“Can this marriage be saved?” isn’t a question that needs asking, since it’s all too apparent the young newlyweds of “Another Year” are on mutually exclusive paths. Oxana Bychkova’s character study plays out over the course of a calendar cycle, charting the wife’s steady progress toward self-realization while hubby remains stuck in a sullen, unambitious immaturity — genus, male; species, Russian. Although comparisons with “Blue Valentine” won’t be favorable, “Another Year” benefits enormously from newcomer Nadya Lumpova’s standout performance, and while overextended, this solid relationship drama could draw niche Euro arthouse auds, spurred by Rotterdam’s Big Screen prize.
Based on a play by Soviet-era author Alexander Volodin, the pic begins on Dec. 27 and ends a year and a day later. Yegor (Alexey Filimonov) and Zhenya (Lumpova) are fresh out of college, married and in love. Despite a degree, he’s driving a gypsy cab, and she’s got a new job in graphic design for a hip company. Bychkova (“+1”) includes a few too many innocuous scenes at the start, meant to foreground the youthful, spirited nature of their relationship; pretty soon, however, it’s clear Zhenya is coming into her own while Yegor has zero interest in moving forward.
The problem comes into high relief during Zhenya’s pre-New Year’s office party, when she has a ball with her arty co-workers while Yegor, who thought he was just collecting his wife, sits resentfully on the sidelines, stubbornly refusing to take off his coat or join an increasingly drunk Zhenya on the dance floor. Yegor feels marginalized, surrounded by Euro-leaning sophisticates, yet his isolation is of his own making, as is his increasing jealousy over the company’s photo editor. By the time New Year’s Day rolls around and she’s praising Kieslowski to a bored Yegor, the writing’s on the wall.
Zhenya tries to get her husband to expand his horizons, but Yegor simply isn’t interested, watching with growing anger as his wife drifts into other orbits. Toward the end of January he meets the flirtatious Olya (Natalya Tereshkova), the type of woman who bats her eyes and remarks on how big and strong the guy is; after a month of feeling emasculated, Yegor enjoys such attentions. Come March, in one of the pic’s best scenes, he and Zhenya file divorce papers, the two giggling slightly in disbelief at the absurdity of it all, as well as the obvious immaturity with which they entered the marriage to begin with. In the following months they part and meet again, yet despite their lingering feelings, the gulf between them is too wide to ever be broached.
As in “Blue Valentine,” the husband simply isn’t interested in following his wife’s path to growth and self-realization, which makes Yegor’s role too flat to hold much sympathy: What did she see in him in the first place, even given their presumably similar backgrounds? The fault isn’t with Filimonov but with the script, which keeps the character in one place and is inevitably overshadowed by Zhenya’s dynamism. Furthering the comparisons to Derek Cianfrance’s film, Lumpova has a Michelle Williams vibe, fresh-faced and intelligently enthusiastic. Zhenya embraces a new world that values her creative input, yet she can’t dismiss her feelings for her first love: It’s this emotional push-and-pull that the novice actress captures so movingly, marking her as a talent to watch.
Visuals are firmly within an accomplished, pallid indie aesthetic, neither too edgy nor too mainstream. Though the themes are well worn, the pic’s honesty has a freshness that should stand Bychkova in good stead when looking for financing for her next project.