Proving that not all Russian relationship dramas have to be gloomy Chekhovian chamber pieces, writer-director Boris Khlebnikov returns to Karlovy Vary, where both his debut and sophomore films played, with a “Blue Valentine”-meets-“ER”-style competition title more remarkable for its lightness of touch than for its social comment or despairing self-examination. Centered on two engaging lead performances that earn our empathy without ever being obviously ingratiating, “Arrhythmia” presents a portrait that is widely relatable — often uncomfortably so, for those in similarly long-term relationships — in its delineation of the faultlines and stress fractures within a marriage beginning to stale. Where so many films from this region that make it onto the international stage function as triage for the open wounds of national social ills, Khlebnikov’s approachable movie takes contemporary urban Russia as its backdrop rather than its subject — instead treating the chronic condition that is modern life, which knows no borders.
Oleg (Alexander Yatsenko) is a paramedic working with an ambulance crew, who has been married to med-school sweetheart Katya (Irina Gorbacheva), also a junior doctor, for some years now. They share a small apartment and a circle of friends who come round often to get lustily drunk and sing songs from their teenage years. Khlebnikov acquaints us with the paradox that is the heart of Oleg’s character in two neatly contrasting scenes early on: He is a man who can both get boorishly tanked up at his disapproving father-in-law’s birthday party, while also being a caring, dedicated EMT. Indeed, in his professional life he’s as inspired as he is neglectful of his personal affairs. Several times he makes the clever, difficult call and saves a patient’s life. And several times his disarmingly hangdog, sad-pierrot stoneface conceals a streak of practical mischief — as when he “prescribes” an air-gun pellet to a malingerer, claiming it’s an experimental, slow-release pill from Germany that will be a panacea for all her imaginary ailments.
Initially Katya, also involved in her own, more upwardly mobile career track, puts up with his drunkenness and lack of consideration; their confrontations are so undramatic, and revert so quickly to an affectionate status quo, that Oleg’s lack of alarm is understandable. Yet we understand the gravity of Katya’s mounting frustration too, while losing sympathy for neither — in this regard, Gorbacheva deserves special mention for fleshing out her character despite a narrative that tends to favor Oleg’s point of view. It culminates in Katya, again anticlimactically, suggesting they divorce, which really only affects their everyday lives in that Oleg subsequently sleeps in the tiny kitchen on an air mattress. It’s one of several stopgaps and ceasefires at the beginning of a troublesome, largely unwanted breakup between two people whose lives have been so tightly intertwined for so long that they’ve almost stopped noticing where one ends and the other begins.
In cinematographer Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev’s casually artful frames, the breakdown of allyship between them is encapsulated in a series of utterly believable interactions. In one, a suddenly animated Katya, made incoherent in her desperation, describes Oleg as a far-off galaxy that doesn’t even notice her efforts to reach it. Oleg’s response: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Katya’s point is thus proven, but it’s a hollow victory. It’s the very ordinariness of this relationship that gets us invested, as we actively will Oleg to apply the defibrillators to the flatlining marriage. If he can just say the right words, look at Katya in the right way, he can perhaps save their relationship — and in so doing, save himself — the way he has so many patients.
There is some mild commentary on the demands of modern, numbers-led bureaucracy within the medical industry, in the person of a new hospital administrator, clad in an appropriately bilious pale aqua sweater, who issues unrealistic demands and quotas for the already overstretched ambulance crews. And there are some schematic elements, such as Oleg’s eventual confrontation with his boss, which is straight from the renegade-cop-stands-up-to-the-captain playbook, as well as the rather soap-operatic “losing one’s job on the same day your girlfriend throws you out” trope. But Khlebnikov’s humanist skill, and his actors’ immersed performances, mean these moments feel authentic despite their familiarity, as part of the tachycardiac rhythms of a real, practical love that wants, against all odds, to survive. And it will, if only Oleg can get out of his own way: Physician, heal thyself.