When a woman tells a man she barely knows that her husband is having an affair with his wife, everything starts to go out of whack in “Betrayal,” helmer Kirill Serebrennikov’s troubling, formally complex study of obsession. Anchored by incandescent perfs from German thesp Franziska Petri and Macedonian actor Dejan Lilic, both dubbed seamlessly into Russian, the film becomes more entrancing as it goes along, though auds may have trouble swallowing outrageous coincidences that, as with Serebrennikov’s previous work, deliberately break with realist rules of drama. Strong critical support will be required for “Betrayal” to win trust offshore.
Pic’s austere strategy becomes gradually evident by the time auds realize that they’re never going to find out the name of the barely seen burg where the action is set, or those of the characters, identified only by pronouns in the credits.
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The first few scenes set out to disorient and shock from the off: A man (Lilic, largely a legit thesp in his native Macedonia) arrives at a hospital for a routine heart checkup with a doctor (Petri), who informs him in the middle of his cardiogram that his wife is sleeping with her husband. Angry and incredulous, he storms out, but later speaks to the doctor at a bus stop that suddenly gets plowed into by an SUV just moments after they leave, killing three people — an effective symbol for the devastation wrought by this humiliating personal revelation.
At home, the man’s pretty young wife (pop singer-actress Albina Dzhanabayeva) seems as cheerful and loving as ever. The atmosphere is much chillier at the woman’s home, where her husband (Andrei Shchetinin) regularly comes home conspicuously late, and she’s taken to eating handfuls of dirt in despair and masturbating mournfully beside him while he sleeps.
After the woman gives the cuckolded husband a tour of the spots where the illicit lovers meet for their trysts, he accepts the truth. To reveal subsequent events would spoil several of the film’s most startling surprises; suffice it to say that things get considerably weirder, while the script by Natalia Nazarova and Serebrennikov defies auds to swallow credulity-stretching character behavior (particularly from a cop played by Guna Zarina) and coincidences that would seem unlikely in a Russian fairy tale.
However, those familiar with Serebrennikov’s work (especially his debut, “Ragin,” “Bed Stories” and his underappreciated previous pic, “Yuri’s Day”) will be aware that a certain amount of surreal narrative lunacy is a vital part of the helmer’s m.o.; it’s as if his characters’ inner psychology has shaped and distorted the very fabric of reality. After the infidelity has been revealed, the focus contracts painfully to just a few characters caught up in spiraling patterns, compelled to haunt the same places over and over, as with the lovers using the same ill-fated hotel room every time. Like the complexly coiffed hairstyles Petri wears throughout (recalling Kim Novak’s in “Vertigo”), the configurations keep shifting but everything is ultimately wound up with tight aesthetic bobby pins, not a hair out of place.
A similar waste-nothing principle governs the performances, with the leads in particular underplaying with a subtlety that’s on just the right side of enigmatic. Petri, not well known beyond Germany, is a particular revelation, mesmerizing throughout with her piercing feline eyes and brisk hauteur.
Of the uniformly pro crew, ace Russian lenser Oleg Lukichev (who also shot “Yuri’s Day” and Alexei German Jr.’s “Gaspastum” and “The Last Train”) deserves particular praise for his nervy but still fluent handheld lensing in widescreen, making stylish use of lens flares and shallow focus. Not since “The Battleship Potemkin” has a Russian film rendered staircases quite so menacing.