Ivan Dykhovichnyi: Inhale―Exhale (Vdokh― Vydokh, 2006)

reviewed by Vida Johnson© 2007


There were three reasons to leave the beach in Sochi during the Open Russian Film Festival (Kinotavr) last summer in order to see Inhale―Exhale:

1. its selection by the well-known and highly discriminating critic Andrei Plakhov for his “side-bar” screenings titled “Russian Euphoria,” chosen for “high craftsmanship, refined artistry, and visual fantasy”;
2. the reputation of the director himself, whose 1992 film Moscow Parade (Prorva) was one the most memorable and arguably best films of the 1990s;
3. but most likely, the lesbian theme itself, still new, and for some viewers and critics quite scandalous (the film had had a brief release in Moscow theaters, marked by tantalizing posters of two women about to kiss).

I went into the theater with images in my head from Moscow Parade of the erotic scenes between the sensuous, aristocratic Ana (played magnificently by the German singer Ute Lemper) and her bare-chested, strong, and silent working class hunk (wonderfully played by Evgenii Sidikhin). I was curious to see if Dykhovichnyi could replicate this sexual chemistry and passion more than a decade later in a love triangle with a lesbian angle.

The Kinotavr catalogue identified the film as a “psychological drama,” while the director himself in an interview called it a “melodrama” and a “love story” that was not a “film for film’s sake” but a film “addressed to people … to a broad audience, to people who think deeply about what they feel, whom and how they love. Simple words are heard in the film… without any spoofing (steb), without subtext”. And this, of course, is where the film runs into trouble. The director may have aimed the picture at a “thinking” and “feeling” (but broad?) audience, one that might follow the wrenching, interminable conversations between a formerly idyllic husband and wife who used to breathe in unison, only to have their happiness destroyed by the wife’s lesbian affair—coyly presented on the screen with lace everywhere (and feathers, too). Even in my brief retelling, it’s hard to present this story straight, without some much needed nuance, humor, or irony. Although a random character appears several times and his stories of the strange demise of his relatives (being hit by frozen dung falling from an airplane, for example) seem to provide some black-comic relief, even this intermittent story line has a serious ending when we find out the character is really dying, and when he gets run over by the ever-familiar trucks that rumble down Russian streets—well, on second thought, that is sort of funny...

But if this is a melodrama, do, at least the women, identify and empathize with the film’s female protagonists, or learn something from their emotional turmoil and sexual experimentation, and the break-up of husband and wife? My unscientific survey of the few on-line comments seems to divide between women who find the film moving, even amazing, and a man who sees it as boring “art khaus” and who finds the prostitute with the shaved head disgusting. But who is the prostitute with the shaved head?

It is precisely this question that makes the film’s story interesting and the film worth seeing. The film begins with a long-shot of a pond in an idyllic provincial landscape, whose stillness is broken by a roaring car crashing into the water. We hear the sounds of splashing and see a man emerging from the water, but he does not heed the cries of the woman, her face hidden by hair, struggling to stay afloat and calling to him. A strong beginning, I thought, well-shot, good use of sound, unexpected plot twist (shouldn’t he have tried to save the woman, we ask ourselves). We cut over the titles to the hands of a man sitting at a computer, searching for prostitutes on the web, and then we cut to a man lying on a couch, telling his therapist about the traumas of his childhood. One of the basic structuring elements in the plot are the flashbacks with voice-over. We see the man as a child, for example, trudging through water, losing his brand new boots. Loss is palpable everywhere in this film, often associated with dripping or swirling water. While the psychology is not very sophisticated and the sexual associations with water patently manifest, the visuals, nevertheless, are often darkly beautiful and haunting. The cinematography, the lighting, the changes of angles, the shots through barriers—all are visually striking and often rescue what become mumbled conversations between the protagonists as the films progresses. But that, in the end, may be the point. Words cannot explain feelings.

Although I make every attempt to resist parallels to Tarkovskii’s films (water, water everywhere), a critic for the Afisha, the leading journal for cultural events, rather unkindly but wittily describes the film’s “hypocritical eroticism, which combines the visual elements from Tarkovskii’s films with the experience of the Soviet men’s magazine, Andrei (quoted in Live Journal). I can vouch for the Tarkovskii part, but am at a loss about Andrei. When the therapist simply tells the hero that what he needs is a “woman, life, feelings,” we begin to piece things together as a hired call-girl, elegantly dressed, with little make-up and an almost shaved head arrives to find the client, whom we now recognize as the man from the crash scene and the therapist’s couch. But who is she?

