Outstanding, but sure to challenge auds wherever it goes due to its provocative subject matter, “Twilight Portrait” is a chilling, highly impressive feature debut from Russian-born, Gotham-trained helmer Angelina Nikonova. Co-written by Nikonova and producer/lead thesp Olga Dihovichnaya, this low-budget, digitally shot drama tells of a posh femme who goes slumming on the wrong side of Moscow’s ring road after she’s gang-raped. Fest bookings are a certainty for this item, which stylistically feels more European than Russian, but its controversial storyline may force it to dwell in the twilight of niche distribution, even (perhaps especially) domestically.
Pic sharply divided auds and crix when it premiered at the Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival in Sochi, where its lenser, Eben Bull, won a award for cinematography. Some felt the film offered a daring, psychologically complex but still-credible portrait of a woman’s unexpected reaction to sexual violence; others, especially Russian and older viewers, felt the pic violated core feminist tenets, or simply considered it too unpleasant or implausible. Offshore, it’s likely to provoke similarly polarized reactions.
Pic starts one dawn with three Moscow uniformed cops — handsome but dead-eyed Andrei (Sergei Borisov), a chubby sidekick (Andrei Manotskov) and a rookie (Alexander Kozyrev) — trawling the outskirts of town looking for action. When they spot a prostitute (Alya Timkova) climbing out of a truck, the fat cop and the rookie hunt her down and rape her in a field. In a nearby summer house, affluent Muscovite Marina (Dihovichnaya) hears the woman’s screams, but her husband, Ilya (Roman Merinov), and their friends Tanya (Anna Ageyeva) and Valery (Sergei Golyudov) are too drunk to notice, a point that emphasizes how commonplace and nearly invisible violence has become in this society.
It’s no accident Marina has sharper hearing for sounds of distress, since she’s a social worker who specializes in cases of domestic abuse, although she’s burned out in her job. Later, after meeting Valery for some loveless adultery in a seedy apartment, Marina is picked up by the very same trio of cops. Although the image is blacked out, auds can hear the sounds of her being raped, but it’s not clear whether one, two or all three men take part.
Afterward, Marina returns repeatedly to the neighborhood where she was attacked. Spotting Andrei in a local restaurant, she follows him back to his apartment block with a broken bottle in hand. But instead of wounding him, she initiates a strange, erotic relationship.
Nikonova and Dihovichnaya keep Marina’s motivations ambiguous right to the end, suggesting she could be a self-loathing masochist or that she might be planning some strange revenge against Andrei, or both. Another reading is that by getting close to Andrei and his dysfunctional, working-class family — he lives with his stoner brother (Vsevolod Voronov) and addled grandfather (Alexei Belousov) in shabby, cramped digs — Marina could be trying to atone for her inability to connect with or help her clients at work. There’s certainly no mistaking Nikonova and Dihovichnaya’s aim to castigate Russian institutional apathy and corruption, conveyed not just by the actions of the rapist policemen but also via a terrifically funny-bleak scene in which Marina tries to report a theft to a bored femme cop (Lyudmilla Milentyeva).
Hitherto best known locally as the spouse of the late Russian producer-helmer Ivan Dykhovichny, in whose films she’s appeared, Dihovichnaya gives a breakthrough perf here with her study of a privileged but empathic woman whose glacial sangfroid barely disguises a raw inner emptiness. Equally impressive, if not more so, is the work of the supporting thesps, who, apart from a few (such as Merinov and Golyudov), are non-pros. Nikonova, whose previous work has been in docus, coaxes relaxed, naturalistic perfs from all.
Shot on a Canon Mark II camera, pic has a loose, handheld feel that’s held in tension with the careful framing and sensitive use of natural light; as the title suggests, most scenes seem to unfold during the magic hour. Other tech credits are low-budget but none the worse for it.