersburgian magazine editor Nina (Anna Mikhalkova). The pair hooks up for hotel room trysts whenever possible in one or the other’s home towns. They have mutually agreed that their official partners — Ilya’s homemaker wife Masha (Nastya Seglia) and Nina’s artist hubby Nikita (Dmitry Shevchenko) — must never find out about their doings.
Sense emerges that Ilya and Nina’s passion is more about emotional compatibility than sex. Although attractive and clearly hot for each other, both have middle-aged spreads and look admirably ordinary.
The notion is cannily planted that the need for extramarital love is inextricably linked to relationship dysfunction at home, even though both profess to still love their spouses.
Although downbeat but credible ending looks inevitable by halfway through, pic injects freshness through the use of vibrant, often wry details, for instance when the lovers exchange cheap, disposable cigarette lighters as holiday gifts because anything more expensive could raise suspicion. Pic’s dilutes naturalism somewhat by ogling over Ilya’s wealth, thus pandering slightly to the current fashion for “glamour” movies in Russian cinema that peddle upmarket lifestyles to aspirational auds. But beyond that, “Relations” plays more like a European film, the handheld lensing and 16mm stock reminiscent of Scandinavian Dogma-influenced pics, but without the over-the-top plot devices.
Helming by Smirnova is confident and fluent without ostentation, and elicits nuanced, intelligent perfs from the fine ensemble, especially Mikhalkova who luxuriates in the chance to show her more sensual side.