Since he doesn’t want sex, at least not right away, they engage in a conversation—first in her telling and then in his—that is full of titillating sexual fantasies or experiences. Did she really enjoy being raped in the elevator by a man who might be her client or might be a stranger? We literally become voyeurs, just as the client, whose name is Mikhail, becomes an “audio-voyeur himself,” listening further to tales of group sex with three motorcyclists. Are we seeing his sexual fantasies or hers? We see briefly a young woman with bangs and medium-length hair, but only after several scenes do we recognize her with the now shaved head. If one had watched carefully, one would have recognized her earlier, but we were too busy catching the often fleeting, partially blocked, gauzy close-up shots of the sexual encounters to notice her face. For some viewers, there is probably too little sex, too much gauze, and too many cutaway shots. It turns out then, that the client and the prostitute were in the past husband and wife, so close, one breathing being, inhaling and exhaling together, that one of them clearly had to break out. Now the break-out turns out to be an affair, between the wife, Vera, and Kira, a young woman she meets in a shop fittingly full of luscious fabrics, behind which Vera and Kira steal their first kiss.

Actually this first scene between the two women is probably the best, with Kira’s striking eyes enticing Vera. The lesbian affair, which is really never satisfactorily motivated emotionally through its brief duration, is depicted in a predictable, very, very soft porn manner, with the previously mentioned surfeit of lace and playful feathers, and a steamier (literally) shower scene. The husband, who at first seems broadminded (“if you need it, I need it too, it’s ok”), understandably and oh, so predictably, becomes enraged, and we see the replay of the opening scene, where he crashed the car and tried to drown his wife. Now we are fully in the realm of melodrama and, for those who have managed to empathize with the characters, there is catharsis—as Vera in the end seems to have been run over by the same truck that kills the teller of strange stories, only to be revealed lying on a bench, alive, chastened, promising the husband to wait as long as it takes for him to come back, her lesbian fling definitely over.

What makes the film interesting to watch is not only the untangling of the story line, the attempt to portray a lesbian affair, the professional, atmospheric cinematography, a good musical/sound score, but the acting, especially of the two women, even when the lines they are asked to speak are trite. Dykhovichnyi has been called a “woman’s” director by the well-known critic Elena Stishova, who in 2003 invited him to introduce on the Kultura channel the series of women’s films titled Gender Montage that she had helped to bring to fruition. One should also recall that he made an interesting documentary in 1995, a montage film of women on the Soviet screen titled The Woman’s Role (Zhenskaia rol'). And although no one can match the unforgettable Ute Lemper in Moscow Parade, the acting duo of the director’s young wife, Ol'ga Dykhovichnaia, playing Kira (I will not, will not psychoanalyze this), and the very talented Ekaterina Volkova playing Vera occasionally do hold their own in their love triangle with Mikhail, who, we forgot to say is a post-Soviet, post-modern reincarnation of the 19th century “superfluous hero,” living in a decaying but elegant 19th century abode (hotel, palace, apartment?), but, with a nod to today, driving an expensive Audi. Why did he destroy the Audi opines one male reviewer; he should have just killed her without wrecking the car.

Of course, the central question of why the wife became a high price call girl is not asked, neither is why she shaved her head (in penance?), but rather we are to believe that in today’s, by now completely new world, this is how things are.

The film did not have much success in its brief theater run in Moscow and was not really noted by serious critics or journals in Russia, but is beginning to have a life on DVD (in NY it was already sold out) and is well-reviewed on the gay.ru site. It is slowly finding its viewers, who, most likely may not be that “broad audience” Dykhovichnyi thought he was addressing in the film. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it makes the rounds of a few festivals. Not one of Dykhovichnyi’s best films, not the deep meditation on human relations he would like it to be, but worth seeing nevertheless, and not just for the sex scenes. Just don’t cringe when the lace and feathers appear….


Vida Johnson
Tufts University

Inhale—Exhale, Russia, 2006
Color, minutes
Director: Ivan Dykhovichnyi
Scriptwriter: Ivan Dykhovichnyi, Vladimir Moiseenko, Aleksandr Novotskii
Cinematography: Maksim Osadchii
Art Director: Anastasiia Nefedova
Music: Anton Batagov
Cast: Igor' Mirkurbanov, Ekaterina Volkova, Ol'ga Dykhovichnaia, Andrei Batukhanov, Aleksandr Reshetniak, Liubov' Anisimova, Roman Madianov, Alla Oding
Producer: Danil Khachaturov
Production: D-Film Company

Ivan Dykhovichnyi: Inhale―Exhale (Vdokh― Vydokh, 2006)

reviewed by Vida Johnson© 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07